Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Home Loan Scheme

The Rebuilding Ireland home loan was launched in February 2018 to replace the existing local authority mortgage schemes. Waterford City and County Council received an allocation of €2 million under the scheme which allows first-time buyers to borrow up to 90% of a property's value from the local authority. Figures show that Waterford City and County Council has provided mortgages to half of all of the applicants that have applied, which tallies with average approval rates nationally. So far, so good and the Minister of State may well ask me what is the problem. Waterford City and County Council has paid out €2.6 million to date, approving 15 mortgages. It currently has another €1.5 million worth of successful applicants, equating to 11 mortgages but it does not have the finances to fund these mortgages under the Rebuilding Ireland scheme as it has already exceeded its allocation. I spoke to the director of services yesterday who told me that the council is currently reviewing these applications and that some of the applicants are in dire straits.

I wish to refer to one specific case to illustrate the reality of the situation. A family living in Waterford who had been renting for the past nine years successfully applied for a Rebuilding Ireland home loan from Waterford council. The family then engaged a solicitor, agreed the purchase of a house, including furniture and contents, gave notice on the house they were renting and sold some of their own furniture which would not suit their new home. However, when the solicitor applied to draw down the funding, as approved, the council could not provide the money as it had well exceeded its allocation. As I said, the council was allocated €2 million but has already spent €2.6 million. As reported in a local newspaper, all of the necessary reports were supplied and almost three weeks ago, the family reached the sale agreed stage. They had a pre-mortgage meeting with Waterford council, engaged a solicitor and were told that they would receive the money within two to three weeks. Now they have been told that Waterford council has run out of Rebuilding Ireland home loan funding. This is only one story among many. This family is currently in limbo. The whole chain of events is now held up, with several parties affected.

It is clear that there has been a much greater demand for the loan scheme than initially anticipated. As a result, the scheme will require a further tranche of funds to be borrowed by the Housing Finance Agency if it is to continue. I ask the Minister of State to provide some positive news on the question of additional funding for Waterford City and County Council. Will a second tranche of finance be provided and if so, when? Is the future of this scheme secure? Can applicants continue to apply, sure in the knowledge that, if successful, they will receive the necessary finance? This scheme is a good news story. There are lots of people in this country who are not in a position to get a mortgage from the normal lenders but who are also above the income limits to qualify for social housing or HAP. I know a few people who have secured Rebuilding Ireland home loans and they are very pleased with terms and conditions, including competitive rates of interest over 25 to 30 years. The scheme is a perfect fit on paper for some, particularly first-time buyers, those who cannot get a mortgage from the main lenders and those who do not qualify for local authority housing. I ask the Minister of State to clarify the situation with regard to the scheme.

I will try to give the Deputy as much information as possible but I will have to revert to her with some specific details at a later date.

Following a review of the two existing home loan schemes, namely the house purchase loan and the home choice loan, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, introduced a new loan offering, known as the Rebuilding Ireland home loan, in February last year to replace the existing schemes. When the new scheme was initially being developed, it was estimated that the draw down of loans under the scheme would be approximately €200 million over three years. However, as outlined by Deputy Butler, the scheme has proven to be far more successful than originally anticipated.

The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government has been closely monitoring the progress of the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme and has been engaging with officials from the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform on the scheme since October 2018 when it became clear that the rate at which loans were being approved was higher than originally anticipated. The Minister made a commitment on launching the scheme that he would seek further funding at an early stage, if necessary, given his belief in the scheme's potential. By the end of January, €106 million had been drawn down, which accounted for 53% of the available funding. At that point, €66 million would have been more consistent with the expectation of funds being drawn down over a three year period.

The Minister informed the Dáil on 29 January 2019 that the scheme had proven to be more successful than initially anticipated and would require a further tranche of funds. He further indicated that the Department was in discussions with the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform on an extension to the scheme. A meeting with the Minister for Finance was scheduled for 4 February but had to be deferred until 5 March. At no time was the first tranche of funding depleted and following the meeting on 5 March, the Minister informed the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government that local authorities could continue to accept applications, as discussions had commenced on further funding.

As of the end of January, €106 million had been lent, supporting 575 individuals and families to buy their first home. The Department is currently in discussions with the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform regarding further funding for the scheme. The Central Bank is also being consulted. Specific allocations to local authorities for 2019 will be finalised when those discussions have concluded. In the meantime, the scheme remains open and applicants can be confident that this will continue to be the case. All local authorities should continue to receive and process applications, up to and including draw down of funding, as appropriate.

The Deputy outlined a specific case and many Members have come across similar cases. I will endeavour to get a more specific timeline on the extra tranche of funding for Deputy Butler. I hope I have provided some solace for families in similar situations. I accept that this is a very difficult time for the family referred to by Deputy Butler but I will try to get as specific a date as possible.

I thank the Minister of State for the reply. I am delighted to hear that the scheme is still open but unfortunately Waterford City and County Council has well exceeded its initial allocation of €2 million. The council has actually used €600,000 of its own money at this stage. The Minister of State knows well that local authorities must balance their books and in that context the council needs to have some idea of the timeframe involved here.

Some local authorities have been more successful than others in terms of processing Rebuilding Ireland home loan applications. Would it be possible to redirect funds from those local authorities that did not utilise their full allocation to those which have exceeded their allocations? I urge the Department to look at those local authorities that have loaned a lot of money and exceeded their allocations to determine why this happened.

The focus must be on building houses and moving people into them. We are all agreed on that. That is what is important to every local authority, every Senator and Deputy in these Houses and every councillor on the ground. We need clarity on the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme although I accept that the Minister of State cannot provide it today. I welcome the fact that the scheme is still open but the situation is very difficult for the local authorities. If Waterford City and County Council goes ahead and allocates the aforementioned 11 mortgages that it has approved, will the Department guarantee that the council will be reimbursed?

I will ask the Minister to write to the Deputy with the answers to her specific questions.

Driver Licensing Exchange Agreements

Topical Issue matter No. 2 is in the names of Deputies Sherlock and Fitzmaurice.

Deputy Sherlock is attending a vote at a committee. The Deputy has asked me to-----

To hold the fort.

The Minister is here to take the matter. Perhaps we will proceed. The two Deputies wish to discuss applications to convert UK driving licences to Irish driving licences.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Ross, for coming to the Chamber to discuss this issue and I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting it. Deputy Sherlock has also put this matter but he is attending a committee vote currently.

Deputy Sherlock has encountered the same issue, as have other Deputies around the country, especially in the last week. We are being inundated with calls from people who have UK driving licences and are having difficulty changing them over to Irish licences. I understand there is a walk-in service advertised on the website but unfortunately there have been hours of queuing for many of the people who have gone in to the centres to apply. There is not enough staff, but in fairness this is probably because the service is under pressure. People are taking time off work to go in to apply to change their licences and now panic is beginning to set in. I believe that 12 April is the deadline for this.

Conflicting views are given when one goes in to change a licence. People are stating that if an application is made then the person is okay to drive but others have heard that a driver cannot drive until he or she has the new licence. Deputy Sherlock has heard the same. Some people have said that if a driver does not have the licence in time then he or she may have to resit a driving test.

Many Irish people have made their lives in England. They go over on a Monday and come back on Friday evening. There are many people whose lives are intertwined between the UK and Ireland. We need to make sure that this is facilitated. In the spirit of partnership and in the context of the common travel area, I put it to the Minister that we should not ask people to change over their driving licences. There was a common travel area long before the UK or Ireland was in the EU. If the Minister cannot do that perhaps he could tell the House who is making up these rules. Is the EU pushing the Government on this? What part has the Road Safety Authority, RSA, in it?

If the Minister cannot solve this issue under the common travel area can we give a breathing space of a three month period? We need to put out a very clear message to people that if they do not have their licence by 12 April they should not panic because there could, for example, be a grace period of a month or so and they would not be put off the road. We need to make clear to people that they would not have to resit a driving test if they already hold a UK licence.

The situation is unusual. Over the last week in constituency offices Deputy Sherlock and other Deputies have seen the beginnings of panic as people are ringing up. The situation is causing a lot of frustration for people who have UK driving licences and especially for people who live and work in the Border counties, from Donegal over to Deputy Adams's county. There are others who may have worked in the UK years ago, who came back to Ireland and have always had a UK licence. Some civil servant needs to bring a bit of common sense into this matter rather than this growing frustration. People who are working cannot take time off work to spend three or four hours queuing for this. This is what Deputy Sherlock and I have been told. The queues go on so long that people are not getting to make their application as they have to leave. We need to solve this. I understand the application cannot be done online, but I am open to correction on that. I ask the Minister to bring clarity to the situation.

I thank Deputy Fitzmaurice for raising this very important issue. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, people resident in Ireland will no longer be able to drive on a UK driving licence. At present, we recognise other EU member state driving licences, but when the UK leaves the EU the UK will no longer be a member state and so the driving licence will not be recognised.

The Road Safety Authority, RSA, through the National Driver Licence Service, NDLS, is informing people to avail of the exchange facility in place to swap over the UK licence for an Irish licence before that facility extinguishes in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Legislation exists to allow for the recognition of foreign driving licences for exchange purposes in section 23A of the Road Traffic Act 1961. If there is a no-deal Brexit, the UK becomes a third country and the potential then exists for arrangements to be made under section 23A. Ireland will be pursuing this option. This may take a little time to complete as it involves the signing of a formal agreement with the UK and the introduction of secondary legislation here in Ireland. People who are not resident in the State, such as those visiting or on a temporary stay from the UK, do not need to exchange their licence.

Deputy Fitzmaurice referred to the waiting times. The NDLS is experiencing significantly increased demand and extra resources are being put in place to maintain the current ten days application processing time. Many NDLS centres have extended their opening hours by opening an hour earlier at 8 a.m. and closing at 6 p.m. or 6.30 p.m. instead of 5 p.m., resulting in a total of 220 extra opening hours this week across the network across the country. The extra opening hours are helping to meet demand. Priority is being given to UK licence exchanges with 38 staff working on UK licence exchange alone. Up to 600 licence exchanges are being processed daily. When attending any of the 36 NDLS centres nationally to apply for a learner permit, a driving licence, to exchange a driving licence or for any other reason, it is recommended that an appointment be made. Due to the demand for UK licence exchanges, it may not be possible to make an appointment in time before the 12 April deadline.

The NDLS also provides approximately 1,300 slots per day for walk-in appointments. There will be a longer wait time for walk ins, which Deputy Fitzmaurice referred to, but I am informed that no-one has been turned away from a centre and that the queues are not too long. The walk-in slots equate to about 50% of the total slots available. Walk-in visits are encouraged before 11 a.m. and after 3 p.m. to avoid peak times. Details of the centres’ opening hours are available on www.ndls.ie along with all the necessary application forms and frequently asked questions. It is not practical to add more online appointment slots for booking as this will take away from the walk-in slots. There is no way to differentiate between a normal licence renewal and an exchange licence when booking an appointment online. This could cause significant queues if the online slots are taken up by less urgent renewals versus the exchanges. As a consequence, booking availability has been increased from four to six weeks ahead to facilitate those who may be renewing a licence or learner permit and are not in an immediate rush. This has helped to reduce the pressure and allow more walk-in slots for exchange applications.

It is not possible to hand in a UK driving licence at a NDLS centre and walk out with an Irish licence. Due diligence must be completed to make sure the licence holder is entitled to the category of licence that is on their licence and this could require contacting the original licensing authority to ensure that there are no endorsements or disqualifications on the licence. Ireland, as an EU member state, is obliged under Directive 2006/126/EC to carry out such due diligence when giving consideration to exchanging a driving licence for an EU member state licence.

That is not the reply people are looking for. That is a by-the-book response written by some civil servant. I wish to drill down further. The Minister has said some legislation could be introduced on this. If the Houses are able to bring through Brexit legislation in one week I am damn sure we could bring through some legislation, on which we would be ready to press the button, to make sure there is agreement on this matter between Ireland and the UK.

The Minister referred to some numbers in his reply, but if we consider the number of centres in the State it equates to barely one person in each centre who is looking after this. If a driver has applied will the Minister clarify whether or not he or she will have to re-sit the driving test? Can a driver drive if he or she does not have the new licence? I want these points clarified. Deputies have listened to the people who have been going to these centres.

We have heard that people had to wait three and four hours in a queue but the place then closed. The Minister indicated the opening hours. My understanding is that 11,000 licences have been issued and that 4,000 are being processed. There is a huge number of people looking for licences. Will the Minister bring a little common sense to this scenario and give until the end of April or a similar period to ensure there will be no panic among those looking for licences? The reality on the ground is very different from what some civil servant wrote for the Minister to read in the House. Will he clarify whether he can give a grace period for the month of April to ensure people will be in line? I am hearing that they will not be able to drive to work if they still have an English licence or have yet to get back their licence. I need to have that matter clarified. Can we bring the legislation through the Dáil quickly before that date to ensure there will be no problem? Will one have to sit a test if this is not done by the end of April? Can the Minister extend the period, which is the most important aspect?

I thank the Deputy for his passion. All I can state about the accusation that there are vast queues and great difficulties is that that is not the report I am getting. It is absolutely the case there has been a build-up, as the Deputy said. There are numbers building up at peak hours as one might expect when a dramatic event like this happens. There are more people turning up for walk-in slots, while more people are applying for appointments. However, the figures I have for yesterday are as follows. In Castlebar four people were turned away, while in Cavan one person was. In Ennis, Roscommon, the Deputy's county, and Athlone no one was turned away. In Carrick-on-Shannon two people were waiting, while in Clarehall three were waiting and the centre was open until 6 p.m. In Drogheda, Cork and Galway there were no one waiting. I could keep going, but I guess that the Deputy does not for one second suggest the figures I am getting have been falsified or are in any way misleading. They do not, however, accord with the image he has built of vast queues of frustrated people at doors. He is right - some people have to wait, but we are in an unprecedented situation. I would have thought that instead of making wild accusations about civil servants who are producing accurate figures, he would have congratulated me on the fact that-----

Congratulate the Minister on what?

I am about to tell the Deputy. He should congratulate me on the fact that a situation like this is being dealt with adequately by opening for much longer hours to 6 p.m. and from an earlier start time. The fact that centres are allocating a large number of extra staff is something for which we must applaud them. They are dealing with a problem which has emerged very suddenly.

Organised Crime

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle as an deis a thabhairt dom labhairt faoin ábhar seo anocht. Táim an-sásta an tAire a fheiceáil anseo. I raise with him the growing level of extortion with violence and threats by drug gangs in County Louth. They are demanding that the families of those they claim owe them money now pay the alleged debt. I am told by party colleagues that this is also a serious problem in Dublin and elsewhere. Last week I visited a family in County Louth who were living in terror. In the space of six months they had paid a drug gang a total of €3,700 to pay debts allegedly owed by their son. The drug gang has targeted the family in a sustained campaign of intimidation, threats and attempted extortion. It is now demanding a further €8,000. However, the family are demonstrating remarkable courage in the face of threats and standing firm by rejecting the drug gang's latest demand. When I visited their home, clearly they were very anxious and their fears were well founded. Over St. Patrick's weekend, their home was petrol bombed while they slept in their beds. Luckily, the impact of the bomb breaking a window woke the family who extinguished the fire before anyone was hurt. They are working closely with An Garda Síochána and have praised gardaí highly.

Other families have also been targeted and other homes attacked. Cars have been destroyed, while families have fled their homes. Last Friday I spoke to the chief superintendent of the Louth division. I commend An Garda Síochána on its actions and efforts to date. Unfortunately, it is starved of the resources it needs to deal with this threat. During my last meeting in Dundalk Garda station in January the officers informed me that the Louth drug crime unit was up and running, with three extra staff in Dundalk and five in Drogheda. While that is a good start and something for which we have campaigned and lobbied for some time, the resources are still far too low to deal with a problem of this scale. Other cases have come through my office and I have kept the Garda informed of all of them. No doubt, there are many more of which I am not aware.

Most of this intimidation can be traced to two drug gangs in Drogheda where local families are subjected to similar threats over drug debts allegedly owed by family members. I commend the neighbours and friends of the family I visited. I commend the family on taking the stand they have. It is no mean thing to do. It demands huge courage to stand up to these thugs. While the people of County Louth will not be intimidated by these gangsters, it should not be left to the community and An Garda Síochána. Does the Minister agree that the State has a duty to support and protect the family in question? Will he look urgently at the provision of additional resources for the Louth division of An Garda Síochána to support the work of its drug unit? Will he consider introducing or supporting legislation to ensure proof of identity will be required in the purchase of mobile phones? As he is well aware, mobile phones are used in the illegal drugs trade and many of the threats issued to the family being victimised in this case are made by mobile phone. I ask the Minister to imagine what would have happened had they not been alerted to the fact that the petrol bomb had been thrown. I ask him to imagine the case had members of the family been killed in that attack. We would be treating it as a national crisis. Will the Minister support the family and those standing against the drug gangs and ensure An Garda Síochána will have all the support it requires?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. As the House will be aware, both the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and I have addressed both Houses on the situation in County Louth in recent months. The Minister of State updated the Seanad in February on the steps being taken by An Garda Síochána to neutralise the ongoing feud there. My party colleague, Deputy O'Dowd, has also been monitoring the situation closely. As the Deputy will be aware, I visited Drogheda Garda station last December when I was very impressed by the robust response that had been put in place by the Garda authorities in the region. There is a dedicated policing operation in place, Operation Stratus, which specifically targets the ongoing feud in the Drogheda area. The operation consists of high visibility patrols and check points, days of action and covert policing initiatives to target specific individuals. These operations are supplemented by personnel from the regional armed support unit, the drug units and divisional road policing units and have resulted in the seizure of considerable amounts of cash, firearms and controlled drugs. The Garda will continue to tackle this problem head on to ensure the safety of all citizens in County Louth.

Drug related intimidation is an extremely serious issue which impacts greatly on communities and society as a whole but especially families. I am advised that An Garda Síochána has strict policies and procedures in place to deal with the issue of drug related intimidation and tackles the supply of drugs by supporting local communities through various preventative and detection initiatives, including engagement with local and regional drug and alcohol task forces, the Garda youth diversion programme and other projects, the Garda schools programme, the joint policing committees and community policing fora.

I am further advised by the Garda authorities that the drug related intimidation reporting programme has been implemented nationally since 2013. An inspector has been nominated in every Garda division throughout the country, including County Louth, to act as the single point of contact as part of the inspector's portfolio in each division. These inspectors are at management level within An Garda Síochána and have great expertise, knowledge and vast experience. They will liaise directly with the local superintendent on each individual case. As part of the implementation process, all regional assistant commissioners nationally and their senior management teams have been briefed on An Garda Síochána’s responsibilities and commitments under the national drugs strategy in the context of drug related intimidation and the drug related intimidation reporting programme.

For its part, the Government has provided the Garda Commissioner with an additional €100 million in 2019, bringing his total budget to almost €1.8 billion. This substantial investment will allow the accelerated recruitment programme to continue in tandem with the deployment of new and leading edge technology to support front-line gardaí in carrying out their work of delivering a visible, effective and responsive police service to communities across all Garda divisions, including the Louth division, in 2019 and future years. I will be very clear. The intimidation outlined by the Deputy will not be allowed to continue. Gardaí in County Louth are tackling this issue head-on and will continue to bring those engaged in any illegal activity to justice.

The family have been told to pay an extra €8,000 or they will be killed. Their home is barricaded in a makeshift way. They are receiving the support and attention of An Garda Síochána, on which they commend it. They also have the support of their neighbours. The selling, distribution and use of drugs present a major problem in our society. Some addicts engage in criminality to raise the money needed to feed their habit and once they are hooked, they are used by gangs in a scurrilous, cynical and clinical way. There is a need for a well resourced, an holistic and a multi-agency approach. It would bring all stakeholders together, including in the community and the voluntary sector, as well as the Garda and other agencies, to tackle the scourge of drugs and the associated health and criminal issues.

I have submitted a number of parliamentary questions about the ongoing evaluation of the drug related intimidation reporting programme by An Garda Síochána and the work of the family addiction support network. The programme was operational under the 2009 to 2016 national drug and alcohol strategy. The current strategy - Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery - runs from 2017 to 2025. Last year the Minister told me that the evaluation would be completed by the end of 2018. As we are now well into 2019, has is it been completed? If it has, when will it be published? What lessons are drawn from it? Is the drug related intimidation reporting programme working? An Garda Síochána is the lead agency in the campaign against illegal drugs and the people at the coal face are doing their best, but does the Minister accept that they need him to resource them financially and draw lessons from the evaluations?

It is unique for the family to take this stand. I know many families who will not make it and do not blame them. Are we going to let the family down?

I acknowledge the seriousness of the issue and the facts outlined by the Deputy. I do not disagree with them. When dealing with any complaint of drug related intimidation An Garda Síochána makes sure to afford the person or family who may be subject to threats the best level of advice, support, guidance and security. The confidentiality and security of the persons concerned are paramount for An Garda Síochána when dealing with reports under the drug related intimidation reporting programme. In conjunction with the national family support network, An Garda Síochána has hosted a seminar on this theme specifically for the divisional inspectors involved in the drug related intimidation reporting programme. Other Garda personnel were also in attendance, including Garda personnel from County Louth. While liaison within and between regional and local Garda management teams is ongoing, the seminars and training days provide an appropriate platform and opportunity to bring relevant personnel together for sessions that might be particularly focused which, in turn, inform the reporting programme.

On recent criminal activity in County Louth, An Garda Síochána has put in place a policing operation to prevent, detect and mitigate any further escalation of violence between the groups involved. The Deputy referred to a multi-agency programme. I agree and liaison is ongoing with the appropriate stakeholders, including the local authorities, Tusla and the HSE. Every Member wishes them well in their endeavours. I want this issue to be resolved. The Garda will make every effort to ensure issues such as those outlined by the Deputy are brought to a halt and that those responsible for criminal activity, be it extortion, intimidation, threats or otherwise, will be brought to justice.

On a point of order, I asked the Minister if the evaluation of the drug related intimidation reporting programme by An Garda Síochána had concluded. He told me last year that it would be concluded.

That is not a point of order.

The Minister did not answer the question.

I will ask the Minister to correspond with the Deputy.

There is ongoing evaluation. On reaching conclusions or otherwise, I will communicate with the Deputy as soon as possible after this debate.

Small and Medium Enterprises Supports

Gabhaim mile buíochas leis an Cheann Comhairle.

Small businesses are under significant pressure. Foreign direct investment is seen as the glamorous part of the Government's enterprise policy. Micro businesses and small enterprises are seen as worthy elements of that policy, but they are the poor relations when it comes to effort and investment. Many small businesses are in serious danger. This week and in the next two weeks a number of profitable businesses in the children's soft toy play sector are due to close. These businesses are being killed by insurance industry dysfunction. They are profitable in every way and provide a great service, but they are being stuffed owing to the dysfunction in the insurance industry. The Government has been defeated by the vested interests in the sector, but these are good businesses that give people a livelihood. People have invested in them, but the businesses will disappear silently this week, next week and the week after and little is being done about it. Would it be possible for the Minister to come up with an emergency package to help these small businesses to get over the hump owing to the lack of an insurance function in order that when the sunny day arrives when the Government gets things together, they will be able to get insurance cover for their businesses?

Things are not looking well for small and medium-sized enterprises. In the last quarter of 2018 nine of the 12 confidence indicators showed a decline from the previous year. Labour costs are increasing owing to the dysfunction in the housing market, as workers are being forced to pay higher rents. There is the same problem of rent inflation in the commercial property sector. Congestion is nearly at crisis proportions throughout the country. Legal costs here are significantly higher than European comparators.

The appreciation of the euro-sterling exchange rate is hitting hard on small businesses throughout the country. As the Government has created a banking duopoly here, two banks have 85% of the market and they determine the price and availability of credit to small businesses. This morning, it was reported that there has been a significant reduction in credit to small businesses since 2016. Business rates are still ignoring whether a business is profitable. Businesses are really stuffed with regard to the infrastructure around the country. The infrastructure is missing in areas where small to medium-sized enterprises are more important to the economy: for example, the midlands, the Border region and the western part of the country. Retailers are migrating online at a fierce rate. The Irish are the biggest online shoppers, with Irish consumers having spent over €6.5 billion online in 2017 and online spending set to rise to €10 billion in 2020. Most of this money is leaving the country. Not only is it leaving the high street, it is also leaving the country and shops are being closed as a result.

We heard this week from the ESRI that the domestic economy is likely to lose approximately €100 billion of turnover and 80,000 jobs over the next ten years. We know that SMEs are by far more exposed with regard to Brexit than the foreign direct investment, FDI, sector. We know that SMEs in the regional parts of the country are far more exposed. The Government has been involved in the development of some level of mitigation with regard to this area but I would contend, as I believe would most people in small to medium-sized enterprises, that it is nowhere near enough to deal with the challenges they are facing.

I thank Deputy Tóibín for raising this important issue. I was appointed Minister of State with responsibility for small business in 2016. My responsibilities have increased significantly since then.

My Department and the agencies have developed a suite of advisory and financial Brexit supports for businesses. We are very conscious of the importance of small businesses. I will address some of the questions raised by the Deputy in my follow-up reply. For now, I will focus on Brexit. Exposure to the UK is likely to mean customs procedures, duties and consequent delays in moving and receiving goods, which is critical for SMEs. This is likely to impact business cashflow. As stated by the Deputy for some businesses, the impact of currency fluctuation is already being felt. To alleviate some of the cashflow impacts, the Government is introducing a number of measures, including a system of postponed accounting for all traders for a period after Brexit in order that businesses will not have to pay VAT at the point of import of their goods from the UK.

The €300 million Brexit loan scheme provides working capital funding to businesses to innovate, change or adapt in response to Brexit-related challenges. Once sanctioned, these loans can be drawn down if and when needed giving businesses peace of mind to focus on navigating their business through Brexit. Beyond this, my Department and the agencies are fully engaged in preparing for Brexit and have participated in the Government of Ireland series of Getting Ireland Brexit Ready events throughout the country. As part of awareness-raising activities, Enterprise Ireland continues to roll out regional Brexit advisory clinics. The 31 local enterprise offices, LEOs, and InterTradeIreland offer a range of Brexit-focused supports to businesses, including those engaged in cross-Border trade with Northern Ireland. The LEOs offer Brexit supports to micro and small businesses through the LEO network nationwide, including tailored mentoring to address Brexit-related business challenges and targeted training on specific Brexit challenges. Additional business advisers are being recruited to the 31 local enterprise offices to work with businesses to develop and implement a Brexit contingency-growth plan which will incorporate job and export market growth. Businesses should contact their nearest local enterprise office, Enterprise Ireland, EI, office or InterTradeIreland, ITI, office where they can find out more detail about a voucher worth €2,250 to help businesses navigate their way through Brexit and which can be used towards professional advice on Brexit issues such as customs, logistics and financial issues such as currency management. Enterprise Ireland and InterTradeIreland also offer vouchers worth up to €5,000 and £5,000, respectively, which will enable companies to implement a change as identified in their Brexit plan. Some Members will have heard from local and national radio about the Enterprise Ireland PrepareforBrexit communications campaign, featuring the Brexit SME Scorecard and the PrepareforBrexit.com website, which offers information on the likely impacts of Brexit on Irish businesses and allows businesses to self-assess their Brexit exposure.

Turning now to some of the questions raised by the Deputy, the InterTradeIreland Brexit advisory service provides advice to SMEs on dealing with changes in cross-Border trading relationships. As part of the service, InterTradeIreland has organised a series of awareness events focused on improving knowledge of customs processes and procedures and identifying actions that can be taken in areas such as logistics and supply chain management. Businesses can also avail of customs training through Enterprise Ireland, InterTradeIreland and the local enterprise offices where they can learn about customs concepts and procedures that will prepare them for trading with and through the UK post Brexit.

As the Deputy rightly said, the retail sector is undergoing an exciting but also challenging transformation as the digital economy provides a different retail experience for consumers across Ireland and the EU. As chair of the Retail Consultation Forum, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, launched the online retail scheme in September 2018, which arises out of the forum working group on the issue of the digital economy. My Department has worked closely with the forum over the past two years to develop this scheme in line with the needs of the sector. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the work being done by the forum.

I will respond to the remainder of the Deputy's questions in my follow-up reply.

The Minister of State will forgive me if I am concerned about the gravity of the loss of €100 billion and 80,000 jobs to the economy over ten years versus a €300 million loan scheme; loans at interest rates of 4%, if sanctioned; a voucher scheme here and there; a diary of Government events and public meetings around the country, a website, some online courses, a series of information talks around technical matters and an InterTradeIreland body that is capped with regard to the number of staff it can employ in this time of crisis. If one juxtaposes the gravity of the situation and the Government's response to it, one finds it is nowhere near good enough. The Government should seize this opportunity to create a step change with regard to how it deals with small to medium-sized enterprise in this country.

Business functions to the path of least resistance so the Government needs to identify the elements that are resisting development around the country. Anyone involved in business knows that real insurance reform is radically needed, as is real banking reform that allows for natural credit to flow within society. Infrastructure is also important. We are losing services from Rosslare into France, which is ludicrous. The Government should be looking to invest in Rosslare, Cork, Waterford, Drogheda and Shannon-Foynes ports. It should be investing in the road and rail networks. Two weeks ago in this House, the Taoiseach spoke about €25 million being withdrawn from the Derry-Dublin motorway project, at a time when the North-South infrastructure should be developed. We should be looking for real North-South convergence across the business world and additional lorry parking and inspection posts in Ireland, as well as in places like Cherbourg.

My party, Aontú, wants to see the Government take small to medium-sized enterprise seriously into the future. We believe small to medium-sized enterprises should have a representative at the Cabinet table, rather than being dealt with by a junior Minister.

Small to medium-sized enterprises are an integral part of the Irish business network. Only this morning, I launched the small to medium enterprise and entrepreneurship, SMEE, consultation group, which in conjunction with the OECD will draft a report on the SME sector in Ireland. The report will be an important one. I will also attend a working group dealing with this issue in Paris next week. I expect the report to deal with the past, the present and the future of SME sector. It is hoped it will be published by the OECD with recommendations in the third quarter of this year. There was a huge turnout of businesses, SMEs, agencies, including Government agencies, at the event this morning, all of whom are very active in this area and want to get involved in the consultation process.

As the Deputy rightly pointed out, SMEs are important to the economy because they are located in the regions, the counties and the communities. The purpose of the local enterprise offices is to provide mentoring and training to SMEs.

On the €300 million loan scheme, today the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, launched a future loan scheme to help SMEs and the farming sector to prepare for the future as well. There is a lot happening in this area, and we will continue to act in this way in the future as well, irrespective of Brexit, because we know that the indigenous industries and SMEs will be affected by Brexit in the future. We allocated approximately €1.8 million to the Craft Council recently. Enterprise Ireland got an additional €2.5 million. This is all part of an effort to help the SME sector, because it is really important.

On the issue of insurance for play centres for small children, is there any way that an emergency package can-----

I will follow up on that for the Deputy. Insurance is a very important area, but it is an issue for the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy D'Arcy, rather than my Department. I will follow it up with him.