That Dáil Éireann approves the following Regulations in draft:
Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 (Covid Restrictions Support Scheme) (Percentage Adjustment) Order 2021,
a copy of which was laid in draft form before Dáil Éireann on 13th January, 2021.
The resolution seeks the approval of the House for a draft order which provides for additional support under the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, to businesses that are forced to restrict access to their premises over the Christmas period.
I want to start by setting out the context for our debate, which is the unprecedented support being provided by the Government to assist businesses in Ireland through this pandemic. The support has been economy-wide, and there has also been significant additional support for sectors that have been particularly and harshly affected by the pandemic. For example, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment has put in place a range of measures to support businesses through loan and loan guarantees, grant schemes and business training and advisory schemes.
Specific sectoral supports include the €55 million tourism business support scheme put in place by the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, the €5 million provided for the tourism product development fund, and the coach tourism business continuity scheme, which is a €10 million fund to provide coach tourism businesses with a direct financial contribution to help support them with future operational and continuity plans.
For arts and entertainment sectors, some €25 million was provided last June, including €20 million for the Arts Council, as well as additional supports for regional museums. A further €29 million was provided in the July stimulus plan, which included funding for the Arts Council, Screen Ireland, our national cultural institutions, a fund for our music industry and supports for live performance.
Significant additional funding was announced in budget 2021, with €130 million allocated to the Arts Council for this year and €50 million for supports for live performance. A total of €5.5 billion has now also been spent on the pandemic unemployment payment, with nearly half a million people receiving a payment this week.
Under my own Department and the Revenue Commissioners, the temporary wage subsidy scheme and the employment wage subsidy scheme have provided significant levels of support across our entire economy and society. Almost €3 billion was paid to 66,600 employers in respect of 664,500 employees under the temporary wage subsidy scheme. As of last Thursday, the Revenue Commissioners had made payments of €1.6 billion to over 43,000 employers in respect of half a million employees under the employment wage subsidy scheme.
The Revenue Commissioners have also assisted Irish businesses through debt warehousing schemes, with 70,000 companies putting tax liabilities of almost €2 billion into these schemes. The unprecedented effort that the Revenue Commissioners have put into the operation of these schemes should be supported.
Today, we are discussing the Covid restrictions support scheme, which has been an extremely successful intervention by the Government, aimed at providing support to businesses whose customers are prevented from accessing their premises because of public health restrictions. Again, I want to acknowledge the work done by Revenue. As of this morning, 56,700 claims for payments under this scheme of €239 million in respect of 20,000 premises had been made and €237.6 million of this has now been processed for payment.
On considering the approach to easing public health restrictions in early December, the Government decided that additional seasonal support in the form of a double payment would be provided through the Covid scheme to qualifying businesses that would remain closed over the Christmas period under the restrictions. This was in recognition of the additional financial impact on these businesses of being closed during a very important trading period.
The relevant provision is contained in section 11 of the Finance Act 2020, which was passed by the Oireachtas and signed by the President just before Christmas. It provides that the Minister for Finance may vary the scheme by order in a number of ways, including by varying the levels of payment - 10% and 5% of average 2019 turnover - for a specified period of time.
The legislation sets out a number of steps to be taken before an order varying the scheme can be made, including an assessment of up-to-date data regarding the economy and consultation with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The assessment considered the scale of the Government's intervention in the economy to support vulnerable individuals and businesses and to ensure that the economy will be in a position to recover when the pandemic is under control. It concluded that there was scope to continue the supports provided by the Government.
The live register data show that the Covid-19 crisis continues to have a significant effect on the number of jobs in our country. The assessment concluded that the sectors which are affected by the changes to the restrictions announced since the start of December are disproportionately affected because of their reliance on this part of the year to support leaner times in other parts of the year. Businesses rely on strong retail sales in December and it is proportionately the most important month for them. Therefore, missing out on the expected stronger sales in December can be expected to have a significant effect on their annual turnover, with multiple implications for ongoing operation and survival.
The double payment for the three-week period is intended to mitigate the effects of the December restrictions on businesses. A draft order to implement this was laid before the Dáil on 13 January. The final part of this process is that that order shall not be made unless a resolution approving of the draft order has been passed by the Dáil. This is what we are discussing today.
The Covid restrictions support scheme is a targeted scheme aimed at businesses which are forced to restrict access to their premises on foot of health regulations. It is a part of the broad spectrum of Government supports being provided to assist businesses to cope with the devastating effects of this disease, which I referred to a moment ago. The design and operation of the scheme is predicated on restrictions preventing or restricting access to business premises and it only applies to such businesses. In designing the scheme, it was necessary to provide anchor points, including the concept of business premises, to which access is restricted. This is because the public health regulations may make provisions in relation to restrictions in specific locations, such as a county or a region, or can operate nationally as is now the case. Therefore, support could be provided to businesses which operate in a restricted location with reference to the physical location of their premises.
The scheme applies to businesses carrying on trading activities from business premises located in a region subject to restrictions, which require the businesses to prohibit or considerably restrict customers from accessing their business premises and which as a result are operating at less than 25% of turnover in 2019.
The vast majority of businesses in the State are affected by Covid but this scheme is intended as a very targeted scheme rather than the general measure, which is the employment wage subsidy scheme. This scheme was specifically designed to provide additional support to businesses that have had to close temporarily or significantly restrict access to their premises as a direct result of public health regulations. That said, the Government has provided significant and unprecedented levels of support to the economy and this level of support will continue for as long as is necessary to deal with the effects of this disease. However, equally, it cannot continue indefinitely.
I do not propose to significantly amend the scheme. The scheme is based on the business premises being located in a region to which public health restrictions apply and access to these premises being restricted. It simply would not be possible to amend these parameters to allow businesses excluded by these criteria to become eligible.
The Government and I will continue to assess the effects of the pandemic on businesses and the economy and I will continue to work with my colleagues in government to ensure that appropriate supports are in place to mitigate these effects.
In this regard, the Tánaiste has asked his officials to look further at what additional supports should be provided to businesses that are not eligible for this scheme. Additional funds for areas such as tourism are already in place. With this scheme, we have a clear scheme in place where funds can be quickly and easily claimed by eligible businesses. Clear guidance is to be found on the Revenue website. This guidance is continually being updated, reflecting the types of questions that businesses are raising in relation to the scheme.
This is a successful and important scheme. It achieved what we set out to deliver. It provides significant additional support to businesses located in regions or, as is now the case, in our entire country, which are subject to restrictions regarding access to their premises. It does this quickly and simply and provides support which is broad and not sector-specific. It is an advance credit for trading expenses and is operated by Revenue because of its tax base, as well as Revenue's efficiency in getting funds to businesses.
The legislation allows certain limited flexibility within the parameters of the scheme relating to changes to the percentages of turnover, which are the subject of the draft order tabled for consideration today. A draft order providing for an increase in the levels of payment to 20% of average 2019 turnover, up to €20,000, and to 10% of turnover above that amount for the three weeks beginning 21 December, 28 December and 4 January has been laid before the Dáil. The resolution approves the order and I commend it to the House.