Priority Questions

Brexit Issues

Niall Collins

Ceist:

1. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation the contingencies and supports in place to safeguard Irish small and medium enterprises, SMEs, and export businesses from a hard Brexit scenario, including revision of state-aid rules; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [49667/17]

I ask the Minister to outline the contingencies and supports in place to safeguard Irish SMEs and export businesses from the potential of a hard Brexit. I also ask her to outline the Government's position on revision of state-aid rules.

It is clear that, in the context of Brexit, we need to intensify efforts to support Irish SMEs and large companies. We need to try to minimise the risks and maximise the opportunities. Earlier this morning, I attended a meeting of CEOs to discuss how Irish companies can remain competitive in the face of Brexit but also in the light of other global challenges, including attitudes on taxation in the USA, challenges within Europe and so on.

We have much to do. We need to help firms to compete. This is an issue across Government. It is about access to finance. In the budget, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, announced a €300 million Brexit fund. Last Monday, the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, also announced, in conjunction with the European Investment Bank, EIB, a new fund designed to make money available to Irish businesses. That is very important. We need to continue to help firms to innovate by increasing money for innovation.

This morning, Enterprise Ireland launched another fund whereby, within three weeks, businesses can access up to €150,000 to help them innovate. That is really important. We need to encourage and support firms to trade and diversify. Obviously, all the work I have been doing on trade missions with IDA Ireland is doing that.

The Deputy asked specifically about state aid. On 10 November I had an extremely positive and good meeting with Commissioner Vestager, who has responsibility for competition issues - including state aid - to discuss the unique challenge facing the country. We agreed to set up a working group comprising officials from the state-aid section of her area and officials from the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. The group already met last Monday for the first time and will meet again in December. The purpose of this important initiative is to discuss the supports and measures available to Irish firms and to look at new measures and supports that can be developed as the Brexit situation develops in order to ensure that there can be - and I stressed this to her - a very timely response to any issues that emerge for Irish business. She agreed that timeliness in response will be critical. It was an extremely positive meeting and the working group has already begun dealing with these issues.

The Minister mentioned the scheme announced by Enterprise Ireland this morning and the earlier budget announcement by the Minister for Finance. By any yardstick, the state of preparedness of business for the onset of a hard Brexit is alarming. AIB recently published a sentiment index for quarter 3 of this year which shows that only one in four Irish SMEs is properly prepared for a hard Brexit.

According to InterTradeIreland, 19 of the 20 SMEs it surveyed are also not prepared for it. Similarly, PricewaterhouseCoopers, PwC, and Deloitte, two major consultancy, auditing and accountancy firms, believe this is the case.

In regard to the working group on the revision of state aid rules to which the Tánaiste referred, will it examine specific issues such as the €200,000 limit, which is posing a huge barrier? During a previous Question Time the Tánaiste referred to a proposal to introduce a rescue and restructure scheme. What are the criteria for that scheme and what will be available to business via that scheme?

I acknowledge the work of organisations such as IBEC, which recently published a piece of work on Irish businesses and helping them to export and diversify, and InterTradeIreland. All of the organisations in this area are doing a huge amount of work to ensure businesses are Brexit-ready. I would encourage any company, particularly those dependent on the UK market, that has not completed the Brexit score card or linked in with the local enterprise offices, LEOs, to do so.

On the rescue and restructure scheme, the Department filed for this scheme in August. Once approved, this scheme will allow for equity supports of up to €10 million to SMEs in severe financial distress as a consequence of Brexit. While I do not expect there will be a need for the State to provide rescue or restructure aid to companies in the Brexit context, this may well be the situation and so we need to have a contingency measure in place. We have made good progress with the Commission in this regard.

We are also putting in place another scheme which will make medium-term finance available for companies. We are also developing a longer-term business development loan scheme. A variety of schemes are being put in place in terms of access to finance, which will be a key issue for firms that need to diversify from the UK market and to develop products on the research and development side. A number of different initiatives are available. Last week, a new fund for small and medium businesses was announced by the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland in association with the European Investment Bank, EIB, which will also make tens of millions of euro available to Irish firms at a low interest rate.

On preparedness for Brexit, I have previously discussed with the Tánaiste the leaked Revenue report on our preparedness for Brexit. The issue was discussed on a number of occasions during Leaders' Questions. As confirmed to me by the Tánaiste by way of response to a parliamentary question, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has commissioned two reports; Sectoral Implications Arising from Brexit: Most Exposed Sectors, and Strategic Implications Arising from EU-UK Trading Patterns. The Tánaiste also told me that these reports will not be published and that the cost of these reports is in the region of €250,000, which is a significant amount of public funds. Why will these reports not be put into the public domain? Surely, the purpose of these reports is to aid business in their preparedness for Brexit. Will the Tánaiste publish these reports and, if not, why not?

A very good range of research reports, commissioned by a variety of agencies, are available and this is important. I will share as much as possible of that information. Information relevant to companies will be shared with them. If there is information that is key to our negotiating strategy which it would be better not to publish at a particular point from a national interest point of view, that is the approach we will take. Anything that can be published will be published.

Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement

Maurice Quinlivan

Ceist:

2. Deputy Maurice Quinlivan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation the reason the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement has brought no prosecutions or achieved no convictions in the past two years; and her plans to accelerate the reform of the agency. [49669/17]

As the Tánaiste will be aware, the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement has brought no prosecutions and achieved no convictions in the past two years. In the past three years, this office has also surrendered almost €5 million of its funding to the State. The most senior Garda position in that office has been vacant since 2016. The Tánaiste recently outlined her plans to reform this office. However, I do not want to know what is happening in regard to those plans but what has happened at this agency over the past number of years and why it was allowed to happen under Fine Gael's watch.

The Deputy has asked a number of detailed questions on this issue, in response to which I sent him a letter last night containing a lot of detail.

I received it this morning. It is very disappointing.

I sent the Deputy as much information as possible in regard to the questions asked.

The Tánaiste's initial response was ridiculous.

The Deputy’s assertion that no prosecutions have been brought or convictions achieved by the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement in the past two years does not present a complete picture of the activities of that office over the past two years.  

It is important to make the point that the Director of Corporate Enforcement is only statutorily empowered to initiate summary prosecutions, namely, prosecutions of relatively minor offences in the District Court. In that context, and in keeping with the ODCE strategy of seeking to allocate resources towards confronting indications of wrongdoing at the more serious end of the spectrum, the ODCE did not initiate any summary prosecutions over the past two years.

More serious alleged breaches of company law are prosecuted on indictment in the Circuit Court. The Director of Corporate Enforcement cannot initiate prosecutions on indictment, rather only the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, can direct that charges be preferred on indictment. On foot of investigations undertaken by the ODCE, and the subsequent directing of charges on indictment by the DPP on 21 December 2016, a former director of Anglo Irish Bank Corporation plc entered a plea of guilty before Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to one count of fraudulent trading contrary to section 297 of the Companies Act 1963, as amended; on 21 December 2016, a former director of Anglo Irish Bank Corporation plc entered a plea of guilty before Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to one count of failing to maintain a register of certain transactions involving directors and others contrary to section 44 of the Companies Act 1990, as amended; and, on 27 July 2017, a person entered a plea of guilty before Limerick Circuit Criminal Court to one count of fraudulent trading contrary to section 297 of the Companies Act 1963, as amended.  The facts of this case are due to be heard, and sentence imposed, by the court on 21 December 2017.

Once the DPP directs charges on indictment, the matter moves into the realm of the courts. The speed of progress thereafter is determined within that process. I refer the Deputy to the ODCE annual report 2016 which points to a number of key successes during the year including, following the examination of reports submitted to the office by liquidators of insolvent companies, 90 company directors were restricted and 11 disqualified by the High Court;

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

93 restriction undertakings were obtained from directors of insolvent companies; as an alternative to formal enforcement actions, cautions issued to a total of 61 companies; the securing of the rectification on a non-statutory basis of suspected infringements of the Companies Act 2014 in relation to directors’ loans in 60 cases, to an aggregate value of €17 million approximately; 108 directions were issued to relevant parties requiring them to comply with their statutory obligations under company law; the submission of five investigation files to the DPP for consideration, with recommendations including charges under both company law and the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001; seven demands issued to companies for the production of their books, records and other relevant documents; and during the year, the register of disqualified, deemed disqualified and restricted persons, as maintained by the Registrar of Companies, was reviewed. Arising from that review, a total of 83 instances were identified where persons appeared to be acting in contravention of court orders-legislative provisions.  Following intervention by the ODCE, the individuals’ positions were regularised.

In excess of 1,050 statutory reports and referrals were received from liquidators, auditors, examiners, professional bodies and other regulatory and enforcement authorities. There were 130 internally generated inputs and almost 250 complaints received from members of the public. To encourage compliance with company law, the ODCE issued in excess of 16,000 copies of its various publications during 2016. Over the past ten years the ODCE has referred files in respect of a number of investigations to the DPP, on foot of which the DPP has directed a total of 214 charges on indictment.

In terms of reform of the office, organisational reforms in the ODCE were commenced in 2012 by the current Director of Corporate Enforcement upon his appointment, to enhance the capability of the office to investigate increasingly complex breaches of company law and to ensure a more efficient and effective use of its resources.  These include reorganising the structures of the office; and recruiting additional expertise, including six forensic accountants and a digital forensic specialist. As senior level vacancies have arisen, reconfiguration of the skill sets, competencies, roles and responsibilities associated with those posts in order to better reflect the organisation's current needs. That exercise has resulted in the creation of two senior level professional posts of enforcement portfolio managers, with one of those posts having been filled and the filling of the other expected shortly.  Further recruitment is ongoing. Other reforms include fundamentally amending the investigative procedures used by the office so that members of An Garda Síochána take the lead in all criminal investigations; and fostering a greater culture of risk management within the office.

In addition to these reforms the establishment, as announced by Government earlier this month, of the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement as a new independent company law enforcement agency will provide greater autonomy to the agency and ensure it is better equipped to investigate increasingly complex breaches of company law. The package of measures to combat white collar crime sets out an ambitious timeframe for the establishment of the new independent company law enforcement agency.  It is expected that the general scheme of a Bill to give effect to this decision will be published by the second quarter of 2018, with final publication of the Bill by the fourth quarter of 2018.  Work on the development of the legislative framework for the agency has already commenced.

My Department will engage with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to advise on international best practice in the establishment of the agency in terms of internal controls, staffing, budget and corporate governance.

I am disappointed with the response I received this morning to the six parliamentary questions I asked over a month ago on 25 October. Those questions have not been answered. The Tánaiste referred to me the ODCE annual report of 2016 wherein the key successes of the office are set out. I have read that report and I do not understand why the Tánaiste's predecessors took no action to fix what I believe is an agency that is not working properly.

When did the Tánaiste become aware that this office is barely functioning? The most significant thing this office has done in the past 12 months is sabotage an extremely high profile banker's trial and, as result, let him walk away scot free. It has been brought to my attention that the figures relating to the number of director disqualifications and restrictions quoted in a previous exchange on this topic between myself and the Tánaiste were secured not by the ODCE, but as a result of work done by receivers, giving the impression that the office is functioning better than is the case.

I received a response from the Tánaiste's Department at 8.20 a.m., almost a full month after I submitted the questions. In October, the Tánaiste stated, "Between 2012 and 2016, investigations by the ODCE have resulted in the restriction of 886 company directors." The figures I received this morning show that between 2012 and 2016, the ODCE only made nine applications for restriction, approximately 1% of what the Tánaiste claimed in October. The figure the Minister gave to me in October is clearly wrong. It seems to have become a regular occurrence this week. Can she correct the record on that matter?

The information I gave to the Deputy was the information I was given at the time.

The Deputy is doing a complete disservice to the work of the ODCE in the way he has described it this morning. He need only look at the 2016 report - as the Leas-Cheann Comhairle has said to me, I do not have time to go into detail - as there is figure after figure. In 2016 alone, 90 company directors were restricted and 11 were disqualified by the High Court, while 93 restriction undertakings were obtained from directors of insolvent companies. A register of persons deemed disqualified and restricted, as maintained by the Companies Registration Office, was reviewed. A total of 83 incidences were identified where persons appeared to be acting in contravention of court orders and in excess of 1,050 statutory reports and referrals were received from liquidators, auditors, professional bodies and so on. A huge amount of work has been done by the ODCE. The Government has worked to put together a stronger package and to enhance the powers of the ODCE. We recognise there is further work to do in the area and that is why the announcement was made with regard to a range of initiatives that are being undertaken to make sure that the office is even stronger and is not an arm of the Department but will be an independent body led by commissioners, as are the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Revenue Commissioners. We are moving to a much stronger-----

The Minister will have a further minute.

I ask the Minister to correct the Dáil record. She told me in October that 886 company directors were sanctioned by investigations resulting from the ODCE, which is not correct. I previously made my position clear that the way we deal with criminal law in Ireland depends on who one is, where one is from and what one is worth. I received a response from the Tánaiste's office yesterday stating that she cannot publish the report received from the ODCE under section 995 of the Companies Act about the failings in the Seán FitzPatrick trial. Why can the Minister not do this? What legal barrier is stopping her from publishing this report? I asked the Joint Committee on Business, Enterprise and Innovation to examine the agency as a matter of priority to find out what is going on and why the Government has allowed it to happen. White-collar criminals in Ireland continue to live subject to different laws from everyone else. Saying that the agency is not fit for purpose is an understatement and many more questions need to be asked and answered on this.

The reason for that is the strong legal advice I have received from the Attorney General. I have had both direct confirmation and written legal confirmation with regard to this. Under the legislation, which has been carefully examined - since my approach would have been to publish this - it is not within the powers of the Minister to publish such a report. I certainly want to place as many of Judge Aylmer's concerns in the public arena as I can. That will involve getting transcripts and so on. The Department is working on a report that it hopes to be able to publish before the end of the year. The strong and clear legal advice was that, under the legislation, I did not have the power to publish this report.

Foreign Direct Investment

Niall Collins

Ceist:

3. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation the steps she is taking to deal with competitiveness issues and direct threats to continued foreign direct investment here. [49668/17]

What steps are the Minister and Government taking to deal with competitiveness issues that are a direct threat to continuing foreign direct investment, FDI, into our country?

I have just come from a detailed discussion on competitiveness that was held by Enterprise Ireland. This is clearly a cutting-edge issue for companies to deal with in the months ahead particularly in view, as the Deputy said earlier, of the Brexit challenge. Despite intense competition, the trajectory of Ireland's competitiveness performance is positive. Ireland moved from 16th to sixth place in 2017 in the IMD's World Competitiveness Yearbook. The World Bank's most recent Doing Business 2018 report shows Ireland is now ranked 17th out of 190 countries, an improvement of one place on last year. We can see that we are competitive. It can be seen in the strong employment growth across all sectors. There is no room for complacency. We need to continue to improve the environment for doing business in Ireland and remain vigilant to the very significant challenges in the external environment.

The immediate challenge for Ireland is to ensure growth continues, enterprises are resilient and the economy is internationally competitive. A range of work is being done on FDI. The continued focus of IDA Ireland is working with companies abroad that will invest here. A strong pipeline of investment is due in Ireland. All the companies I meet are extremely positive about the experience in Ireland, the diverse workforce they can attract and their experience of doing business here. We often talk about red tape but companies are positive about it. Enterprise Ireland's work is also important.

I will shortly bring the National Competitiveness Council's annual Competitiveness Challenge report to Government. I pay tribute to it for the work it does. We recently held a meeting in Farmleigh House with the stakeholders. It was clear that the companies are doing much work. The chair of the National Competitiveness Council was very involved in that and continues to work closely with the Department and Irish businesses to maintain that competitive edge.

Despite what the Minister says, the World Bank has told us that of 190 economies, we are now flagging behind economies such as Georgia, Lithuania, Estonia and Macedonia. What are multinationals saying to the Minister when she goes on trade missions with regard to the challenges related to housing and our planning laws, for example? We saw the recent Athenry data centre debacle, which has really left us in a state of uncertainty. We know the Taoiseach got no joy from Tim Cook when he recently visited him in California. What is the Minister doing about planning laws? My party has published legislation relating to fast-tracking major IT infrastructural projects. What is the Minister doing about the provision of housing? I am sure multinationals raise policy decisions of Government with her. What are these companies telling the Minister and the Government with regard to these barriers to setting up, such as in Athenry or in Dublin where we have a shortage of residential units, and elsewhere around the country? What will the Minister do about it?

I am pleased to be in a position to state the feedback from the international companies that invest here, representatives of dozens of which I have met in the almost six months I have been Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, both in Ireland and abroad on trade missions, is positive. The job announcements in Drogheda, Limerick, Waterford and so on and recent weeks bear testament to that. The universal feedback is positive about the experience companies have in Ireland and they wish to continue investing here. They are interested in our situation post Brexit and I think there are opportunities. Those that have businesses in the UK are concerned about the changes there. In recent times, the focus on housing is clearly being raised by some companies, both with IDA Ireland and myself. They have questions about what is going to happen and what the Government's plans are. Business wants to be assured that issues are being dealt with. The most important thing is for us to be clear with businesses that a plan is in place to provide greater housing and that there is also a national planning framework and capital investment programme.

I have been outlining to businesses that a plan is in place to deal with these issues. Quite a number of the companies I have met, when I have checked whether their staff have experienced housing difficulties, even very recently, have said they have not and that they have been able to deal with the issue. However, there is no doubt but that the issue needs to be addressed; otherwise, it will become a barrier.

The Minister has not referred to the potential loss of the €850 million investment by Apple in a proposed data centre in Athenry. We really need to hear from her whether this opportunity has now been lost. Is the investment lost to the country and the State? As I said to her, Mr. Cook rebuffed, or at least did not give any joy to, our Taoiseach when he visited him recently. Where are we in this regard? Is the State now unable to land such major, large-scale investments? This is a huge worry and concern for the community of Athenry and the wider west coast of Ireland, so will the Minister comment in that regard? Specifically what does she intend to do? I have raised this at our committee. I have asked for her and the IDA to come before the committee, where we will have more time and will not be constrained, as we are here, by time limits, to have a broader discussion, specifically about the delivery of projects such as the Apple project. I ask the Minister to comment on this.

I share the Deputy's concern about what has happened regarding Apple. That is why it has been a priority for the Taoiseach to meet Apple and discuss with its directors both here and in the USA the issues in this regard. The whole country regrets the delays because delays are always of serious concern to business. That is one of the reasons-----

Is the investment lost?

We continue to work with Apple. I would not put it the way the Deputy has put it, that it is lost. We must continue to work with Apple. What is important is that we deal with infrastructure planning, as the Deputy rightly says, and data centres. The Taoiseach and I brought a memo to Government in order that we could fast-track data centres. This is very important because, as the Deputy knows, Apple put in for one part of a project which, I think, has eight parts to it all together, so it would be extremely helpful for the future decisions that Apple may make to get that legislation through. I ask for the Deputy's co-operation in the House, which I am sure we will get, to have that legislation passed. I would certainly like to see those jobs in Athenry, and we will continue to work with the company and will progress that legislation, which will also be helpful. There is no indication that companies are moving away from taking decisions to invest in Ireland - quite the contrary. Based on my experience and the IDA work in recent months, there is a strong interest and pipeline of investment in Ireland, thankfully, because, as the Deputy knows, tens of thousands of jobs rely on that sector.

Job Creation

Michael Lowry

Ceist:

4. Deputy Michael Lowry asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation the efforts being made by State agencies, in particular the IDA, to attract jobs and investment to towns in County Tipperary; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [49765/17]

I ask the Tánaiste, in her capacity as Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, the efforts being made by State agencies, notably the IDA, to attract jobs and investment to towns across County Tipperary which continue to suffer from the lack of economic progress and are increasingly left behind in the economic upturn.

Enterprise Ireland supports companies in urban and rural areas to start, innovate and remain competitive in international markets. At the centre of its strategy is the Build Scale, Expand Reach strategy for 2017-20. It works in many different ways to help that employment development. In 2016, for example, 5,352 people were employed in Enterprise Ireland-supported companies in Tipperary, and in the same year Enterprise Ireland-supported companies in Tipperary created 290 jobs. This was a net gain of 189 when losses were taken into account. Enterprise Ireland has approximately 120 clients in Tipperary and supported client companies in Tipperary with an investment of €11.2 million in the period 2014-16. I understand as well that in Thurles, I think, the local council is involved in a new enterprise park. I do not have all the details of that but, again, whatever way the Government, Enterprise Ireland and local LEOs can work to support such development, we will facilitate that. As I said, Enterprise Ireland engages with established client companies in Tipperary through teams of sectoral focused development advisers using a company-led diagnostic approach, which is used to assess the client's needs. Then they can tailor the package to support them. This will continue. Enterprise Ireland has co-funded with local enterprise development groups 157 community enterprise centres across the country, totalling €64 million, and there is a community enterprise centre located in every county. The agency has also provided €2 million to support the role of 46 business development community enterprise centres. These employ 6,000 people across 1,200 companies and are key hubs of enterprise activity in many areas. In Tipperary, Enterprise Ireland has co-funded the establishment of six community enterprise centres.

The reality on the ground is that the economic difficulties being experienced by all of Ireland's inland towns, not just in Tipperary, are well documented. Towns such as Thurles, Roscrea, Templemore, Cashel, Nenagh, Tipperary town and Carrick-on-Suir have been left behind. They were once vibrant retail towns and they are now facing huge difficulties such as competition from suburban shopping centres, problems with parking and parking charges, the increased popularity of internet shopping, and high commercial rates and local charges, and then one must contend with the black economy. As a result, there has been a reduction in footfall, stemming largely from decreased consumer spending, so we have many empty premises that are contributing to the ghost town effect of many towns right around the country. We see padlocked gates, permanently shuttered shops, derelict sites - all of the physical and visible signs of the ongoing pain and unemployment happening across rural Ireland. The 2010 census showed an unemployment rate of 15% in Tipperary, as against the national rate of 12% at that time. We need initiatives to be taken to address this imbalance.

I take the points Deputy Lowry makes about some of the impact of the economic downturn in rural towns, and he has outlined it very starkly. The best way to begin to have that recovery that we need, and which is happening, as he says, is to ensure a regional focus when we attract jobs from overseas while also supporting local businesses. The kinds of projects I have described that the LEOs, for example, are supporting will be very important. In the Deputy's own area, Tipperary LEO was involved in five projects from the €5 million in funding under the competitive local enterprise office fund. Interesting things are happening, such as the south east artist and food initiative, the digital initiative that is under way and so on, that will lead to more employment and lead to those premises opening. There is a pilot programme that will offer carefully selected micro-enterprises with growth ambitions the opportunity to benefit from concentrated supports and advice. In addition, Enterprise Ireland ran an overseas Enterprise Ireland client itinerary visit to the Lisheen mines. Again, this is all part of trying to develop enterprise in the area and make sure jobs are created. We have the very important regional development fund of €60 million, and I will shortly - I hope before the end of the year - announce the results of the first €35 million of that investment.

In that regard, there is one other issue I would like the Minister's comments on. Her Department is feeding into the national planning framework that is currently out there for public discussion. The criteria and classification used in this plan mean that in Tipperary, for example, Clonmel is the only designated large town and, because of the criteria established, many towns are left out. The reality is that the funds in the plan will follow the designated towns. What will happen to the towns that are outside of the plan and left behind?

They will be at a huge disadvantage. The Government has a policy of shifting the balance in favour of the regions, but we will never get people to invest in any rural town unless there are incentives for them. This plan goes against Government policy in terms of directing investment towards regional geographical areas. The Department needs to look at this closely in terms of the disadvantage in which it will place many rural towns.

It is a subject for another question in terms of the planning framework. There has been a lot of consultation. It is a draft planning framework. There is certainly no question of placing areas at a disadvantage. I would say quite the opposite. It is about combining capital investment and a proper regional planning framework. The intention is to ensure we have balanced and inclusive development throughout the country. The development of Dublin is part of this. I imagine and expect that when we have this planning framework in place, we will see a more even spread of jobs and investment throughout the country. I believe the areas the Deputy has spoken about will also benefit because there is a better regional approach to planning, investment and development. It is bringing all of the different factors together, such as where there should be housing and where there can be development and investment.

Job Creation

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

5. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation the discussions her Department has had with a company (details supplied) regarding the future development of the proposed data centre in Athenry. [49764/17]

What contact has the Department had with Apple? We know the Taoiseach met the company in California about the potential loss of the Athenry data centre. Was the Tánaiste informed when the company decided to go ahead with the second Danish plant, which had not been expected, in July this year? When does she expect it might make a decision on whether it will, in the end, proceed with an Irish plant? From where does she think it will get the 100% renewable power? Do we have a plan for how many data centres we want and what we get from this as a country? I know this is a series of questions, and I will come back to the Tánaiste with subsequent ones. What is the Tánaiste's interaction with this issue?

The Government is totally committed to this project, and at every available opportunity we have worked to ensure that no stone has been left unturned in bringing this project to fruition. We are striving to ensure that Ireland continues to be able to attract world-class data centres and other high-tech investments. The Taoiseach recently met the company's CEO in the USA and underlined the Government's support for this valuable project, which will build on this company's substantial existing investment and job creation in Ireland. My Department, through the IDA, has been engaged in ongoing discussions with the company involved, throughout all stages in the development of this project, including the various planning and legal processes. This engagement will continue and the IDA is in ongoing contact with the company, both through its US headquarters and with management at its existing Irish operations.

We strongly support this project for several reasons. It would help reinforce our hard-won reputation as a country that values and supports technological investment. The location of this centre in County Galway would have huge benefits for the wider area. I have just been discussing regional development, and it would serve as a strong endorsement of the west and the merits of investing in regional Ireland. We are making huge efforts to ensure balanced regional development.

The Deputy asked about forecasted benefits of this €850 million investment, and they are well-known. It is expected that 300 construction jobs would be generated, together with 150 quality on-site permanent jobs. Of course, there would a whole range of indirect benefits for the wider local and regional economy. There is very strong local support in Athenry for the project. There are many factors.

Whether the project proceeds or not, and we will certainly work to try to ensure it proceeds, remains a commercial decision for the company itself to take. We will continue working closely with the company and we will try to influence the final decision.

I agree with the Tánaiste on the benefits, particularly for the west, but I must argue that her total commitment is not a fair reflection of the reality on the ground. These companies coming to Ireland want 100% renewable power. The Government has just presented a report which plans for the next 13 years and states we will only aim to keep the existing level of renewable power. EirGrid states we could get up to 75% in that timeframe, which would provide all the power to run these centres, but the Government does not seem to believe in it, which is one of the reasons we are at the bottom of the climate change league. Similarly, the Government pulled back the development of the grid to the north-west, including the Mayo and Galway area, and pulled back from the development of wind power there that could have powered the Athenry plant. One of the reasons it went to Denmark is not just that it was stuck in the planning system but that the company realised that in Denmark it was dealing with a government which believed in this renewable, low-carbon future. In this country, especially in Fine Gael, there seems to be an ideological opposition to the transition to a low-carbon 100% renewable future. Why is this?

There is no ideological resistance to what the Deputy has described. These companies, as the Deputy rightly said, are big users of renewable energy, and that certainly is to be welcomed. Their experience in this country has been good. I do not think what Deputy has said is correct, because it is very clear the planning delays were the issue relating to where we are at present. The delays that have beset the project underline the need to have an efficient and speedy planning process and associated legal process in place in this country. I and the Government certainly want to ensure that similar projects are not unreasonably delayed. The Department of the Taoiseach established a high-level working group earlier this year to examine the many cross-departmental policy issues associated with these projects. The Department is represented on this group, and we will bring the enterprise perspective and retail related analysis to the group to aid its discussion. The group will seek to develop a strategic national policy approach to the development of future projects in Ireland. It is examining among other issues the possible designations of areas suitable for the development of data centres and the identification and resolution of planning issues and infrastructural requirements related to such investment. This approach is the right one. It takes into account the issues about which the Deputy is concerned and which he raised today.

If it is not ideological, what explains the fact the Government is in Europe at present trying to water down every renewable directive and governance measure? This is why we are at the bottom of the charts. To put this aside, I am glad the Tánaiste is looking at developing a plan for what we do with data centres. One of the reasons for the planning delay in this case was there was not a national plan. The planning system had to try to decide whether the project made sense without any understanding of the overall plan in terms of how many data centres we have, from where we get the power, the benefits for the local community and where we locate them. I very much welcome, if I heard it in the Tánaiste's answer, that she will now have such a plan. When does she expect it will be ready? What other bodies are involved? I have just come from an ESB conference down the road, and it sees the development of a renewable sensitive dynamic network as key. What is the role of the industry in this? How quickly can the Tánaiste turn around such a plan so at least companies coming in future know what is happening in this country?

The Taoiseach and I have already brought the first update to the Government on this. I can confirm a cross-departmental group is looking at this. I will arrange for details to be sent to the Deputy of who is on the group and an outline of the work, and in so far as I can do so I am happy to do it. We should not forget that Ireland is still considered, and with good cause, the unofficial data centre of Europe. There are well over 25 major data centres in Ireland. Many of them belong to some of the world's leading technology companies located here. The strengths we have to offer, and I hear it again and again when I visit the companies, for this type of investment include our climate, our energy supply and our business environment. They are well known to potential investors. We will continue to work on this national plan and the IDA will remain in very close contact with the company.

A referred reply was forwarded to the Deputy under Standing Order 42A.