Priority Questions

As Deputy Niall Collins is not present, I will take Question No. 49 first.

Departmental Funding

Maurice Quinlivan


49. Deputy Maurice Quinlivan asked the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation if her attention has been drawn to the fact that InterTrade Ireland is chronically underfunded; and the reason she is not providing it with substantially more funding and resources to cope with Brexit (details supplied). [23050/17]

This question is about funding for InterTrade Ireland. According to a briefing note on a meeting the Minister had with EU Commissioner Bienkowska in September, released under a freedom of information request from me, she specifically stated that InterTrade Ireland already operated on a very tight budget given the cuts imposed and is just about able to carry out its legislative remit. If the Minister is aware that InterTrade Ireland is chronically under-funded, why is she not providing it with substantially more funding to cope with Brexit?

Funding of InterTradeIreland, ITI, is provided on a 2:1 basis by my Department and its counterpart in Northern Ireland, respectively. Discussions between both Departments to finalise the body's budget for 2017 have not yet been concluded, largely because the level of funding cannot be formally agreed until an Executive is in place in Northern Ireland. Those discussions, once completed, will determine the overall budget for the remainder of this year, and we are focused on reaching the outcome that equips the body with the financial resources it requires.

Having visited ITI's offices recently and met its management team in March, I am very much aware of the important role it has in helping SMEs address the commercial challenges associated with Brexit. That is why I have made additional financial resources available to ITI to supplement its main annual budgetary allocation. This will bring its total allocation from my Department in 2017 to €7.9 million. Last year, for example, my Department funded a study, which will be published shortly, examining some of the tariff-related impacts Brexit may have on cross-Border trade. Further financial support, of €250,000, was allocated to allow it to undertake a series of new practical Brexit-related initiatives. We will keep the financial requirements of ITI under review throughout 2017.

I am glad the Minister has acted on this issue. I highlighted it for her last week. I appreciate her initiative with ITI. I appreciate the work she has done to date and I do not want to criticise that; I am just concerned that businesses North and South have yet to realise the potential impact of Brexit. We need to make sure ITI is fully resourced to provide SMEs with the awareness and assistance they will need.

Recent ITI figures released yesterday in a press release by the Minister show that 98% of businesses surveyed in the North and South have no plan in place to deal with the consequences of Brexit. Therefore, the area clearly needs additional resources. In the Oireachtas last week, Mr. Michel Barnier said:

Customs controls are part of EU border management. They protect the Single Market, as well as our food safety and standards.

That implies a Border. How hard the Border will be remains to be seen.

I understand how important it is that ITI have a sound and strong financial footing. It is especially the case given the important role it will play in helping SMEs address the challenges that Brexit will present. That is why I have made additional funding available. I will keep its requirements under review. We must remember, however, that North-South bodies are funded on a joint basis by the authorities in both jurisdictions. Two thirds of the costs are supplied by this Government, and the remaining third is set by Northern Ireland. We are, therefore, precluded from simply increasing the main budgetary allocation unless corresponding additional financial resources are provided by the authorities in the North. That is the case for all North-South bodies, not just ITI. We have made it clear to the authorities in the North how much we value the work ITI undertakes. We are working with them on an ongoing basis to ensure the body will have the capacity and resources it needs to help businesses on both sides of the Border.

I do not necessarily agree with the Minister when she says we cannot increase expenditure down here without waiting for the North on certain issues. I am glad, however, she is taking such an interest in cross-Border trade. I hope the research project undertaken by the ESRI and ITI will be published shortly to allow for a detailed examination of trade across the island and the impact Brexit could have. If we do not achieve special status designation for the North, we will face a very difficult set of circumstances. Can the Minister give us any update on the progress of the study and state when she hopes it will be published?

This study will be published very soon. As the Deputy knows, it is a study on the consequences of the application of tariffs on trade over and back across the Border. We will be publishing it very soon.

We will move back to Question No. 48, in the name of Deputy Niall Collins.

Brexit Issues

Niall Collins


48. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation the contingencies and supports in place to safeguard Irish jobs and exports in a hard Brexit scenario; the number of EU competitiveness council ministers' meetings at which she made the case for the need of a revision of state aid rules to protect Irish enterprises and related jobs; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22987/17]

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for letting me in with this question. It is to ask the Minister the contingencies and supports in place to safeguard Irish jobs and exports in a hard Brexit scenario, and the number of EU competitiveness ##council ministers' meetings at which she has made the case to revise the state aid rules.

In advance of the referendum, my Department conducted a contingency risk assessment of the potential impacts of Brexit across policy areas of the Department. We are continuing to refine our analysis after the referendum and we have been working with the enterprise agencies and across government to put in place additional resources and actions to mitigate risks and maximise opportunities. I have also initiated new structures, consultation fora and research to inform our decision-making.

Budget 2017 and the Action Plan for Jobs 2017 include important initiatives to enhance the capacity of the enterprise agencies to assist companies in the context of Brexit.

In all my engagements with EU Commissioners and Ministers from other member states since the UK decision, Brexit has been a central part of the discussions. At each meeting, I have stressed both the immediate and potential impact of Brexit on the most exposed sectors of the Irish economy and the need to consider mitigating actions. Officials of my Department have also had discussions with senior officials from the Directorate-General for Competition and other relevant directorates-general to sensitise them to the potential difficulties for Irish businesses arising from the Brexit referendum result. These discussions are ongoing and will continue to address all relevant issues and challenges and will explore all possible options.

While I have attended three out of three meetings of the EU Competitiveness Council, the issue of revisions of state aid rules on foot of Brexit has not formed part of the Council's formal agenda. Of course, as the Deputy will appreciate, the UK continues to participate fully at the Council, and it is more appropriate, therefore, for our interests to be pursued bilaterally with the Commission and other member states.

I have no doubt that, following a number of business surveys that have been cited recently, there is a sentiment among businesses indicating both a lack of preparedness for Brexit and a hard Brexit. The message is coming from businesses that they feel insufficiently prepared. The Minister and her Department have to share some of the culpability over the lack of preparedness among businesses. It is concerning when one compares the size of the Brexit unit in the Minister's Department, which has up to four staff, with that in the United Kingdom, where there is a Brexit Department with a staff of 335 officials.

Will the Minister seriously consider creating an enterprise stabilisation fund? This was done in 2008 when the crisis hit this country and it helped business. Will the Minister consider seriously and consult her Cabinet colleagues on resourcing an enterprise stabilisation fund?

With regard to the state aid rules, the Minister indicated to me previously by way of replies to parliamentary questions that she attended a number of meetings of the EU Competitiveness Council. She now states she has attended three out of three meetings and that the matter did not come up on the agenda. We really need to be pushing it. I have raised this previously. If the matter is not on the agenda, why can it not be put on it? I presume there is an "any other business" item on the agenda, just as there is in any normal meetings across the world. Could it not be raised under that heading if it is not on the formal agenda? Our current position on state aid rules is a serious issue and an impediment to dealing with Brexit.

The Deputy mentioned the number of staff we have in the Department. We have different committees right across government. While the United Kingdom may have a Brexit department, I assure the Deputy that we have committees right across all Departments, including mine, meeting the various sectoral interests and enterprises. We are covering off that really well.

Even yesterday, we launched the Enterprise Ireland eurozone strategy under which we will encourage and help businesses to break into markets outside the UK and to get involved not only in the eurozone market but also the US, Asia-Pacific and other emerging markets. The Deputy will have heard the recent announcements of companies setting up in Ireland and the jobs that will be created. Our unemployment rate has reduced to 6.2%. We are working hard and everybody in my Department is focused on Brexit during much of their day's work.

The Deputy also asked about an enterprise stabilisation fund. We are conducting analysis on this and we have actively listened to the needs of business.

I would like the Minister to address the issue of state aid rules. Why has there been no action by her, her Department or the Government on revising the €200,000 cap? Could she give some insight on where she is going on that, if anywhere?

Second, I heard an interview with Ms Julie Sinnamon, head of Enterpise Ireland, yesterday about the increase in exports to the UK coming to a shuddering halt over the past number of months. That feeds into the sentiment and fear about Brexit. This reinforces the case I am making for an enterprise stabilisation fund and the review of state aid rules.

Finally, will the Minister comment-----

That is three questions.

----on the review of Enterprise 2025, which we have been calling for? That is a policy document of her Department and it has not been reviewed in light of the Brexit referendum result. It is a shocking indictment that we have not had a signal from the Minister or her Department that the document will be reviewed and updated, and that the various targets and outputs in it have not been reviewed in light of Brexit.

I told the Deputy previously that we are reviewing Enterprise 2025 and I will have a first review document on that in June with another report to follow later in the year.

Ms Sinnamon said yesterday that exports to the UK had only increased by 2% when we were hoping for a 12% increase. The eurozone strategy launch yesterday was about encouraging companies to grow their business in Europe.

We are working with the Departments of Finance and of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Enterprise Ireland and SBCI to develop supports to respond to the needs of businesses impacted by Brexit. First, there will be a Brexit working capital guarantee scheme, which is a loan guarantee for SMEs that need additional liquidity to cope with working capital challenges brought about by Brexit. Second, there will be a longer term business development scheme. We are considering the need for such a scheme to support SMEs to reposition for the post-Brexit environment. The state aid implications are currently being worked through. A great deal can be done within the existing state aid framework. We are confident that the measures in development will be state aid-compliant. However, should issues arise that require an approach that does not fit within the existing rules, we will discuss that with the EU Commission.

Employment Rights

Niall Collins


50. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation when in 2017 the heads of a Bill regarding protections for workers on insecure, low-hour contracts will be published; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22988/17]

When in 2017 will the heads of a bill regarding protections for workers on insecure or low-hour contracts be published? The Department issues a statement outlining five areas it intends to address. I would like more detail on this.

On 2 May, the Government approved draft legislative proposals as a response to the programme for Government commitment to address the problems caused by the increased casualisation of work and to strengthen the regulation of precarious work. The draft legislation was referred to the Office of the Attorney General on 4 May for priority drafting.

The proposals aim to address a number of key issues which have been identified as being areas where current employment rights legislation can be strengthened. They will benefit employees, particularly low-paid and more vulnerable employees, without imposing unnecessarily onerous burdens on employers and businesses. 

The proposals are the result of extensive consultations. These include a public consultation by my Department following the University of Limerick, UL, study on zero-hour and low-hour contracts, as well as a detailed dialogue process with ICTU and IBEC over several months.

I am referring the draft legislation to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation for it to consider and determine if it wishes to engage in pre-legislative scrutiny of it.  The Deputy is a member of the committee. As the Bill has been referred for priority drafting, I envisage that it will be published at an early date once the drafting process is finished.

The House will be united in seeking to pass legislation that will deal with the issue of low-hour contracts and precarious work practices because this issue affects many vulnerable workers. We have engaged in a series of hearings at the joint committee over the past number of months. This issue is also in the confidence and supply agreement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to underpin the minority Government. It is almost 12 months later and the legislation to be offered by the Government is only being drafted now having been referred to the Attorney General on 4 May. The sense from the Government is that there is not a degree of urgency about this. The Minister of State said the legislation will be published as a matter of priority. Could he be more definitive regarding a date? We are dealing with the issue before the committee now and it would be a sensible and constructive use of parliamentary time to make the legislation available to the committee while it is conducting this exercise and not having to extend the time that will have to be invested in the issue. It is dragging on. The Government has the benefit of the Attorney General and the entire Civil Service apparatus to draft the legislation while we work with the various stakeholders. Could the Minister of State be clearer about when we will see the legislation?

This is a complex issue and it is not straightforward. This all originated from the UL study commissioned by the previous Government. This was an independent study which was not part of Government policy. It was, however, an important study because we based our talks on it. There was a consultation period during which we received 48 submissions. They were useful and we then had discussions with ICTU and IBEC between September and March. Each was representing its own people. The talks were complex and challenging but we eventually came up with legislation and an agreement.

I think the Deputy is aware of what is in the legislation as well.

I cannot give the Deputy an exact date but as I said to him here and in an earlier submission, this is being treated as a priority. I hope at some stage to go before the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to look at our legislation, because the previous legislation that was agreed here by the Oireachtas will be coming up in July as well. It will be treated as a priority. I will let Deputy Collins know as soon as I have a date.

We need to have it as soon as possible. That is what I am trying to impress upon the Minister of State. It would be helpful if he could give us a definitive date, but he may not be able to do it now. Could the Minister of State circulate the heads of Bill? I asked this through the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation as well. Could the Minister of State circulate the heads of Bill, if available, to each of the members of the committee? He has correctly said that it is a complex piece of legislation to get right. It is and a balance has to be struck, but there are always vulnerable workers who are effectively being exploited, and they cannot plan a normal life because of the precarious working situations in which they find themselves.

Deputy Quinlivan and other members of the committee have heard the input from big business representatives. We heard the response from representatives of big business when the Government's proposals were published. They are capable of taking care of themselves. As well as the priority of looking after the vulnerable worker, we have to strike the correct balance for the small businessperson or employer. Many of these precarious practices are going on under the larger employers, who are able to take care of themselves. We want to get that balance right, but the sooner we have everything on the table the better it will be and the more helpful for us all.

There was a broad welcome for the proposals that were agreed. As the Deputy rightly pointed out, this is very complex. One is dealing with ICTU and Ibec, and this is where we had to draw a balance in the middle. We wanted to ensure that we protected low-paid workers. This is what the legislation was all about. It was not about anybody else. It was about vulnerable workers and low-paid workers. At the same time, we need to be conscious of the employers and the jobs which they are providing. This is why a delicate balance had to be struck. I believe that the legislation we are proposing now strikes the right balance that will ensure that low-paid workers will be protected and that we eliminate zero-hour contracts. We know that there were not too many zero-hour contracts in the country but nevertheless we are providing for this in the legislation. There is other important legislation, particularly on employees getting information when they start employment with a company.

We are proposing four legislative measures. I will try to get the Deputy the heads of Bill when they are proposed. It is important that we all work together on this to ensure that low-paid workers are protected, and at the same time we will strike the right balance so we are not putting employers under pressure as well.

Arms Trade

Clare Daly


51. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation her views on the recently published report under the Control of Exports Act 2008 covering the period 1 January 2015 to 31 December 2015; if the volume of arms exports permitted by her Department to countries with poor human rights records and which form part of the Saudi Arabian alliance engaged in the bombardment of Yemen is of concern in view of the EU common position on arms exports; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22989/17]

It is clear, despite that it has not been publicly acknowledged by Government, that Ireland voted for Saudi Arabia to be part of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. The question beggared belief with many people, given Saudi Arabia's record on women's rights and human rights. Maybe the answer lies in the question in front of the Minister about the massive spike in the licences issued - documented in the report published by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation about arms exports - in 2015 and the first six months of 2016 to the Saudi Arabian alliance, which has been involved in the bombardment of Yemen. What is going on in a neutral country, particularly when all of the weapons involved are in category ML5? It includes very serious activities, such as bombing computers, gun-laying equipment, weapon control systems and so on.

The EU has a range of sanctions in place in respect of countries engaged in conflicts. All licence applications are considered having regard to these measures. Sanctions can include arms embargoes and various restrictive measures including prohibitions on the provision of targeted goods and services. My Department observes all arms embargoes and trade sanctions when considering export licence applications. There are no EU sanctions in place in respect of Saudi Arabia.

All export licence applications, whether for dual-use or military goods, are subject to rigorous scrutiny, and are considered in the light of the spirit and objectives of the 2008 EU Common Position on Arms Exports. My officials are in regular contact with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on export licensing issues. They consult with that Department in respect of all military export licence applications. My officials seek observations on any foreign policy concerns that may arise in respect of a proposed export. Such factors are subject to review in the light of developments in a given region. Any observations which may arise from this examination are considered in the final assessment of any licence application. My Department may refuse an export licence, following consultation with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and other EU and non-EU export licensing authorities, as appropriate. As indicated in the annual report, my Department issued one military export licence with Saudi Arabia as the ultimate end-user. This was in 2015 in respect of category ML5 military products, which includes electronic control devices and components.

There has been no movement since I asked the Minister the question last time, except for the 1,200 dead Yemeni children, the tens of thousands injured and the 4 million suffering from acute malnutrition. I asked the Minister about the EU Common Position on Arms Exports, which prevents sale of arms to a country if there is a clear risk that the military technology or equipment to be exported might be used in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law. We know that the British Parliament, on a cross-party basis, has recommended the suspension of arms exports to Saudi Arabia, until a UN-led investigation into violations of human rights is concluded. The UK is not even a neutral country. We are.

We should be leading on these matters, particularly when it is also the case that we should be careful about selling arms to countries with links to terrorism. We know from Ms Hillary Clinton's emails, no less, that Saudi Arabia arms ISIS. It is ridiculous that we continue to issue arms export licences to this country which is involved in war crimes. It is not good enough. I did not ask the Minister about an arms embargo and do not want to hear about it. Why, against that backdrop, would we not institute a presumption of denial policy, which could be brought in overnight and put us to the forefront on these very important human rights issues?

The Deputy mentioned export licences. I said one military export licence was issued. We do not export arms. The key consideration in dealing with military export licence applications is to establish if there are concerns with the end-user or proposed end-use. This process may include consultation, as I outlined earlier. My Department consults with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In addition, end-user certificates are always required as a further control measure. End-user certificates provide information on the proposed transaction. They certify that the company will be the final recipient of the goods being exported and include an undertaking that the goods will not be used in connection with weapons of mass destruction. Individual licences are valid for the export of a specific quantity of goods to a specific end-user within a 12-month period. A new application must be made for any exports above that provided for on the original export licence. All new and repeat licence applications are subject to the full export licensing scrutiny process. All licence applications are considered in the spirit and objectives of the 2008 EU Common Position on Arms Exports.

Does the Minister presume that it is a coincidence that we have gone from zero arms sales to Qatar and declining arms sales to the UAE to a significant uptake in both of those figures in 2015? All of the arms exports to Saudi Arabia were in the category of ML5. That category includes weapon sites, bombing computers, gun-laying equipment and weapon control systems. These are not incidental bits of hardware. The issue of the destination and final end use actually makes no difference to our obligations under the EU common position, which states that if there is a risk of this military technology or equipment being used in the violation of human rights, then they should not be exported. That is the question that is being asked. It does not really matter if the weapon components stop off in another country on their way to Qatar. Our obligations in that instance are the same. I ask the Minister to look at the issue of a presumption of denial within the Department whereby, even as an interim measure, we could take a step and institute overnight that if anybody from these countries applies for a licence to export arms to Saudi Arabia, they can be refused. The Government has not dealt with that. I must ask the Minister about it. We are talking about lives, war crimes and a violation of human rights.

The information I have in front of me outlines that there was one military export with Saudi Arabia as its final end user destination. These were not for the production of arms. Sometimes they are components for helicopters and Jeeps. I do not think the Deputy can jump to the conclusion that we are exporting arms or components for arms. I do not think that the Deputy can do that at all-----

That classification is there.

-----because our Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade take an extreme view and make sure that the applicants are denied if there are any questions to be asked in that instance.