Vote 32 - Business, Enterprise and Innovation (Revised)

Apologies have been received from Deputy Bruton. I request that Members sit only in their permitted seats and in front of available microphones to ensure they are heard. This is important as not doing so causes serious problems for broadcasting, editorial and sound staff. I also remind them to maintain social distancing at all times during and after the meeting. Members are asked to use the wipes and hand sanitiser provided to clean seats and desks, to supplement regular sanitisation in the breaks between meetings. As usual, documentation for the meeting, including the Minister's opening statement, has been circulated on Microsoft Teams.

The Dáil ordered on 11 November that the further Revised Estimate for Vote 32, Business, Enterprise and Innovation, be referred to this committee for consideration. Today we will discuss this with the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Leo Varadkar, who I welcome to his first trip to our committee.

Before we start, I will explain some limitations to parliamentary privilege and to the practice of the Houses as regards references made to persons in witnesses' evidence. They are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the presentation they make to the committee. This means they have an absolute defence against any defamation action taken based on what they say at the meeting. However, they are expected not to abuse this privilege and it is my duty as Chair to ensure it is not abused. Therefore, if their statements are defamatory to an identified person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with this direction.

I invite the Tánaiste to make brief opening comments on the Revised Estimate.

I am pleased to present my Department’s further Revised Estimate for 2020 to the committee. I express my appreciation to the committee for taking our Revised Estimate this evening.

The further Revised Estimate presented today seeks to incorporate into our Department’s Vote the €1.969 million in funding arising from the transfer of certain functions to my Department; the additional €450 million in funding agreed in the Government’s July stimulus; and the additional €2 million in funding for this year agreed for the Tyndall Institute in the budget. The Estimate also seeks the reallocation of moneys between certain programmes to meet excesses on the humanitarian relief and credit guarantee schemes, and the change in the title of the Department’s Vote. The €1.908 billion being sought effectively doubles the Department’s 2019 Revised Estimate. It will also increase the allocation voted to my Department by the Dáil last June by over €450 million.

The €1.551 billion in capital funding in the Estimate is almost €930 million greater than the capital allocation provided the original 2019 Revised Estimate. The vast majority of this increase is to enable the Department and our agencies to continue assisting business in the current Covid pandemic and in preparations for Brexit.

Some €550 million is being provided for the restart grant, which has been of major assistance to businesses in reconnecting to the marketplace and taking employees back on. An additional €10 million is being provided for Enterprise Ireland's, EI, seed and venture programme, €14 million in further moneys for the online retail programme, for which, 330 retailers have been approved to date, €12 million to EI’s hubs and incubation centres and €20 million for the "ready for customs" grant scheme, which is particularly important given the imminent reality of Brexit.

The €25 million being provided to the innovative joint IDA-EI Covid-19 life sciences products scheme will not only facilitate the research and development of Covid-19 products, but also deliver additional direct employment and other benefits for the economy.

As Deputies will all agree, local enterprise offices, LEO, work closely with local businesses that have been particularly impacted by Covid-19 and Brexit. The additional funding allocated to the LEOs has allowed them to continue to meet the increasing demand for their services through the business continuity voucher scheme, the trading online voucher scheme and their tailored mentoring programmes. The Estimate also provides almost €100 million in "access to finance" supports, including more than €41 million to Microfinance Ireland and €56.96 million for the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland's, SBCI, working capital and future growth loans schemes.

These Government backed loans demonstrate the Government’s strong commitment to ensure businesses, particularly small businesses, can readily access the necessary working capital and finance facilities to enable them to come through this difficult period.

The Estimate also includes an additional €2 million in capital funding for the Tyndall Institute, as announced in the budget, and increases my Department’s total funding to the Institute this year to €9 million.

The current expenditure allocation of €356.87 million in the Revised Estimate represents an increase of €27.76 million on the Department’s 2019 Revised Estimates Volume, REV, allocation. Some €10 million of this is being provided to IDA Ireland to enable it to ramp up its promotional and awareness activity. Some €6 million is being provided to EI, LEOs and the Department to ensure we have the necessary staffing itself in place to administer all the new schemes and interventions.

Almost €2 million of the current expenditure allocation in the Revised Estimate reflects funding related to the transfer of functions from the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Social Protection. It also includes €490,000 for the Low Pay Commission.

Finally, the Revised Estimate recalibrates expected savings on the Department’s INTERREG programme to meet additional funding required in some other areas. Some €250,000 is being provided to the humanitarian relief scheme to fund claims under the scheme arising from severe weather events, particularly in the south-west. An additional €500,000 is required by the credit guarantee scheme to meet additional costs arising from the entry of a number of additional lenders into the scheme.

The Further Revised Estimate is essential to ensure my Department has the necessary funding to enable it and its agencies to continue to provide the funding, loans and advice vital to businesses trying to overcome the twin challenges of Brexit and Covid-19.

I hope the information provided to the committee this evening, and the briefing provided by my officials, demonstrates how this funding is being spent. Above all, it is about helping workers to hang onto their jobs and keeping businesses open. I look forward to answering any questions members may have.

I thank the Tánaiste. I propose that discuss each of the three financial programmes, A, B and C, together. We will go as per the roster. Each Deputy has ten minutes. I call Deputy O'Reilly.

I thank the Tánaiste for attending and for the information. First, I will be a small bit parochial. I very much welcome the funding for the Tyndall Institute. It is not in my constituency, as members will be aware. I mean parochial in a different way. I used to represent the workers in the Tyndall Institute so I am happy to see some money going to them; they are good people.

With regard to some of the schemes underpinned by the additional funding, some appear to be doing well and others have a low uptake. For instance, does the Tánaiste have any indication as to why the Covid-19 life sciences products scheme and Covid-19 products scheme have had such low approval and pay-out levels to date, with €1.9 million of €20 million and €500,000 of €5 million, respectively? The same goes for the ready for customs grant where €3.3 million has been approved and paid out of a fund of €20 million. I would have thought schemes that deal with providing medical and scientific products would be keenly taken up. It is most concerning that the Covid-19 credit guarantee scheme has only approved €52.8 million worth of loans out of a scheme total of €2 billion.

Does the Tánaiste believe anything can be learned from the terms of the future growth loans scheme that could be applied to the credit guarantee scheme? That scheme loaned out €444 million from a total of €800 million, which is more than 50%. The others do not seem to be reaching this numbers. Does the Tánaiste have a view on why that might be?

The Covid-19 life sciences products scheme gives IE and the IDA money, essentially, to either encourage foreign direct investment to develop in Ireland and make products that will be helpful when it comes to Covid-19, or for EI to do the reverse with indigenous products. It was always envisaged there would be a pipeline. The money was only announced in the past few months. It is really next year that we expect the big drawdown to happen because there is a pipeline in terms of those investments actually happening. It is, however, one of the areas where EU state aid rules have been relaxed and we want to grab the opportunity so that other countries do not get ahead of us.

There is a customs fund of €8,000 for companies to take on staff for customs. There has been a low uptake and I am a little worried about that, quite frankly. I would like to believe it indicates that companies are ready for customs on 1 January. I am, however, a bit sceptical that is the case. We have written to every company, produced advice and there will be TV advertisements next week. The financial support is there. I will say to companies again that free trade agreement or no free trade agreement, business will change on 1 January and they need to be ready for that.

On the Covid-19 guarantee scheme, as of last Friday, more than 2,000 applications had been progressed to credit departments and 920 loans had been sanctioned to the value of €122 million so there is still a significant amount to be drawn down. Much of it is due to a lack of appetite among businesses to borrow at the moment. Most small businesses have no debt. Whether they do or not, however, there is not a large appetite to take on debt because of the uncertainty about the future. I still believe, however, it is important the facility is there.

Many of them were badly burned and while they might have no debt now, they are only emerging from having had debt previously. There is a nervousness. I encourage the Tánaiste to track those schemes and track the uptake. There is an explanation and, as he said, he is worried about some of them so I encourage him to keep an eye on those.

Does he believe enough funding has been given to LEOs? His constituency and mine are covered by Fingal LEO, which does fantastic work. Given the volume of businesses that contact them to seek advice and guidance at the moment, however, most of them are run off their feet. They do not have the financial or human resources to deal with the volume. Do LEOs, EI, InterTradeIreland and others have sufficient resources and staff to deal with Brexit on top of the Covid-19 crisis? Does he think they will need more funding, specifically targeted at staff, over and above that? Is he actively monitoring that to ensure it is addressed in the event they do? I believe we will all agree they do fantastic work but they need to be resourced.

The Deputy is correct; they definitely need more funding and staff. Any time we launch a new scheme to provide money to business, somebody must administer it; that is the staff in EI, LEOs and InterTradeIreland. This Estimate, therefore, provides additional current funding for staff costs in those agencies. There will be more money next year. We will see how it goes. In the budget for next year, we have set aside a large recovery fund of €3.5 billion, which we can dip into for additional funding for additional staff if we need it.

Is the Tánaiste saying in the event that is needed, there might be additional funding if they require the staff to deal with the volume? I am aware of the volume of calls that are coming in and the number of companies seeking their assistance because they are good at what they do. That will cause a major problem. It will be welcome to know a review mechanism is in place and the possibility of additional funding, should it be required, will be there for the LEOs, in particular.

Yes, I am. Some €3 million additional current funding is approved for this year, which I hope the committee will approve this evening.

There is more money for 2021 and there is a possibility to dip into that fund for more funding for staff if needed. We will keep that under review. I would be dishonest if I said I could guarantee that every agency will say it is adequately staffed. I have yet to come across one that has said it was adequately staffed or overstaffed, but that is not to say we do not understand that they have been asked to do a hell of a lot more in the last year or two, and have been doing it well. Where extra staff are needed, I will try to get the resources to make that possible.

I asked about the ancillary scheme announced in budget 2021, but obviously it was linked to the overall supports. The Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, is an advanced tax credit scheme. The recipients will essentially pay back the money, as it is not a grant. I have been contacted by businesses without fixed premises, such as Event Labs, which organises events such as Bingo Loco. I am not quite certain what that is as I have never been to it, but I know it is all over the State. Such businesses are significant employers and taxpayers and bring enterprise to nearly every county. They have been excluded from the scheme. The same goes for Mind Body Experience events. Furthermore, suppliers are affected upstream by the shock waves of the lockdown on their downstream customers. These people, who are not at the coalface but provide goods and services to those who are, have all been excluded because of the narrow and prescriptive nature of the scheme. Are there plans to broaden the scheme out so that businesses which are seriously suffering can access funds through the CRSS? I ask particularly in light of it being an advance tax credit scheme. It is not a bonanza or anything they will not have to repay at some point. Is the Minister amenable to examining the criteria to allow the premises that are now excluded but which are significant taxpayers to benefit from it?

The scheme is run by the Revenue Commissioners through the Department of Finance rather than my Department but I am across it as I must be because it impacts on business a great deal. While it is a tax credit, and it is taxable, businesses will only end up paying it back if they start making profits so in many cases it will not be paid back. If companies return to profit in the years ahead, they will repay it then, but much of it will not be paid back. It is a tax stream similar to the restart grant, for example. It is designed to cover the fixed costs of having a business that is closed, such as utilities, security and insurance. While many companies do not qualify for it, they may qualify for other things such as the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. The whole idea of the CRSS was to cover the fixed costs of a premises which the Government told business owners they must close. Companies that do not qualify do not have a premises that must be closed, but they may have other fixed costs not related to a premises that must be closed. We are trying to help firms in areas such as the event sector in another way. The Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, has a very substantial budget and is trying to develop schemes that might help companies without a premises that has been closed. I think there will be a few businesses that fall between stools. One which occurred to me was the chauffeur limousine sector, which has been very badly hit. I am thinking of those who serve the airports, for example. Another group of people who might not be covered are those who run exhibitions. They do not have premises so they do not get anything from the CRSS and will not benefit from the arts and events schemes which the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, will develop. We will have to return to this when we have a better fix on which companies fall between stools.

Is there a timeline for that? Is the Minister agreeable for me to forward him the names of some companies that have contacted me? I expect he will be across most of them already. This is not to intervene on an individual basis but as a means of demonstrating how those companies are falling through the cracks. They are in need of help but there does not seem to be anything that they can specifically access now.

I would be happy to see that. I am doing that myself, and trying to collect examples of companies that have fallen between schemes.

I am happy to help with that.

The Deputy should bear in mind that the EWSS is there to help with wages, whereas the CRSS is there to help with the fixed cost where a premises is closed.

No, I understand.

It would have to be a very different scheme to help those firms without a premises. We still want them to survive, obviously.

Absolutely. I thank the Minister.

I thank the Tánaiste and his officials for coming before the committee. I have been contacted by many business people who have said that without the supports put in place by the Department they would have been completely wiped out. It has helped them to survive and stay in business and many have said they are extremely grateful for that.

There are a number of novel issues that have arisen. A massive amount of money is involved. The Minister spoke of the disruptive innovation fund which is being increased by €10 million. That sounds very interesting and I like the idea of disruptive technology. What is the thinking behind that?

The trading online voucher scheme is something I have received a lot of positive feedback on. There have been 14,000 applications and approximately 11,000 were approved, under Vote 32. Has the Department received feedback on the scheme's effectiveness?

Another innovative item is the lean business continuity voucher. That is quite new. Will the Minister tell us more about that?

There were 98 applications for the enterprise centre scheme. We do not know how many have been approved or when that might happen. How does that work? Is it through the local authorities? What types of enterprise are involved?

I acknowledge the Tánaiste's support for the open doors initiative, which was launched two years ago. Many companies have come together to support people on the margins and people from disadvantaged backgrounds who find it hard to get employment, such as migrants, Travellers and people with disabilities. That initiative has been extraordinarily successful. I note the transfer of employment functions from the Department of Social Protection. The Tánaiste's Department is now the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I ask the Tánaiste to take a look at the open doors initiative. It has been so successful. It could do with some support. It is helping people to get jobs and to get training and internships, etc. There might be a way of assisting it.

The Tánaiste spoke about people without premises. I have been contacted by several such businesses, most recently a man whose livelihood involved going around various festivals, concerts and similar events. He was working from a van, selling doughnuts and that kind of thing. He was completely self-sustained and had never looked for support or help from the State, but he is now under ferocious pressure because there are still costs with insurance on the van and so on. There does not seem to be a fund where he can get help. He can get the EWSS and that kind of thing but he is caught with the fund for fixed costs. The hospitality sector is another area of interest. Upstream, the suppliers into the hotels and restaurants need a lead-in time to gear up but are also a bit stranded. Will the Tánaiste comment on that?

We are faced with two major shocks, with Brexit at one end and Covid at the other. One of those on its own would be bad enough but the two together amount to almost biblical proportions. It is hard to figure out what will happen because it has happened so fast. I commend the Department for what it has done. I have pointed many businesses to the Department's website which is excellent. It gives a lot of information in a simple way and many businesses have been very grateful because it can be difficult to figure a way through the maze of what is available. How the website is presented is very good, and it is updated constantly so that it is up to date which is hugely important.

The disruptive technologies innovation fund that was launched as part of Project Ireland 2040 is, essentially, a competitive fund like the urban fund, the rural fund, and the climate action fund. Businesses and higher education institutes get together and bid for funding for a particular project they may have. It is the Government taking a punt and supporting a project that might turn out to be the next big thing or the next new invention, but is something that we really want to do. It is a €500 million fund spread over ten years. There have been 43 projects approved so far under call 1 and call 2. Some €140 million has been awarded. The extra €10 million is just a small bit extra for next year. Call 3 was launched on 24 September, with a deadline for applications on 17 December. We expect to be able to issue the next round of funding from that in March 2021. Hopefully it will spur some interesting new inventions and services that turn out to be big successes.

On the training online voucher, I believe it has just been transferred over from the Minister, Deputy Ryan's Department to ours. It had previously operated from the Department with responsibility for communications rather than from the Department with responsibility for enterprise. Feedback has been positive. It is simple to apply for and a grant of €2,500 is available, but two grants up to €5,000 are also available. It has helped many businesses to go online that were not online before. Consider takeaway businesses, for example. We have all had that experience of ordering our takeaway on our phones through an app, which we may not have done so much in the past. We are shopping more online now. Now people must book appointments in advance with their barber, when previously one could just walk in. A lot of that has worked very well but we probably need to do a little bit more of this.

An example was given of the man who works from a van and sells doughnuts. Those kinds of very small businesses can sometimes fall between stools. There are some grants available. If he had been on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, there is an advance one can get to come off the PUP. If he was not on that payment there is a small fund called the micro-enterprise assistance fund, MEAF. It might be possible, especially if he has an employee of some sort, for him to get a grant of up to €1,000 for vouched expenses to get back on the road or back into operation. I will be doing some publicity on that grant soon because there has been very little uptake of that. People do not know that it exists. It was set up for those very small businesses that did not qualify for the restart grant because they did not have a premises, and we wanted to do something for them. I believe that only 10% or 14% of that fund has been drawn down so far. We know it is small money, a couple of hundred euro to €1,000 vouched, but for somebody running a micro business that could make a big difference in getting going again.

The enterprise centres are operated through Enterprise Ireland. That fund will also be announced in the next couple of days. Some 80 enterprise centres around the country will receive funding of between €10,000 and €150,000, which is largely designed to modernise the enterprise centres from a health and safety point of view so they are Covid ready or Covid proofed. We should be in a position to make that announcement in the next couple of days. There are 85 centres spread across the country so I would imagine all parts of the country will benefit from that.

I have had a good engagement with the Open Doors initiative. Deputy Stanton and I were at that event together - I cannot remember if it was at the Guinness Storehouse or elsewhere - and it was one of those really heartwarming events where one sees people who are given opportunities they may never have had before. People who may never have thought they would go to college or never thought they would be able to hold down a job or a career are helped and mentored in that way. I have had engagement with them since I have taken over this brief and I look forward to continuing that.

The only other issue that struck me was the lean business scheme.

I will have to get some information on it. I am not an expert on it. I know it exists as one of the Enterprise Ireland schemes. It allows business to tap into the lean six sigma concept and have somebody review their systems and procedures with a view to becoming more efficient and more productive. It is very much in the management consultancy world that I read about but do not fully understand. It is definitely very popular.

I thank the Tánaiste and his officials from the Department here today. We are in unprecedented times, without a shadow of a doubt. If I may, I will jump around on a few of the different issues before I address some of the aspects of the report.

The leisure and hospitality sectors have been particularly badly hit and are wondering if they will be able to open over Christmas. Consider the bar trade at the moment and furloughed staff receiving PUP. If there is a signalling that we will open up for Christmas and staff have to come off the payment, and if we then have to go back into a lockdown in January, they will not be able to reclaim the PUP again. They would go onto jobseeker's allowance. This will stop pubs from being able to get their staff back to work. Could the Minister look at some sort of derogation or an exception to allow people to recruit, and see where we can end up on that?

On the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, we have communicated on this and the Minister has highlighted that it is for exposed businesses who have fixed costs related to their premises that are closed. However, festivals, caterers and circuses are excluded. There are many businesses that have fixed costs but do not operate a premises. There is a major catering business in Dungarvan, for example, that employs up to 80 people when it is at its busiest but who are furloughed at the moment. That business is not able to claim anything under the crisis. They are suffering because they have leases running on equipment. Catering equipment can be terribly expensive. They are looking for support. Can we look at some way to offer a hand up for these specific sectoral businesses? They are facing very difficult times, like everybody else, but they have been excluded under CRSS. They thought they would have got money from it, and maybe it could be examined.

I also wrote to the Minister on some of the activities of the Companies Registration Office. The Minister kindly responded to a parliamentary question on it. I was specifically referencing the requirement for auditing for small businesses that fail to make their returns within their annual return date. The Department came back and said they had guidance that 70% of businesses were reporting on time and that 30% were due to report but it would be impossible to have visibility on that 30%. We have to recognise what is happening to businesses out there. People in small businesses, some of which have been closed, are trying to collect debts, they may have VAT overhangs, they may have rent overhangs, they are trying to file returns and they are not getting them in on time. Straight away, because they have missed their annual return date, they are into an automatic audit for two years. It will cost a small business anywhere from €1,500 to €2,500 to have this done. It is a huge and stressful thing. I ask again if we could not look at providing some derogation on that requirement for the next six or nine months to get out the other side of where we are going with Covid.

I shall now turn to the expenditure being voted. The 2016 OECD report, which I have mentioned before in a different committee, highlighted that Ireland had one of the least effective parliamentary engagements on budgetary oversight. There is unprecedented expenditure in this year's budget. Given Covid, and I am not saying anything about that, it is certainly appropriate that we need to see where the State is going. I ask that the Department would provide an information note for data users and a county breakdown of the drawdown of the various Covid subsidies that have been given to date so we can have transparency, and to make sure we are hitting all the regions in all the sectors as we should be.

Another item I will bring to the Department's attention, which has been mentioned before, is the issue of forbearance. To be fair, the banks have been treating the larger SMEs with a fair amount of forbearance, but I do not think it is extending to the smaller ones. There are smaller businesses that owe small amounts of money and they have no cash flow at the moment. Again, maybe a communication to senior people in the financial sector to say "Look, you cannot get blood from a stone" might help. These people need to get back in business and to be asking them to start making payments when they are out of business is ridiculous. It is putting huge stress on people. Whether it is to do with mortgages or leases, surely there must be some way of getting forbearance there.

The Covid rapid response in life sciences projects are both really good. I approve of them and they are a fantastic way to get people up and going.

However, there was no project approved under the Covid rapid response for the south east. I do not know the reason for that, but that seems to be the return on it. I previously mentioned the South Eastern Applied Materials, SEAM, technology gateway in Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, to the Tánaiste. It is the only technology gateway of 15 in the country that has remained open throughout Covid. It is liaising with industry in Ireland and abroad. An X-ray machine required by this facility and approved by Science Foundation Ireland two years ago still has not been funded. The cost is approximately €2.5 million. There is a huge volume of business being done at this facility. The SEAM technology gateway is currently submitting patents for new respiratory masks for ICU care. I do not know why we have fallen between stools. In regard to the x-ray machine, I would like to know if another request for funding could be made. I ask the Tánaiste to ensure an X-ray machine is funded for this technology gateway, which is one of the highest performing in the country. As I said, this facility is open and operating to try to build its business and it makes perfect sense to provide that funding.

In regard to the innovation hubs and the enterprise centres, I heard a discussion on radio this morning about the importance of broadband provision to all houses. I disagree. The priority should be to get broadband into every village and small town and to locate an innovation centre or hub in each of those villages and towns. Many people working in small businesses do a lot better when working remotely if they can do so from a local community centre with other people in the company. This is far better for the business and much better in terms of creativity and innovation. We should be putting emphasis on this first and let the broadband-to-home follow.

On the restrictions and moving out of level 5, the Government should be in a position towards the end of next week to tell the country where we are going to be on 1 December. There will be a meeting of the Cabinet Covid sub-committee and a Cabinet meeting and we will have advice and up-to-date data from NPHET. We will be giving Ireland a few days notice as to what 1 December is going to look like. As everyone knows, the numbers are not what we would like them to be. The number of new cases fell rapidly but they have pretty much stopped falling in the last week. There is another week or two to go yet. NPHET has set a target of having the R number at 0.5 and cases at around 100 but that is not a target that the Government endorsed. It is a target we noted, but not one we endorsed. The target we have set is the R number being consistently below 1 and cases falling. The Taoiseach has said, and I very much agree, that the aim is to get to some form of level 3 at the start of December, which is less than we might like it to be but there is flexibility within level 3. There are more things allowed in level 3 that people may necessarily think and we can ease things from there. We all know what is going to happen once we ease restrictions; namely, the number of cases will start to rise again. We want to, if possible, reach a steady state so that we do not need to have a third set of tough restrictions in January or February, and allow us to buy time until we have a vaccine available and deployed.

On the CRSS, one of the examples that comes up a lot is the home catering sector. While people in this sector can benefit from the employment wage subsidy scheme, they would not benefit from the CRSS because they may not have a premises. They can reclaim some corporation profit tax from last year if they were profitable. It is one of those areas that we will take a look at. Even though they are not technically closed because of the restrictions the Government has imposed, they are de facto closed as a result of the restrictions the Government has imposed because the premises that they would serve are now closed. We need to be cautious because if we start opening up CRSS to the entire supply chain, the cost of that may be very high

On the CRO, there is some flexibility being offered already. The CRO has eased a number of obligations under the Companies Act but we would be happy to look at further possibilities in that regard. I call on the CRO to engage with companies that may have difficulties filing returns for good reasons. It is not there to catch them out but we still require companies to fulfil their statutory obligations.

In terms of the different financial supports that the Government provides, whether it is grants or loans, we do publish, weekly, how much is being paid and the drawdown for each scheme. I take the point that it would be good to do that on a county or regional level so that we know that there is a fair distribution of it around the country. That is easy to do for initiatives such as the restart grant because that was done through the local authorities, and we can publish that and make it available, but it is sometimes harder to do for a company that might be headquartered in Dublin or Cork with offices all over the country and so on. It is not always as straightforward as it may seem but the point about making as much data as possible available at NUTS 2 or 3 level, is one I support and endorse. We had planned to do a project on that anyway. We will do that and follow up on the point made.

Will the Tánaiste respond to my query on the SEAM technology gateway?

What is the name of the facility?

It is the South Eastern Applied Materials gateway in WIT.

I ask the Tánaiste to be brief in his response as the Deputy's time has expired.

I will have to come back to the Deputy on the matter. I am aware of the facility but I do not have any information on it.

The budget referred to additional funding for the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, of €4 million but no further detail is provided, either in answers to parliamentary questions or the documentation before us today, on what this will mean in terms of additional inspectors. Can the Tánaiste provide any information in that regard? Will we have additional inspectors and, if so, how many?

The funding is for additional inspectors in the main so that the HSA can step up its existing work around health and safety, which it has been doing for a long time, and its Covid-related inspections as well to make sure that workplaces are up to code when it comes to the Return to Work Safely Protocol, which we will be updating in the next couple of days. In terms of the numbers, I do not have the exact numbers. In terms of inspections done, from 18 May to 6 November the HSA undertook 6,271 inspections and investigations, of which 4,271 addressed compliance with the Return to Work Safely Protocol. The finding was that 92% of workplaces were broadly compliant and had measures in place, 77% had response plans in place and 70% had a lead worker representative. In the same period, over 18,000 inspections were carried out in compliance with the protocol. To cut a long story short, the additional money is for extra staff to enable the HSA to do more inspections. I will try to get the Deputy a bit more detail on what we expect in terms of outcomes.

I thank the Tánaiste.

I am told there are 116 inspectors in place already so there will be an increase on that number.

Does the Tánaiste accept that in the course of the last year the HSA has proved to be under-resourced? This most clearly was the case in the meat plants when the alarm was raised and very many complaints were made, but no inspections took place until six weeks later. Does the Tánaiste accept that the HSA was under-resourced and is it, therefore, his intention to make sure it is properly resourced into the future?

I have had a good engagement with the HSA and the Workplace Relations Commission on meat plants to find out how many complaints were made, how many inspections were carried out and what the outcome of those inspections was. By and large, the outcome of the inspections has been that businesses, including meat plants, have been broadly compliant. The impression may exist that all or most meat plants were flagrantly violating all of the regulations but that would not be a fair characterisation based on what the HSA and the Workplace Relations Commission are saying to me. There are 2.3 million people at work in Ireland across tens of thousands of businesses. Clearly, there are not enough inspections and there should be more. If the Deputy is asking whether we need to resource those bodies better so they can take on more staff to carry out more inspections to ensure the laws we passed are actually enforced, the answer to that question is "Yes".


A part of that would be having clarity that an important part of this budget should be resourcing the HSA properly. I would also say we should be empowering the trade union movement to carry out inspections, as happens in some countries. Therefore, it is a bit disconcerting that we do not have figures for how many inspectors we will get but I welcome getting that information.

On the role of the HSA, something I have asked about previously and confirmed is that the HSA does not do unannounced inspections on whether employers are unnecessarily bringing people into work. If people watch the NPHET press conferences that are on twice a week, they will often hear a message that if people can work from home they should do so. The problem in many cases, however, is that it is all very well for an ordinary worker to think he or she should do the responsible thing and work from home but if his or her employer says that during this level 5 lockdown as opposed to during the last lockdown, employees must come into work, then employees have no choice but to do it. Quite a number of workers have approached me saying they feel they are being pressured to come into work in a situation in which they do not feel it is essential for them to come in. NPHET has made this point as well. The Google location activity indicators would suggest that significantly more people are travelling into work during this level 5 lockdown than during the last lockdown. Could this be revisited to make sure people are not being forced to make unnecessary journeys into work and potentially putting themselves and their communities at risk?

On the broader picture, the HSA does announced and unannounced inspections and most of its inspections are either unannounced or at short notice. Sometimes it has to give short notice because it is going into a particular workplace where it is not possible to just arrive with a bunch of health and safety inspectors because that would create safety issues in itself. Most of the inspections it does are either unannounced or are short notice inspections and that is a good way to do things. The approach it tries to take is one that encourages compliance. The HSA is not there to catch employers out, unless the abuses are flagrant. It is trying to detect failures and to work with employers and businesses to correct them. Where an employer is in gross breach of the law, the HSA has enforcement powers and it uses them.

On people being pressured to come into work when they do not need to, there are people who could work from home and perhaps feel they are being pressured into coming into the workplace when that is not necessary. I have come across some examples of that myself which people have contacted me about. To date we have pointed them in the direction of the Workplace Relations Commission, which is the appropriate body that can deal with complaints from people who believe they can work from home and are being told they have to come in when perhaps they do not have to. I have not seen many outcomes from those complaints yet.

If the Government resources the HSA properly, why would it not deal with such an issue? The HSA is responsible for health and safety at work in general but it is also responsible for implementation of the Covid-19 guidelines, as has been set out. Is it not something the HSA could proactively do if it was properly resourced, as opposed to leaving it in the hands of the individual worker to have to go through the process of going to the WRC, taking into account the fears a worker might have around that?

It is well resourced but we should think about the different sides of our economy and the number of people at work. There are 2 million people at work in tens of thousands of workplaces across the country. Any agency can only be so well resourced. In a perfect world, it would carry out an inspection of every workplace every week but the Deputy and I both know that would not be practical to do. We have to find the balance between what is practical and what is affordable and we need to make sure agencies are not so underresourced that it is too easy to break the rules.

I want to follow up on a particular group of workers that the Minister was asked about by Deputy O'Reilly last week, namely, content moderators for Facebook. They released a powerful open letter today and I would encourage the Minister to read it. It gives a picture of this invisible army of workers who are doing essential work, which allows social media and the Internet to function but who are significantly undervalued. We are talking about over 1,000 workers in Ireland. For Facebook, essentially all of them are outsourced so that they do not work directly for it. The letter outlines the ways in which, in general, they are not treated properly, not offered hazard pay, not offered real healthcare and psychiatric care and quite poorly paid. They have been particularly put at risk in terms of Covid-19 and how they have been treated. I know the Minister said to Deputy O'Reilly that he would be happy to meet those workers and their representatives, or both. Is that something that can happen relatively quickly? There is a particular group called Foxglove, which has co-ordinated the open letter. This group is in Britain and it is working specifically on that issue. Does the Minister have any response on those issues in general and can he confirm that he is happy to meet them?

It might take a couple of weeks to find a date in the diary that suits all sides but Deputy O'Reilly raised this already and I said I would be willing to meet a delegation of them or their representatives. It is tough work and somebody has to do it. Artificial intelligence can only do so much and I would be interested to hear from them about their experiences. One of the issues was that some of them wanted to work from home but they were being told they had to come in. When people are looking at that kind of content, perhaps there are good reasons they should not be looking at it at home.

Appendix 2 of the document we have outlines the various schemes and so on, such as the future growth loan scheme, the future growth loan scheme expansion, the restart grant and so on. Will the Department publish a full list, not just of the names of the companies that have received some money from some of these schemes, but also of the details of how much money different firms have received from different schemes so we can see a full breakdown?

I do not think we can do that. We can do it to an extent but there are issues of privacy and data protection. It is public money and there is a difference between grants and loans but I am not sure it is as straightforward as us just being able to publish the details of every company and how much they got. It is much more straightforward if it is a grant-----

Take only the grants then.

Enterprise Ireland publishes a list of the grants. When it comes to loans it is different. They are done through banks and they are commercial arrangements rather than taxpayers' money being given to a business. People have a right to know how that is spent.

I have a question on the future growth loan scheme. Are there any banks that are oversubscribed through both the future growth loan scheme and the future growth loan scheme expansion?

Not at the moment. There has been great uptake on that. There has not been a huge uptake on all of the loan schemes but that has been one of the better ones.

That is what I expected. Can the Minister advise if any more funds will become available through the future growth loan scheme, particularly with Bank of Ireland?

More funds will be made available but I do not know to which bank. I am not sure I am at liberty to say either but it is a good scheme. It is one of the schemes that has had the best uptake and we are keen to continue it.

To follow on from Deputy Paul Murphy's question on content moderators, my understanding is that if they have not made contact with the Minister they will do so. It is very welcome that this meeting can be set up. I would not agree with the Minister on the issue of them working from home. They should be given the choice to be at home. The problem a lot of them have is that they are under a confidentiality clause and they are not allowed to say where they work. That would make working at home particularly difficult if they had to try to explain to the people they were living with what they were doing. That in itself is a huge problem so I very much welcome the fact that there will be a meeting.

This is a new form of work. I am going back to my trade union days to try to find an analogous grade or a comparator and the only one I could come up with would be members of An Garda Síochána who would be detailed with investigating incidents of child pornography. By virtue of their job, they would have to view similar images but I am also aware that content moderators do not only view offensive and horrible imagery but that there is also other work involved. That would be the only comparator so I would encourage the Minister to look at the terms and conditions those people have in terms of their mental health and well-being, as a part of the work that is already done.

I know that is not what we are here to discuss but given that it was raised, I wanted to address it.

The Tánaiste talked about a person who may have been told by his or her boss that he or she has to go into work, where he or she might have been told previously that he or she did not. All the data suggest that more people are now going into work and one does not have to be a genius to figure out why that is. They are being told to go into work because some bosses do not think that people working at home can be productive, although we know that productivity has increased. When the Tánaiste stated that those people can go to the WRC, I point out, with respect, that people must wait a long time to get a hearing at the commission. The hope is - let us all cross our fingers - that we will not be in this pandemic forever, or certainly for much longer. While we are, however, there is an urgency around this.

Every night we hear the figures and see the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach and members of the Opposition telling people to stay at home but these people are being told they cannot. They are putting themselves, their families and everyone else at risk, and we know that the virus moves only when people move. There is a case to be made for increasing the funding to the WRC, whether to bring back persons with an expertise who have retired or people who would be able to hit the ground running by not needing to skill up and could provide that service now. Otherwise, it will be too late for all those people. If I was told by my boss that I had to go in to work, even though I thought could work from home, and I made a complaint to the WRC, it could be a year before that complaint is heard, by which stage, fingers crossed, the pandemic will have finished, but that person will still have to go in to and out of work. Is there a possibility that additional resources to the WRC could be deployed quickly for the temporary or short-time deployment of staff to deal with cases of this nature, and specifically people who are told they have to go to work, even when they think they should have a right not to?

There are definitely more people going to work now than in the original lockdown of March and April but there are many different reasons for that. First, there is a wider definition of "essential work" and we now include construction, manufacturing, international trade and services and supply chains. Hundreds of thousands more people are deemed essential, including those in childcare and education, which were always essential in our minds but were not deemed essential in March and April. That is the main reason that more people are going to work now and the traffic counts are higher than in the spring.

A number of people want to get back into the office. The Deputy knows them and I know them. I have heard from employers, even in the public service, about people being allowed back to the office for mental health reasons because they were suffering at home for reasons relating to their mental health, relationships or being in overcrowded housing accommodation. There may be many different reasons that people are back at work and I do not think the main reason relates to employers pressurising people to come to work when they could work from home. That is not to say that does not happen, but I do not have a sense that there are a large number of cases. I would like to know the figure but I do not have a sense that a large number of cases are awaiting a hearing. I will check to see how many complaints have been made to the WRC on that.

From a public health point of view, it is worth saying, and can be seen from the figures, that the vast majority of people who get Covid do so in their own or someone else's home. One is actually statistically safer in school or a workplace than in one's own home or someone else's home, and we should not forget that. It is often people who pick up Covid in the home who bring it into the workplace or the school, not the other way round. That is just a fact of where we stand.

On the Deputy's general point, which Deputy Paul Murphy also made, of whether we need more staff and resources for the WRC and the HSA in order that they can carry out more inspections, the answer is "Yes". In the two years that I hope to hold this job, part of my mission will be to better resource those agencies to ensure that the laws we pass will be upheld in the workplace.

I would be interested to know what those figures are because I believe there are people who could reasonably work from home who do not want to go to work. I get a sense that the figure might be a bit larger than the Tánaiste thinks but I too would be interested to know those figures if they are attainable from the WRC.

I turn to the issue of public money and the need for that to be spent on businesses that adhere to the protection of workers' rights and their terms and conditions. I have said repeatedly that workers' rights cannot be bought because, eventually, the price will get too high and we should not get into that kind of trade-off. Some companies, however, are in receipt of significant sums from the State through the grant schemes such as the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, and the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. One such company is a large cleaning company called Noonan's. I am aware there is a dispute not too far from Leinster House regarding outsourced services. Staff were outsourced in 2019, Noonan's took over and they have now been told they have to accept lesser terms and conditions than those that were red-circled for them. These companies are in receipt of significant amounts of State money.

I am giving this as an example and am not asking the Tánaiste to comment on an individual case, but is compliance measured? There is not much that workers can call on in terms of legislative protection, unfortunately, but the transfer of undertakings should protect those workers. The facility I mentioned, however, is not protecting them, yet this company and several others like it are in receipt of large amounts of grant money, and justifiably so because their business has been hit. They are not respecting the rights of those workers who continue to work. Does the Department have a budget to monitor that compliance and to ensure that workers' rights are being protected where the State is spending and advancing significant sums?

I do not think we have a specific budget for it but, as the Deputy will be aware, businesses, through the EWSS, TWSS and other grants, have received €5 billion or €6 billion worth of taxpayers' money and we have terms and conditions around that. One relates to tax compliance, whereby we are not going to give large amounts of public money to companies that have not paid or do not pay their taxes. Another area is compliance with other laws. I think that in those scenarios, there would have to be a legal finding against the company that it had breached employment law. I do not think it could be refused the money on the assumption or allegation that it had.

We will not get into the specifics but is the Tánaiste saying that in a case where the WRC or another body found that a company was not in compliance with the transfer of undertakings legislation, TUPE, there would be a mechanism to reclaim some of the money advanced to it under the TWSS or the EWSS? I am not trying to put words in his mouth but to understand what he is saying.

I will have to double-check that. Those schemes, as the Deputy will be aware, are run by Revenue and they are Department of Finance schemes rather than ones under my remit. I am across them, however, and certainly in terms of what I think would be right and just, we should not give taxpayers' money to companies that do not pay their taxes or that breach employment law. Why would we reward a company that-----

I am asking the Tánaiste that.

-----does not pay taxes or obey our laws? I do not think that in a just society based on the rule of law, an allegation - I do not think the Deputy is saying this-----

No, I am not. I am saying that in the event there was a finding against the company-----

-----is enough. There would have to be a finding. I need to check, and will do so, whether we have a legal mechanism to recover the money in the event of a finding.

Will the Tánaiste let me know?

I thank the Tánaiste.

I was involved a couple of years ago in establishing an organisation called Balance for Better Business, which encourages and supports gender equality in leadership roles and companies. I understand that initiative is now under the remit of the Department and I welcome that because that is the right place for it to be.

I invite the Tánaiste to say something about that, and his plans and hopes for it.

In the documentation on the equality budgeting objectives and performance indicators, the target for the number of female-led, high-potential start-ups last year was 22 and I think the outcome was 12. The target this year is also 22, although I am not sure what the outcome is. Perhaps the Tánaiste could comment on the equality budgeting objectives of his Department.

Allied to that is the gender pay gap, in which I know the Tánaiste has a particular interest. Earlier this year, I read reports that the gender pay gap is widening in Ireland. Where are we with that? Considerable work was done in the legislation on reporting the gender pay gap. That approach was effective in the UK. Another pay gap is emerging, namely, the ethnicity pay gap. I bring that to the Tánaiste's attention as it might need some focus.

I spoke about the Open Doors initiative. The reason for bringing that up is that the Department is extraordinarily good and well known for highlighting and working with people at the high end - entrepreneurs who are creating jobs, technology, business and so on - and that is the way it should be. I would like the Department to focus on the people who find it very hard to get jobs at the other end, for example, those who are disadvantaged, people with a background in the Traveller community, those with disabilities and so on. Across government, we should focus on those and support them to get jobs because it is heartwarming when it happens. I encourage the Department to help out there and focus on that because with a little bit of help, an awful lot can be achieved in that space.

On the Balance for Better Business initiative, I launched that when I was Taoiseach. At the time, I think it was a creature of the then Department of Justice and Equality but I took a personal interest in it and responsibility for it is to be transferred from that Department to my Department. I will continue to take a personal interest in the initiative. It is all about increasing the number of women serving on the boards of big companies, starting with those that are trading on the stock exchange. It came out of the work we did on State boards, on which there is now a reasonably good gender balance. Between 40% and 50% of people on State boards are women. Although that is not necessarily the case on individual boards, when one looks at them in the round, nearly 50% of board members are women now, and the majority of people appointed to State boards-----


The Deputy is referring to elections, which are a slightly different matter. It still seems to be the case that economic committees and boards tend to me more male. I am not sure why that is - actually I know why that is, but it is not right. I got the first report a couple of weeks ago. It shows progress and that the percentage of women serving on company boards has increased in those companies which had none, or where representation was very low. That is positive and we will stick with it.

On the gender pay gap, the legislation now falls to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, following the change around. That area moved with equality to the Minister's new Department. We need to get that work done. As the Deputy knows, it will require companies to report on their gender pay gap and also to produce plans to close the gap. The reason the gap exists is complex and I will not use our short time talking about it. We really need to get that legislation done next year. I am disappointed we did not get it done this year but we lost months because of other things.

On the issue of equality budgeting, the Department was one of the first to pilot the equality budgeting programme, and we are going to continue to progress our equality metrics in relation to all of our programmes.

To return to the Balance for Better Business initiative, it has been suggested that I mention - I think it is a good idea that I do so - that we are not just going to look at the issue of female representation on boards but also in senior management positions, which is just as important, if not more important.

I would like to check something the Tánaiste said as I may have picked it up wrong. I think he said, in response to Deputy O'Reilly, that in respect of Covid, one is statistically safer being at work than at home. Did I hear the Tánaiste correctly and, if so, could he explain that?

That is what I said, but I am not sure it is quite what I meant. What I meant to say is that for quite a while now, the majority of clusters have been in private homes and that is where most people have been getting Covid, rather than in schools and workplaces. That is not to say one is more statistically like to get it in a school or workplace. I stand corrected.

On the Tánaiste's second point, and he is the doctor and I am not, but Covid does not come out of nowhere in a home. It is brought into a home and then infects everyone in that home. It is seeded somewhere, be it in a workplace, school, social activity, church or elsewhere, but it originates outside the home and someone brings it into the home where it spreads. Therefore, what may start as one transmission to one individual becomes a transmission to four people when that person brings it home and spreads it. It does not just arrive in the home from nowhere; it comes from somewhere. Is that not the case? If we all just stayed in our homes, which is the idea behind partial or full lockdown, we would not get Covid because it does not originate out of nowhere, people have to give it to each other.

It does not just arise in the home either; it has to come from somewhere. We could all stay in one place. If we all stayed in one bubble, we would either not infect each other or we would all infect each other and it would peter out. If we all just stayed in the one place, for example, if we all just stayed at work for X number of weeks, it would have the same effect as us all staying at home for X number of weeks, but obviously that is not practical. However, what happens in homes, as we all know, is that social distancing tends to break down a bit more; of course it does, with one's own family and friends. I know that no home visits are happening at the moment but they were happening up until a few weeks ago. In the real world, we all know from our own lives and experience that when we are with our families and friends we are much less likely to keep the 2 m distance in somebody's kitchen or sitting room that one would at mass, in a factory or in the workplace.

The Tánaiste has clarified his point. The virus spreads in workplaces and that is the reason we shut down certain parts of the economy at a big cost to society and the economy. It is necessary to do that if we are to stay on top of the virus. That is the reality. For all the lobbying in favour of reopening, the position is exactly as the Tánaiste described. If we reopen in willy-nilly fashion, we will be back to a third, fourth and fifth lockdown until we reach a point in which a vaccine is available. Workplaces are a crucial part of that.

It is a virus, so it spreads anywhere that people interact and that could be a home, workplace or school. However, what we know is that there are differences. The numbers from schools are very encouraging and there is not a lot of transmission, particularly from children to adults and vice versa. We also know that when it comes to homes and social gatherings, where there is a lot of interaction, there is also a lot of spread, and when it comes to other scenarios, the spread is much less. Very few cases are related to gyms, believe it or not. I am an advocate for the gyms to be open so I could be totally biased, but there are different settings and scenarios. It is not the case that it is all the same, whether it is a household, school or restaurant. There are differences between types of workplaces and gatherings.

Does the Tánaiste agree that one of the big differences appears to be ventilation?

There is increasing evidence that this is an airborne disease and that where there is bad ventilation, the rate of transmission is substantially higher. The kinds of workplaces where people work closely together with poor ventilation are quite a problem.

Outdoors is better than indoors and good ventilation is better than poor ventilation. To the extent that we have research now, and we are still learning a lot about the virus, it shows that the issue in the meat plants was much less about living conditions and transport and much more about the meat plants themselves and the way they organise their airflow. I think it is linked to the temperature, where it is quite cold, and also the airflow, which is quite fast. I read about this weeks ago and I may be getting it wrong, but the way airflow is managed in meat plants, where it is cold and fast, means that it is more likely to spread there. The larger issue in the meat plants appears to be the way air is managed and much less about the housing conditions or transport arrangements, although they are a factor too.

That would make a lot of sense. The rate of infection among meat plant workers is extraordinary when compared to most other sectors, with the exception of healthcare, where it quite obviously not an issue of ventilation but of repeatedly being around the virus. That is true not just in Ireland but in America and elsewhere.

It is much higher in meat plants than in factories or offices of similar size with similar numbers of people.

It is great that the Department is spending money, but we need to look forward as well. One area the Department might look at is companies' preparation of business plans. I am particularly thinking of applications for e-tenders and to Enterprise Ireland. It is very difficult to put applications for Enterprise Ireland together, particularly for small enterprises. They do get help with identifying market opportunities but they get very little support with the applications. It is left up to them to provide the information that provides the basis for evaluating whether they should be given grant aid. To a certain extent the same is true for e-tenders. The Department should provide local enterprise offices with funding to run mentoring or consulting courses to help. I am aware of many small businesses that have given up on tendering to local authorities. This includes moderately-sized builders who no longer submit e-tenders. They find it takes too much time and they have a poor success rate. This probably comes down to the way they fill out the applications. We should examine this, particularly in the context of European tenders.

The Tánaiste noted that the Covid restrictions support scheme provides an opportunity to warehouse tax. Corporation tax cannot be warehoused. For a lot of businesses, what they owe in corporation tax is cash on their balance sheet. If they have to pay it they may have cash flow difficulties. Looking into that would help businesses. At this late stage in the year a lot of firms have corporation tax bills to pay. They could certainly benefit from holding onto that money for a little while.

The Tánaiste stated, in the context of the Covid restrictions support scheme, that we cannot open up to everything. I wrote to the Minister on a related matter recently. He responded but I did not get an answer to my question, which concerned greeting cards. Greeting cards are relevant to mental health. They represent the ability to convey good wishes and let people know that significant dates have been remembered. Retailers are not supposed to sell them at the moment because customers tend to peruse them before buying. I have seen them on display in the front of garages. I do not think that is a bad idea. Can we re-examine this? Wales has already done so and allows people to sell greeting cards. A large percentage of our older population are not good with technology. They are not online. They may or may not use smartphones but they are used to writing a message on a greeting card and sending it.

I tried to buy a birthday card in Tesco recently.

It does not appear to be supported by logic. I think we should do something to send a message to our older people, who are more used to writing.

I refer also to vaccine deployment. We have to look ahead and hope that we will see steps on this soon. The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at -80°C. There are huge technical challenges in storing and distributing it safely, as well as a great deal of regulation. As for the Moderna vaccine, its storage requirements appear to be closer to ambient temperature. Will the Department look at issuing calls for providers that can meet these logistical needs? We must avoid a situation where we have vaccines but we cannot deploy them.

Last week the HSE finally produced a tender for antigen testing. That falls into the same space. I brought the issue of antigen testing to the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, six months ago, but let us leave that aside. In Spain, vehicles are being fitted out for mobile antigen testing. There is a full bespoke test. A vehicle pulls up and a large number of workers can be screened.

The Tánaiste has previously discussed insurance reform. Does he have an update on a revised book of quantum? Is there any light at the end of the tunnel for businesses hoping for a reduction in insurance premiums next year?

We are working with the Office of Government Procurement to improve the preparation of business plans. Some supports are available from Enterprise Ireland, InterTradeIreland and the local enterprise offices to help vendors prepare tenders. A financial planning grant of up to €5,000 is available for businesses to get an accountant or consultant to help develop a recovery and resilience plan. Local enterprise offices also issue business continuity vouchers for financial planning. Some supports are available to help businesses draw up business plans and thereby access tenders, grants and finance.

The Deputy is right to note that corporation tax cannot be warehoused. However, if a firm makes a loss this year but made a profit last year, it can get 50% of what it paid last year back as cash flow. There is a similar provision for the self-employed. That was announced quite a long time ago.

A vaccines task force is now up and running under the chairmanship of Dr. Brian MacCraith, who many of us will know. Plans will be put in place to ensure the vaccine is made available as quickly as possible. It is really encouraging to see so many companies developing vaccines. We would hope to have a few vaccines and cover people quickly by issuing some people with the Pfizer vaccine and others with the Moderna or AstraZeneca vaccines. The residents of nursing homes will have to be the first priority. They account for more than half the deaths in Ireland, as well as in Northern Ireland and across western Europe. The priority will be to vaccinate them and healthcare workers, who have occupational exposure. The next priority will be other people who are in congregated settings, such as prisoners and some other groups. While the Pfizer vaccine has to be stored at -80°C, it can be refrigerated at a normal temperature for up to five days. The Moderna vaccine does not have to be kept so cold. However, these vaccines are new. Messenger RNA vaccines are totally new. I am very optimistic that we will be able to vaccinate those most at risk of contracting or spreading the virus in the first quarter of next year. That will totally change the R number. Science will save the day.

I am pleased to hear the news on antigen testing. I had not seen the HSE tender. I read the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, health technology assessment, HTA, on antigen testing. To be honest, I was disappointed. I had hoped it would be better. It has real limitations. If it is administered by someone who is not trained the results are much weaker. While it might be good at picking up positives, it misses a lot of cases. Some of the data from the UK indicate that antigen testing misses up to half of cases. It has a role but it seems to be vastly inferior to polymerase chain reaction, PCR, testing. I am not sure it is the right technology to use for screening for travel or things like that. Interestingly, Slovakia has tested its entire population. We will see the outcome of that.

I hope to publish our action plan on insurance reform next week. That sets out all the actions we will take on insurance in the next two years. Some are already under way. The Perjury and Related Offences Bill 2018 is currently going through the Houses. The Deputy mentioned the Judicial Council's revised guidelines for injuries. We anticipate that they will be issued in the first few months of next year. In theory that will result in premiums going down, but people may dispute that. We do not yet know what the Judicial Council will come up with. The new guidelines may reduce awards significantly and bring them more in line with other countries or may simply tweak the existing situation. We reserve the option of legislating to cap awards.

It is significant that the Law Reform Commission has produced a report saying that we as the Oireachtas can do that as long as we allow a judicial get-out clause for a judge to make an exceptional award in exceptional circumstances. I chair the ministerial committee on insurance and I am determined to get things done on this issue. I do not know when that will turn into reduced premiums but I hope it will be in the course of this Government, if not sooner.

I have a question on the Brexit advisory scheme which is administered by InterTradeIreland. Figures from 2020, up to September of this year, are very low compared with 2019 and 2018. Is the Minister concerned that businesses are not being properly prepared for Brexit and not picking up on that scheme? I understand that it is difficult to prepare when we do not know if there will be a deal or not.

I think you are right, Chairman. I see this across the board and across schemes. I do not blame businesses. They are struggling with Covid, a serious recession, and the fact that we had so many periods where people were marched to the top of the hill or brought to the edge of the cliff and Brexit did not happen. I am a little worried that some businesses may think that we will agree a free trade agreement, FTA, in the next few weeks and things will be like they always have been. They will not even if there is an FTA. Things will change. I have written to all 250,000 registered businesses in the country, setting out on two pages what they need to do and what help is available. We will run newspaper advertisements and television advertisements in the next week. I am getting worried that Brexit is only six weeks away and there are still a good chunk of companies that trade with Britain and think it is Y2K or will go away, when it will not.

As part of the transfer of functions from other Departments, the Low Pay Commission has been transferred from the Department of Social Protection. The Minister will be aware that on 23 September, trade union representatives withdrew from the Low Pay Commission on the issue of the minimum wage. Has the Minister had any interaction with the unions since that happened?

I have regular interaction with the unions. Today, we had a Labour Employer Economic Forum meeting, LEEF. Patricia King, Laura Bambrick and Liam Berney were on the call. We did not go into much detail on low pay. We were talking about various other issues. I understand their position, which is that they do not accept the recommendation. Looking back over the years, recommendations have ranged from 10 cent to 60 cent, and on all occasions in the past, unions and employers accepted the recommendation, as did the Government, whether it was at the higher level or the lower level. On this occasion, the unions have decided to withdraw from the Low Pay Commission, which is regrettable. I have said to them that the programme for Government envisages us moving towards a living wage.

There is a question of how the living wage is defined. Using the UK model, the living wage would be lower and obviously nobody wants that model. There is a different model, run largely by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice and others, which excludes employers. I do not think we can do that either. We will have to come up with our own model of what a living wage is and how it can be phased in. I would like the Low Pay Commission to be the body that does that, and therefore it needs to have union representatives at it. I would hope to start that conversation with them with a view to them being able to re-engage with the commission and being part of designing that living wage for Ireland. Membership turns over in a few months anyway, so that might be the opportunity.

I thank the Tánaiste. It is to be hoped that when we look at the living wage, we will not be looking at the UK version but at the Irish version, which is €12.30. I hope we get there. I have a quick final question following from Deputy Paul Murphy's question about inspections. The Minister said there was 92% compliance, so 8% did not comply. Did any particular industry stand out in the 8%? If the Minister does not have the figure, he can send it on.

It is not in my head but I will check it out.

On the matter of social pay bargaining, could we look at trying to get some representatives of SMEs into LEEF to have representation there? They do not have representation. I know IBEC is there but it represents the much higher end of SMEs. There is nobody there to represent the smaller enterprises and employers. Maybe it could involve ISME.

Chambers Ireland is there.

I know. I am talking about a representative specifically for the SME community. I am not saying that Chambers Ireland does not reflect the problems of SMEs, but there could be someone who really understands them and could speak for those people.

I hear the Deputy. The Small Firms Association, which is part of IBEC, and Chambers Ireland would claim that they represent small business, but I appreciate there are internal politics in play.

That concludes our consideration of the Further Revised Estimates. Some members have requested that further information be sent to the committee and themselves in writing. We look forward to receiving this information as soon as possible. Our clerk will circulate the information once we receive it. I thank the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, and his officials for attending the committee and the consideration of the Further Revised Estimates.