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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 7 Apr 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 7

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Small and Medium Enterprises

Cormac Devlin

Ceist:

6. Deputy Cormac Devlin asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the status of the implementation of the recommendations of the SME task force; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18664/22]

Question No. 6 is being introduced by Deputy Lawless.

This question is on the implications of the recommendations of the small and medium enterprise task force and I ask the Tánaiste or one of his team to update me on the matter.

An SME growth task force of entrepreneurs, business leaders and other stakeholders was established in September 2020 by the Tánaiste to fulfil the commitment made in the programme for Government to draw up an ambitious long-term strategic blueprint for SMEs and entrepreneurs beyond Covid-19. Between September and December 2020, the SME task force, which was assisted by four dedicated subgroups, developed a range of recommendations to build a better business and regulatory environment for our SMEs and entrepreneurs. This work was informed by the comprehensive OECD review of SME and entrepreneurship policy in Ireland of 2019, which provided a hugely informative, objective and deeply-researched evidence base on the challenges and opportunities for the SME and entrepreneurship sector in Ireland. The work of the SME task force resulted in the delivery of the SME and entrepreneurship growth plan in December 2020, which was subsequently published in January 2021.

To ensure that the substance and vision of the growth plan continued to move forward, and to facilitate further detailed analysis of its recommendations, an SME and entrepreneurship implementation group was established in early February 2021. I, along with the Minister of State with responsibility for trade promotion, digital and company regulation, Deputy Troy, chaired the implementation group on behalf of the Tánaiste. The implementation group met on six occasions between February and September last year to discuss progress on thematic areas arising from the recommendations in the SME and entrepreneurship growth plan. As part of these sessions, the implementation group invited participation from Departments and Government agencies responsible for delivery of specific actions to talk us through their plans of action.

This engagement resulted in the identification of ten priority areas where the implementation group felt that significant progress can be made in the shorter term. This list of priorities was discussed in further detail at a specially convened meeting of the SME task force last autumn. These priority areas relate to the following: access to finance; digital transformation; increasing first-time exporters; enhanced assistance for high-potential businesses; clustering and networks; SME management skills; reducing the regulatory burden on SMEs; delivery of a single portal for business information and assistance; ensuring comprehensive enterprise agency coverage for SMEs; and increased SME participation in public procurement.

I am standing in for Deputy Devlin, who is as láthair at the moment with Covid, unfortunately.

One of the items that was reviewed in the report was the export credit insurance scheme, and it is one I am particularly interested in. I believe that one of the deliverables of the task force is to look at ways to motivate the export journey for SMEs. I know the local enterprise centres have always had a focus on export growth as an opportunity for SMEs. However, there is an issue about the export credit insurance scheme. It was planned to monitor, improve and review that over the last year and going forward. However, I am not sure how that is going and I know some concerns have been raised within the industry. The Minister of State might update the House on the progress in that regard.

The Minister of State mentioned the high-performance small companies scheme. There is great opportunity within that for incubators. I know the MERITS hub in Naas in my own constituency has a lot of hot-desking and innovation and that is replicated around the country. I would be very interested in having supports for those types of activities as well.

I will work backwards on the two questions. On the MERITS hub, I totally agree with the Deputy. It is a fabulous investment and I have been on that site twice at this stage. I am glad it featured in the 2019 regional enterprise plan that was launched next door to it in Kildare by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. The new updated regional enterprise plan for the mid-east region is again focused on the importance of MERITS and benefiting from the investment in that. The Deputy will recall that additional money was allocated to the MERITS project over the last year to make sure that we completed and continued the work that is going on there. There is a great team involved in that. It is not just about serving the county of Kildare but serving the region. We are very much committed to that as a Government and as a Department, and we will work with all involved on that because there are key people involved.

The new Enterprise Ireland strategy that was launched a few months ago details the importance of developing more high potential start-ups but also an increase of 20% in the number of companies that are exporting for the first time. That was driven by the SME task force and we will continue to work with Enterprise Ireland to develop that.

There was one other question.

The Minister of State can come back to that in the second reply. I call Deputy Lawless.

Perhaps we can talk about export credit insurance on the second round.

I acknowledge the Minister of State's and the Government’s support for the MERITS hub, along with others around the country. It is a particularly strong centre. It is quite a new development and received very strong support from Kildare County Council when it was launched. I want to credit Joe O’Carroll and all of the team who run the operation there. I visited it myself on a number of occasions when it was getting going. Now that is up and running and post Covid, there is a huge opportunity given that more people will work outside of the large towns and cities. These kinds of co-working innovation centres are even more important now than they ever were. I thank the Minister of State and the Government for their commitment to that. As the House is aware the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, visited not long ago. As I said, there is a great team at work there and it is a model that could be replicated elsewhere.

In his second response, the Minister of State might take the opportunity to update us on the export credit insurance scheme.

That is one I forgot to mention. There has been a review of the export credit insurance scheme under way in the Department for the last year and a half and that report is complete. While I have not had a chance to go through it yet, I believe it is either on my desk or on the way to my desk. It comes under the “access to finance” element of the SME task force. It is something we took a very serious look at because there is a strong case to be made for it but we also have a poor history in that regard, so we wanted to work through it to see if we can benefit Irish exporters by doing that. When I have a chance to look through that report, I will be happy to have a discussion with the Deputy on it in the House. It is something that I, the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, and the Tánaiste are very focused on. If it is worthwhile and if it is of benefit to Ireland, it is certainly something we will bring through under the SME task force.

Enterprise Policy

Jennifer Murnane O'Connor

Ceist:

7. Deputy Jennifer Murnane O'Connor asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he will report on the south-east regional enterprise plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18808/22]

I seek a report on the south-east regional enterprise plan launched in March.

Regional enterprise development and sustainable local job creation continues to be a key policy priority of mine and this Government. Throughout 2021, my Department has overseen the development of nine new regional enterprise plans to 2024, including for the south east, which covers County Carlow. A key feature and strength of the regional enterprise plans is that they are developed using a bottom-up approach, which is developed by regional stakeholders who are keenly aware of the growth opportunities and vulnerabilities in their region and of the benefits of working collaboratively. Stakeholder consultation sessions attracted attendees from across industry and the public sector and higher education sectors from within the region. The sessions highlighted the high level of collaboration and ambition that exists within the region, with a strong sense of optimism prevalent despite some regional challenges.

I was pleased to launch the south-east plan in Wexford on 24 March. The new plan contains five strategic objectives and related actions to be delivered by the end of 2024 and my officials are engaging with the regional chairpersons and programme managers as implementation commences. The plan's strategic objectives are as follows: start and grow, that is, encouraging entrepreneurship and enhancing the region's start-up ecosystem; green growth, namely, ensuring that the green economy becomes an engine for future job creation and economic growth in the region; smart specialisation and clustering, that is, the principles of smart specialisation and clustering are critical for the region to create a resilient, inclusive, sustainable and competitive economy; innovate, that is, building on our existing research and development capacity to place innovation at the heart of the south-east economy; and placemaking, namely, developing a region that is attractive to both domestic and international visitors and communicating the benefits of living and working in the south-east, which is something the Deputy does on regular occasions.

It is great that we are intent on developing and implementing collaborative and innovation enterprise projects in the region to support sustainable jobs.

This is considerably important for Carlow and Kilkenny, especially in the context of the technological university, TU, for the south east. The creation of the TU will significantly enhance progress towards both national and regional priorities for the area, especially in the areas of access to higher education, research-informed teaching and learning, supporting enterprise and enhancing the regional development. For us to encourage entrepreneurship, start-ups and the green economy, principles of smart specialisation and clustering innovation and communicate the benefits of living and working in the south east, we must all work together.

To move to the implementation stage, we must build on the core activity of IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and the local enterprise offices, LEOs. Does the Minister of State have any update on them? The south east struggles to compete in the national funding programmes, such as those provided by Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, and so on, which means we are a bit behind. We seem that bit weaker. Is there an update on that?

A regional plan has been launched. It will be driven by Mr. Patsy Carney, the programme director, to ensure that the aspirations of the plan are realised. The Tánaiste, the Minister of State, Deputy English, and I were determined, before we launched the plan, that we wanted to have a funding stream in place to ensure that the objectives could be delivered, which is key. We have secured that funding stream. It is €180 million over the lifetime of the plan. A new fund of €5 million was launched last week. It is a priming and feasibility fund which will enable promoters and projects to come forward, carry out a feasibility study and be ready to avail of the larger tranche of funding which will come on stream later this year. I encourage Deputy Murnane O'Connor-----

-----to work with the promoters of projects within her county that would be of regional benefit to the south east in order that they come forward to avail of this €5 million in funding and to ensure that they are ready to access the higher funding later in the year.

That is very welcome. I thank the Minister of State. I assure him that we in Carlow and Kilkenny will access this funding. It is important when we speak about real ambition and investment that we have proper infrastructure in place. The Minister of State indicated that when we are creating jobs and new businesses, we have to have proper roads and that Irish Water must provide water supplies and wastewater services. That needs to be looked at too.

I wish to ask the Minister of State about another matter. Under the rural development policy for 2021 to 2025, there are 152 policy measures contained in the framework plan, including one for promoting remote working hubs. The measures to support the development of social enterprise in rural areas are serious supports in terms of enterprise and jobs. Carlow County Council has worked with key stakeholders to identify further investment opportunities in order to enhance the hub offering in the county, with opportunities to enhance services that can be utilised. This process has identified three key locations of geographic importance to business communities and there is considerable demand. The way forward is sustainability in rural Ireland. What supports can we offer to support this? I will keep promoting Carlow, and I will definitely be in contact with the Minister of State about this funding.

The primary responsibility for the roll-out of rural hubs falls under the remit of the Department of the Minister Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys. However, the previous regional enterprise development fund has supported rural hubs in other areas throughout Ireland. This new €5 million priming fund is an opportunity. If one had a specific idea in Carlow that may come forward for a regional hub, one could avail of this €5 million fund to come forward, carry out the feasibility study and be ready to avail of the funding later in the year.

The Deputy raised a point on the IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland. The IDA Ireland strategy launched last year provides a key commitment that 50% of all new investments will be in the regions. We want to ensure balanced regional development. Enterprise Ireland launched its new strategy earlier this year, leading in a changing world, which aligns to the Government priority to ensure balanced regional development.

We will come back to Question No. 8.

Economic Policy

Richard Bruton

Ceist:

9. Deputy Richard Bruton asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the way that his Department is preparing to implement the circular economy ambitions of the Government. [18475/22]

When the Circular Economy, Waste Management (Amendment) and Minerals Development (Amendment) Bill 2022 was published recently, it was disappointing to discover that no obligation will be placed on other Ministers to develop a strategy. It is left to the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, to develop a programme. The Tánaiste is very interested in seeing circular economy thinking implemented throughout the business sector. What planning is going on in his Department? Will we see strategies for key sectors emerge?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. The circular economy has never been more relevant as we deal with the consequences of a war in Ukraine that is giving rise to uncertainty in respect of energy supplies and prices, food supplies, inflation and the cost of living. It has also highlighted the inherent vulnerability of allowing our economies to become dependent on fossil fuels, especially when limited supplies are controlled by a small number of states. In future, consumers and businesses may not be able to rely on complex global supply chains to the extent that we do today, with more countries competing for even scarcer resources.

Deputy Bruton has taken a keen interest in the circular economy. I agree with him that the Circular Economy, Waste Management (Amendment) and Minerals Development (Amendment) Bill 2022 needs to be enacted as soon as possible to help build more resilient communities and economies.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is implementing several initiatives to support the ambitions of the Government. We have policy responsibility for implementation of the ecodesign directive. The proposal for a sustainable products initiative that was recently brought forward by the Commission puts circularity, repairability, availability of replacement parts and product design for durability at the centre of an expanded ambition for product regulations. The ecodesign regulation can significantly complement our national ambition on the circular economy and the Department will work with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and relevant agencies to promote this shared objective.

Separately, the climate toolkit for business launched by the Minister for the Environment, Climate Change and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and I last year is an online calculator tool that will assist businesses, especially SMEs, in calculating their carbon footprint on the basis of simple metrics they can input in the context of energy, waste, water and travel. The Department is also working with the cement sector and other stakeholders in the context of climate action plans for 2019 and 2021 in order to increase the use of solid recovered fuels, that is, waste in the fuel sector. It is essential that our ambition to reduce non-recyclable waste and our ambition to decarbonise cement production are complementary.

While I welcome those general approaches, which are largely EU driven, the reality is that we have the lowest circularity rate in Europe at approximately 1.6%. The average is 11.8%. Only 10% of waste is recovered in the construction sector for any sort of useful approach. If we do not start to dig into the sectors and see what is wrong within them, we will fail. Timber use in construction is very low, even though timber is a carbon sink, whereas concrete is a huge source of carbon usage and emissions.

Some 25% of our food is wasted. We need to dig into individuals sectors. I ask the Minister to look to his Department to set up sectoral initiatives and convene an approach in order that each sector will start to see how it can actively decarbonise and reduce other materials or practices that are damaging to the environment.

The Deputy makes a very good suggestion. I, along with my Secretary General and officials, will certainly take it on board. We are trying to develop sectoral plans in respect of the climate action plan in order to bring down our emissions. We have responsibility to bring down emissions from industry by approximately 50% between now and 2031, especially in areas such as cement. Perhaps, it would make sense to roll the two together; what we are trying to do on climate, as well as what we are trying to do on circular economy.

The Deputy is absolutely correct in that we need to make better use of materials. We take too many materials out of the earth, we throw too much out and we do not re-use as much as we could. There are real opportunities there. Construction is one the Deputy mentions in terms of reducing waste, increasing circularity and greater use of timber. That is something we can work because responsibility has fallen to us, under Housing for All, to drive innovation in that sector. The Deputy is absolutely right. I will add it to the list of things my Department and officials need to get done.

Would the Government consider supporting an amendment to the Circular Economy, Waste Management (Amendment) and Minerals Development (Amendment) Bill 2022 to place an obligation on individual Ministers to report on progress on sectoral strategies under the circular economy heading? It is notably absent from the Bill, even though it is at the heart of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021. These two are indistinguishable. They are two sides of the same coin. We need to put a prod not just on this Minister, who might be enthusiastic about it, but on every Minister who could play a role.

I am certainly happy to consider the amendment, if the Deputy has a draft in mind and wishes to pass it on to me later. I would be happy to take a look at it, run it past my officials and to talk to the Minister for the Environment, Climate Change and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, about it. As is always the case with such an amendment, there is a desire to avoid creating additional obligations for Departments to produce more reports. I certainly feel some Government Departments are almost operating as factories now to produce plans, strategies and reports. They are spending a great deal of time on that aspect and not enough on implementation. Equally, though, if rigorous information obligations are not imposed on Departments, then nothing gets done. It is always a case of trying to get that balance right, but we are very much open to an amendment on the grounds suggested by Deputy Bruton.

Personal Injuries Assessment Board

Willie O'Dea

Ceist:

8. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment his plans for reform of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18639/22]

This question is to ask the Minister his plans for reform of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, and if he will update the House on progress to date.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to enhance and reform the role of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB. This commitment is being given effect under action 19 of the Government's action plan for insurance reform. In 2022, I intend to enhance and strengthen the agency to facilitate an increase in the number of personal injury claims PIAB resolves. On 9 February, I published the general scheme of the personal injuries resolution board Bill 2022.

The policy objective of this general scheme is to facilitate an increase in the number of personal injury claims that may be resolved through the board's process and without recourse to litigation. The scheme amends the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003 in several ways: PIAB will be given a new function to offer mediation as a means of resolving a claim; it will retain claims of a wholly psychological nature, which is a new departure; it will promote public awareness and conduct public information campaigns; and it will have additional time to assess claims where an injury has yet to settle rather than releasing it to litigation. Pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme by the joint committee commenced on 30 March 2022. I am determined to progress this legislation to enactment in 2022 and I am confident these reforms will increase the number of personal injury claims resolved through the PIAB process.

Regarding mediation, because there have been queries regarding its benefits, mediation provides an opportunity for both parties to consider if an agreement can be reached on issues that can cause claims to proceed to litigation. Mediation is recognised as an effective dispute resolution method and is already used as a preliminary option in many different settings, including in the context of the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman, FSPO, and the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. Mediation provides an opportunity for the parties to agree a mutually satisfactory resolution to personal injuries claims and avoids the potential of prolonged and expensive litigation.

The Minister of State's reply contained some interesting ideas. I have also been reading some of his reports and statements on this issue of late. He is going in the right direction. This move towards alternative dispute resolution is very welcome. It makes perfect sense. I am surprised to see that some commentators have frowned on mediation for some reason. Mediation is always very sensible and usually reduces court costs dramatically by avoiding matters going to trial and full hearings, which is a far more expensive approach. Equally, mediation can also help parties to see the other side's view outside an adversarial conflict situation, as would happen, for example, in a courtroom setting. Therefore, mediation is to be commended and welcomed.

The Minister of State also previously indicated he was looking at the possibility of PIAB being a quasi-judicial body, in the same way as the WRC, the RTB and other such bodies operate. I understand that perhaps the Minister of State received some advice that this was not possible. I ask him to re-examine this issue. There is a great opportunity here. Perhaps the Supreme Court's recent decision regarding the Zalewski v. WRC case might be of assistance in this regard. This was where the Supreme Court found that the WRC was grounded in statute and was a perfectly legitimate forum for claims. These kinds of quasi-judicial bodies can operate very well and successfully and relieve the strain on the courts while reducing costs for all. Therefore, I ask the Minister of State to keep on track with this approach because it is an interesting idea.

While there was some support for this type of approach in reforming PIAB, strong arguments against it come from the Attorney General. This is because such an approach might impinge on the constitutional right of access to justice delivered by the courts, as well as the primacy of the courts regarding the administration of justice, particularly in respect of a body of common law. Personal injury claims may be resolved by direct settlement between the parties, a PIAB assessment or litigation. Court decisions ultimately determine matters such as liability and overall damage levels. The new and reformed PIAB model preserves the constitutional right of access to the courts. There are constitutional guarantees that a citizen has a right of access to the courts and a right to litigate.

The decision of the Supreme Court in the Zalewski v. WRC case provides important context for any consideration of a possible quasi-judicial role for PIAB. While the Supreme Court found the WRC to be administering justice, it also found that this was permissible under Article 37 of the Constitution, given the limits of the subject matter applicable to cases coming before the WRC. A similar argument may not be successful regarding PIAB, given that personal injury claims involve broader legal considerations that have been determined by the courts over time, rather than the statutory employment law issues which come before the WRC.

I did suspect the Zalewski decision might be helpful. I noticed that the Minister of State said it may give rise to a challenge. Everything may give rise to a challenge, because that is the law. I again encourage the Minister of State to pursue this approach and to consider it. There is of course a constitutional right to appeal. A constitutional right of access to the courts is imperative and that is what an appeal body is for. Decisions of the WRC can be appealed to the Labour Court and those of the RTB can be appealed to the High Court on a point of law. I think the Minister of State's own plans in this regard also included provision for an appeal on a point of law. Therefore, I do not see a constitutional right of access to the courts being denied in any way in this regard. I reiterate my comments in this regard. It is certainly worth exploring this kind of approach.

On the flip side of this argument, I will add a note of caution and I spoke about this here before. Not every applicant to PIAB and not every plaintiff in a personal injury matter is a chancer or someone out to try their luck or to try to score some money from a defendant. Most of these claims are grounded upon legislation governing employment, workers rights, health and safety and the environment. We do not want to return to the dark ages of the industrial revolution when children were working in factories until they died prematurely because the conditions were so abhorrent. Most of these claims are grounded on laws we have passed in this House and in the European Parliament. This has been progressive legislation. Therefore, I appeal to the Minister of State not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I congratulate the Minister of State on the progress made on this proposed legislation. PIAB fixes cases in half the time and at one twentieth of the legal cost. Therefore, it is a worthwhile venture. A worrying trend, however, has seen the number of PIAB cases accepted fall from over 50% to 37%. This suggests people are testing the courts and their willingness to implement the quantums of damages. Can the Minister of State give us any reassurance that the courts are sticking to the quantums of damages and that we will not see this decline in the use of PIAB continue?

PIAB is actively engaged in that process and it wants to ensure that it wins its court cases and that the courts are sticking to the judicial guidelines. We will have to wait to see how this aspect turns out. Hopefully, however, it will remain the case.

Regarding Deputy Lawless's comments, I thank him for his support regarding mediation. Broadly speaking, there has been general support during pre-legislative scrutiny and even during public consultation. I share his view of PIAB as a quasi-judicial body. This has been the reason why it has taken 18 months to get to this stage. We were going backwards and forwards on this issue, and I was continually arguing with the Attorney General to try to get him to go to the next level. It was felt, however, that rather than stall the progress we are making, that we would start with this proposal and it will not prevent us from working further to enhance PIAB even more later. We want to get this legislation enacted this year because we believe it will contribute to bringing down the cost of insurance. Equally, however, I still believe there is an opportunity to go further later.

Foreign Direct Investment

Fergus O'Dowd

Ceist:

10. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he will outline Government plans to attract indigenous and foreign direct investment to Drogheda in 2022; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18658/22]

Drogheda and east Meath have experienced great population growth recently. Indeed, there has been an exponential increase in this regard. Drogheda has been designated as a regional growth centre in the national development plan, NDP, which we welcome. What plans does the Minister have to provide additional employment opportunities for people in Drogheda and east Meath? The Minister is aware that the M1 motorway is chock-a-block with traffic going from Drogheda and east Meath to Dublin every morning, from about 5.30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thousands of people want to work at home in this regional growth centre. Can the Minister please give me an update?

I thank Deputy O'Dowd for raising this question and for his ongoing advocacy for the town of Drogheda. As he is aware, it and Dundalk have been designated as growth centres on the Dublin-Belfast corridor in Project Ireland 2040. The IDA is targeting 40 investments for the mid-east region from 2021 to 2024.

Louth is already home to 35 IDA Ireland client companies directly employing more than 4,500 people in technology, life sciences, international financial services and engineering and industrial technologies. In September 2021, ITRenew, a leader in circular cloud and sustainable data centre infrastructure announced it will create 40 jobs in Drogheda, and more recently Becton, Dickinson and Company, BD, announced the creation of 100 additional jobs with a €62 million investment to expand its production at its site in Drogheda.

Over the course of IDA Ireland's current strategy, the agency will provide 19 advanced building solutions across the country, and one of them will be in Drogheda. In June 2021, IDA Ireland acquired two land banks in County Louth, one in Drogheda and one in Dundalk, and these form part of IDA Ireland's long-term strategic plan to position Louth and the wider region to compete for foreign direct investment.

Enterprise Ireland has also supported and continues to work with six projects in County Louth, funded under the regional enterprise development fund and the Border enterprise development fund to a total of €11.5 million. The Minister of State, Deputy English, recently published a regional enterprise plan for the north east that encompasses Louth, Cavan and Monaghan. New funding of up to €180 million is being provided to back up these plans.

As I mentioned, Project Ireland 2040 identifies Drogheda as having a significant regional role to play to develop the economic potential of the Dublin-Belfast corridor and in particular the core Drogheda-Dundalk-Newry network and to promote and enhance international visibility. IDA Ireland will continue to work closely with Enterprise Ireland and our indigenous base of companies to identify synergies, enhance clusters, participate in site visits and maximise benefits for the region so that we can increase employment in Drogheda and have many more people working in and around the town rather than having to commute from it.

While I welcome the engagement of IDA Ireland with the local chamber of commerce and the Tánaiste's visit to BD when that significant investment was announced, the fact is that we have had no spin-off from the Amazon data centre. Data centres are very important for attracting other industries and potential employers that need to be near their data. Could the Tánaiste expand on what further or other actions we can take locally to work with IDA Ireland to attract more industry in?

The commute is killing family life and destroying the quality of life locally. People are telling me they would welcome the designation of Drogheda as a regional growth centre, they would like to see more jobs. There is also a major structural deficit with the northern cross route on the back foot in terms of Government decision and local government interaction. There is a lot of concern locally that the Government is not doing enough to deal with the northern cross route or to attract more industry into our town.

I thank the Deputy. There are quite a lot of data centres in my constituency too. They are a very important part of the modern economy but in reality the amount of employment they produce is quite small. The number of people actually working in them is quite low. There are a lot of people working on them during construction, but not when they are actually up and running. The spin-off from them, realistically, is quite limited.

Probably the best thing we can do for Drogheda is make use of that new IDA Ireland land bank, ideally not for data centres but for some other form of industrial development that would be more labour intensive and would therefore create more job opportunities for people in the town, so that more people have the opportunity to work and live in Drogheda and not have to commute. On improving the commute, the best thing we can do is promote more remote working. That has made a big difference in people's lives in terms of more time at home and with family, and less time commuting. A project the Deputy and I are both very committed to is the extension of the DART to make commuting in and out of Dublin a more pleasant experience for those who do it.

I hear the Tánaiste. Part of the argument about data centres, and it is top priority for IDA Ireland to encourage them, is that they are supposed to be capable of attracting further ancillary employment. It is not acceptable if we attract them in but do not get the spin-off from them. Amazon is interacting very well with the local community and I laud its efforts in the community spirit it is generating. I hear what the Tánaiste is saying. Drogheda is now the largest town in Ireland, and is shortly to become a city. It is a designated growth centre. IDA Ireland is paying attention to it. My job here is to repeat and reiterate the demand locally for more employment and investment. If, in his present role, the Tánaiste can fill the 40 acres of land which IDA Ireland recently bought, I would be very happy indeed.

I hear the demands and I hear the call for increased investment in Drogheda and more good job opportunities in the town in addition to the ones that are there already. That is why IDA Ireland has secured that 40-acre site. We need to get it serviced and get it ready and promote it to potential investors. These things can have a long pipeline. IDA Ireland bought that site because it and Government believe this is a really good town to invest in as a result of the quality of people who live there but due to its location relatively close to Dublin and Dublin Airport and on the Belfast-Dublin corridor. We have seen some very big investments in Dundalk in recent years and we would like to see something of that scale on the new site in Drogheda. I am certainly working towards that. We will work with the Deputy on it as well.

Construction Industry

Steven Matthews

Ceist:

11. Deputy Steven Matthews asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the position regarding the construction technology centre; the timeline for its establishment; and the role it will play as part of the wider Housing for All strategy. [18303/22]

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is working with Enterprise Ireland to establish a construction technology centre this year to bring together research, expertise and industry to look at innovation in the built environment. The urgency of this cannot be overstated. We very much need to move towards sustainable materials and construction practices. I wish to ask the Minister the position regarding the construction technology centre, the timeline for its establishment and the role it will play as part of the wider Housing for All strategy.

I thank the Deputy for the question. I agree with him about the urgency in this area. It is something we have been working on for a number of years. I am glad it is coming to the stage that it will be up and running very soon. The question concerns the important issue of the adoption and use of new technologies in the construction sector in the context of delivering the Government's ambitions in Housing for All as well as in energy efficiency and decarbonisation of the built environment.

As the Deputy is aware, Housing for All is our plan to turn the aspiration of home ownership into a reality, to ensure everybody has access to sustainable, good quality housing, to give stability for renters and protection for people at risk of homelessness and to build on the work of Rebuilding Ireland. Addressing the high cost of residential construction, along with relatively low construction sector productivity and innovation is a key element in Housing for All and will be crucial for the plan to succeed. There are a range of actions in Housing for All which target the cost of construction and improving productivity and innovation levels in the sector to make sure we have a sustainable system over the next 20 or 30 years where we know we need to build over 300,000 homes.

The establishment of a construction technology centre is one of these key actions, and my Department is currently working on this with Enterprise Ireland. This initiative also supports Project Ireland 2040 and the work of the construction sector group's innovation and digital adoption sub-group. Work on the new construction technology centre is on schedule to be delivered at the end of this year. Enterprise Ireland's process to select a host organisation is now at an advanced stage.

Once established, the centre will serve as an innovation hub which will bring researchers and industry together to drive innovation and technology adoption. As a reflection of the crucial importance of improving the affordability of homes, the centre will have an initial focus on residential construction and innovation in housing. To further promote innovation in the residential construction sector, Enterprise Ireland is now offering a range of supports to these businesses, including innovation vouchers, digitalisation vouchers, innovation partnerships, lean business offers and others. The new construction technology centre, together with these schemes, will stimulate the development and adoption of new and innovative technologies, enabling builders to build better houses at a lower cost and higher speed and with greater energy efficiency.

Taken together, these initiatives will help make good on the ambition set out in the Housing for All plan to ensure that everybody has access to sustainable, good quality, well located housing to purchase or rent at an affordable price. They are very much in line with our climate targets as well. To give the Deputy an update, the call for proposals ended in March just gone.

I thank the Minister of State. On the timeline for establishment, at the outset of his contribution the Minister of State used the term "very soon" and midway through it he referred to the end of this year. He might be able to give me some additional, hard and fast timelines on that.

It strikes me that a suite of Government measures to do with housing hangs together on this. One is clearly Housing for All. Another is the climate Act, which is of central importance. The Circular Economy Bill 2021, which acknowledges and values the embodied carbon within all objects in our society but buildings in particular, is also important. There is also the town centres first initiative which is seeking to bring life back into our town centres.

This will require not only new construction skills but also the revitalisation of old ones and some of those lacking in the sector. We will need the full range of skills available in order to bring properties, particularly heritage and vacant properties, back into use in our town centres.

Absolutely. The Deputy has raised matters I did not have a chance to cover, but they are exactly what the construction technology centre will deal with. The overall aim of the centre is to identify the optimal consortium of research-performing organisations in the Irish ecosystem that will deliver productivity and sustainability for the Irish construction and built-environment sector through research, development and innovation, with a focus on skills and everything else the Deputy touched on.

The Deputy asked about the timeline for the proposal. Thankfully, the money has been set aside through Enterprise Ireland. A €5 million budget is set aside to drive this over the next couple of years. The call for proposals opened in February and closed on 4 March. It was open to all in the research community to lead on this and collaborate. On 7 March, eligibility checks and clarifications got under way. The evaluation was scheduled for March. By 25 March, it was hoped there would be presentations by the various consortia to the evaluation planning teams. The selection of the winning consortium was scheduled for early April. This could be slightly behind, but that was the plan. The preparation of documents for presentation to the Enterprise Ireland committees is scheduled for May and the proposal is to be approved sometime in June by the board of Enterprise Ireland. That means the centre should be well up and running by the end of the year.

I very much welcome that additional detail. Everybody in this House acknowledges the need to begin delivering housing at speed and scale but also in a manner that is sustainable. The three have to go together. The construction technology centre should be considering things like next-generation easy assembly and, in respect of housing units, research supporting modular construction. We should be considering new materials and the evaluation of their performance.

I referred to the town centre first policy to unlock town-centre units, particularly those above shops. In this regard, we need to consider technology associated with fire safety, acoustics and structure. There will be a need for new skills, but also a renaissance of old skills, as we try to unlock the vacant and derelict properties, particularly in town centres.

The Deputy covered most of the five key industry challenges set out: productivity, affordability and cost; quality and safety; collaboration within the sector; labour shortages, skills and training; and sustainability. The Deputy referred to the town centre first initiative. I totally agree with him in this regard. There was a lot of effort on the part of several Departments to achieve a commitment to putting town centres first, following on much of the advice and guidance associated with the Scottish model, but also building on initiatives that various Departments have been trying over the past couple of years. It was a matter of bringing everybody together to really focus on town centres. There is much opportunity to develop town centres sustainably for the future.

As the Deputy mentioned, there is an option to bring vacant and over-the-shop properties back into use. Several schemes have been launched to encourage this over the past couple of years. Funding under the rent-and-repair scheme has not been drawn down to the level it should have been. In my view, it has not been promoted. However, we are considering new initiatives to encourage people to do the work required through the tax system and grants but also to remove some of the complications and clarify the regulations. A guide to putting vacant properties back into use was printed by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage a couple of years ago. It is a very useful step-by-step guide for anybody with such a property. I encourage everybody to read it. We are trying to make it as easy as possible to bring the vacant properties back into use because they should be in use. In most cases, as in Tipperary and everywhere else, they are in private ownership. We are trying to unlock them in different ways.

The Deputy was more interested in Waterford than Tipperary, I would suggest.

Flexible Work Practices

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Ceist:

12. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the measures that he will introduce to secure for workers the right to work from home when possible; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18806/22]

Without robust legislation securing a legal right to work from home, workers are concerned they will be forced to return to on-site working and denied the option of remote or hybrid working. When will the Government deliver robust legislation that will secure this legal right?

The right to request remote working Bill is part of a broader Government programme to make remote working a permanent feature of Ireland's workforce in a way that can benefit all - economically, socially and environmentally. Throughout the pandemic, many employers went to great lengths to give their employees as much flexibility around where they work as possible. The world of work has changed before our eyes and we want to retain some amount of remote working once Covid is firmly behind us.

In practice, employers and employees in the workplace are agreeing to arrangements that suit both sides. In most cases, this is hybrid working, with some days in the office and some at home or elsewhere. With the right to request remote working Bill, we will, for the first time, provide a legal framework around which requesting, approving or refusing a request for remote work can be based. It will also provide legal clarity to employers on their obligations for dealing with such requests.

Pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme commenced on 9 February. Departmental officials are scheduled to attend a further meeting on 4 May. I have already indicated that I intend to strengthen the legislation and I hope some good proposals emerge from the committee during its pre-legislative scrutiny. My Department is examining further the legal issues related to strengthening the redress provisions and the right of appeal and is taking legal advice on the matter. I have requested officials to consult union and employer representatives further in this regard over the coming weeks.

It has been said time and again that remote working is one of the big takeaways of Covid. We have seen its great benefits. The necessary technology existed but the cultural shift towards using it happened during Covid. Many people want to retain this. They do not want to have to commute, which can mean spending three hours per day in a car. Remote working gave workers more time at home with children. It improved the lives of workers, which in itself improved productivity. It is a win–win for all.

The draft Bill, as it stands, is not fit for purpose. It was not written with workers in mind; it was written for employers. In criminal law, reference is made to presumptions. A presumption can be rebutted but the presumption in this case seems to lie with the employer rather than the employee. The legislation grants a right of refusal to employers. To dress this legislation up as affording a right to workers while at the same time including multiple clauses to ensure they can never access the right is wrong. I understand that amendments have been proposed. Will the Tánaiste amend the Bill to guarantee a right to work remotely? Can he elaborate on the amendments he will be submitting?

The legislation is just in draft form, as the Deputy knows. There are heads of Bill. The general scheme is currently with the committee. It is carried out hearings involving the relevant stakeholders and its members will meet my officials again on 4 May. I will make a decision once I get the report back from the committee on what it recommends by way of improvements or changes.

I am a big supporter of remote working; I am an advocate for it. It should be encouraged so long as the services provided to the public are not diminished and business performance is not adversely affected. We need to be practical also, however. Working from home cannot be an absolute right and some work cannot be done remotely. While other work can be done remotely, it cannot be done as well remotely. We need to bear in mind that the public is entitled to high-quality services. If you run a business, it is reasonable to say you want an employee to come into the office for one or two days per week. We have to get the balance right between promoting remote working and not going so far as to diminish the quality of services provided to the public or undermine business performance. That is what we are trying to balance at the moment.

I entirely accept that there is a need for a balance and that there are jobs that cannot be done from home. Nobody is suggesting an absolute right. Again, I return to the point that inasmuch as there is a presumption, it seems to lie more strongly with the employer than the employee. It is important that workers be well protected in this regard. While the Bill is at heads stage, there is a bit of detail.

We will be waiting for a while for the Bill to be passed. In the interim, workers are being recalled to work on-site, in several instances against their wishes. We have a cost-of-living crisis and a fuel crisis, which is enormous for commuters, yet we are forcing workers to drive to their workplaces, incurring huge costs. If work duties can be performed from home and a worker wishes to work from home, that should be supported. Will the Government, in the absence of the legislation, encourage working from home by way of advice so workers can do so? This is incredibly important in any event, particularly given the cost-of-living and fuel crises.

Currently, there is no legal right to request remote working. Somebody can request it, of course, but there is no legal mechanism by which it can be done. That is what the legislation tries to achieve. I am open to strengthening it. There are already some guidelines on remote working. I believe they were published a year or so ago. The new public sector policy on remote working was agreed just in the past week or so and published by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath. It sets out the policy, at least for public sector workers.

In reality, what I have heard is happening at workplace level in the vast majority of instances is that employers and employees are doing this for themselves and are coming up with very practical arrangements, mostly involving hybrid working and a requirement for, perhaps, everyone to be in the office on one particular day of the week, but a lot of flexibility around that.

We need to legislate for those instances where employers are being unreasonable and are not facilitating remote working where that could be done, and done well. That is what we are trying to get right. I genuinely look forward to the report from the committee when it is available to see what advice it has for us.

Low Pay Commission

Thomas Gould

Ceist:

13. Deputy Thomas Gould asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the status of the implementation of a living wage. [18771/22]

Can the Minister update us on the status of the implementation of a living wage? When will the Low Pay Commission report? Will the Minister commit to implementing all of the recommendations? In its considerations, is the commission considering the rising cost of living?

I thank Deputy Gould for raising this issue. It is quite timely, as it turns out. In 2021, the Low Pay Commission was asked by Tánaiste to examine and make recommendations on the best approach to achieving the commitment in the programme for Government to progress to a living wage over the lifetime of the Government. The Low Pay Commission asked researchers at Maynooth University to undertake a background research report on the concept of a living wage. Last week, the commission's report and recommendations were received. Along with officials, the Tánaiste and I will now review the commission's report and recommendations. We are considering the next steps required in the progression to a living wage, such as the publication of the commission's report, an accompanying research report and the consultation on the implementation of the commission's recommendations.

While the living wage initiative is being considered, the Government will continue to be guided by the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission with regard to any future changes in the minimum wage. The Low Pay Commission is required to submit its annual recommendations on the national minimum wage to me or the Tánaiste before the third Tuesday in July this year. We are committed to progressing to a living wage over the lifetime of this Government. In doing so, we need to recognise that many businesses have been affected by the pandemic and are also facing rising costs. We need to make sure that we proceed in a way that does not adversely affect inflation or cause jobs to be lost, either in terms of the number of people employed or the number of hours worked. We are very much committed to this, as the Deputy knows.

We are also committed to a general improvement in the terms and conditions for employees throughout the country. We recognise that there is a big demand for talent and we now have an opportunity to make our labour market more attractive to secure that talent and develop skills.

While it is appreciated that the Low Pay Commission is considering this, it was asked to do so on 15 April 2021, some 357 days, or a week short of a year, ago. People working in shops, hospitals, supermarkets, the public and private sector on below the living wage are waiting on the report. We need to deliver a living wage for people. The crisis caused by the rising cost of living is affecting people. A living wage needs to be delivered on. There is a dire need for urgency on this matter. The Government keeps pointing out that it cannot solve the cost of living crisis, but what is it doing to prioritise the living wage? Ensuring workers are paid a living wage is something that should be done, and could be done. Last week, Mandate called for all retail staff to be paid a living wage from entry. Does the Government support this call?

We have received the report of the commission. It would be wise for us to read it, go through it in detail and see what is in it before we start making comments.

It is a year later.

It has been a year. People have been waiting for a year.

To be clear, the work is on our desk and we can complete it. There is a commitment in the programme for Government to implement it over the lifetime of the Government. I am not sure what the Deputy's party manifesto said a couple of years ago. I do not recall seeing a commitment to a living wage overnight in it, to be honest.

The approach we are taking is measured and brings together all stakeholders, with proper consultation, to determine how we can get the balance on this right. We are very much committed to it. In the meantime, there have been a number of initiatives to help with the rising cost of living affecting people. We adopted the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission on the minimum wage last summer, and they were implemented in January, with an increase of 30 cent. A range of initiatives have been announced by Government over the past couple of months, in addition to the work done in the budget, to recognise additional pressures on people and families. More commitments will be announced in the next week or two.

We recognise that there are pressures now in terms of inflation and we will deal with them. The permanent change to the living wage will involve more long-term structural changes that will have positive and negative impacts on employment, and we have to introduce them in an organised way over the next couple of years. That is what we are committed to doing. In terms of the details, the Deputy can understand that it is a positive is development, but it is important that we read the report first.

I do not recognise it as a positive, because people are struggling right now. The Minister of State said he is taking a measured approach, but a 30 cent increase in the minimum wage was recommended by the Low Pay Commission. I am not sure if the Minister of State has any grasp on the reality of how bad the cost of living crisis is. There are increases virtually every week in the cost of electricity, fuel and food. Everything is going up in price. A month ago the Minister, Deputy McGrath, agreed to reflect on the proposals of trade unions for an inflation response in public sector pay. Has the Minister of State or the Tánaiste met the Minister to discuss the actions they think should result from these reflection? I am not sure public servants who are struggling to heat their homes and pay their bills want debate and reflection. They want action.

I spoke on radio earlier today about the housing crisis. There is not one property in Cork city or county available within the HAP threshold. We are talking about a living wage. People cannot afford to rent properties and cannot pay their bills. They are waiting on the Government to take action, but it is not delivering.

I want to assure the Deputy and the House that I live in the real world, and it is the same world the Deputy lives in. He has to give up on the line he uses constantly. As Deputies, we are all engaged with people just the same as Deputy Gould is. We know exactly what is going on. The difference is that we are prepared to make decisions to help and not just keep talking. We are prepared to go into government to make changes to help in the short and long term. The Deputy's party chose, for whatever reason, not to do that. That is his business. The people who live in the real world-----

The Minister of State should not make comments that are not true. The Minister of State just made a statement that is not true.

The point I am making is that people who live in the real world, like us on this side of the House, act and make decisions and improvements. The minimum wage, for example, has increased from €8.65 in 2016 by more than 20% to €10.50 this year because we made changes, and we will continue to build on that. That is based on proper, evidence-based research involving all sectors in order to get an agreement by everybody.

Inflation alone will be 8% this year.

It works extremely well and we will continue to make interventions.

That is a Central Bank figure.

The Deputy obviously does not like people pointing out the reality that the real world wants actions, decisions and improvements, and for people to go into government and make decisions. That is what we are doing with the Low Pay Commission on a regular basis. We have taken every recommendation it has made over the past number years on board. The programme for Government contains a commitment to move to a living wage over the term of the Government. That is what we are doing. All of the work behind that has been done. The evidence has been gathered and decisions can now be made over the next few weeks and months.

I also have a question on this issue that will likely not be reached. The report is on the desk of the Minister of State and I hope it can be expedited as soon as possible. A refrain I have too often heard from the Government side of the House is that work is the best way to get out of poverty. In many instances that can be true, but for it to be true across the board work has to pay adequately, pay the bills and make more sense than other decisions. If we are not going to have a living wage while fuel, rent and childcare goes beyond people's ability to pay, then it will not be true that work is the solution to people's poverty. That is a reality. A family that is renting and trying to pay for childcare will have two-thirds of their income gone out the door before they can do anything else. That is the reality that people are living with at the minute.

The Tánaiste has made it clear that over the past 18 months we in the Department have been very committed to improving the terms and conditions of all workers in this country, and have backed that up with legislation and changes. I understand that in most cases Sinn Féin supports that, and rightly so. We are leading with action. Likewise, the report of the Low Pay Commission on a living wage is on our desks and we can act on it in the weeks and months ahead.

To be very clear, work should always pay and we are very much committed to developing the standard and conditions of work, the employment legislation behind that and the ability to upskill and be able to guarantee jobs in the future. There has been a lot of investment through the education system, including Pathways to Work, our Department and the business community to develop and create long-term sustainable jobs that pay well.

Reference was made to the retail sector. Many in that sector are already paying above an estimated living wage, which is a positive development. Others are not doing so and we will continue to work with them on that. It is a major sector for employment that we are happy to work with and develop as it offers opportunities for sustainable careers.

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