I thank Senators for their contributions. I thank everyone for their involvement in and support for the SME community and the agricultural and food-producing community. We are all aware of all the jobs both those sectors create and want them to get back to employing and also to growing their businesses as well. I will go through some of the comments. Earlier, I reflected on how urgent this Bill was and I thank both Houses for their co-operation in not availing of pre-legislative scrutiny and dealing with it directly as well as fast-tracking it through both Houses.
Senator Ahearn mentioned the importance of this to food producers in County Tipperary and elsewhere. This is essential to them. I want to be clear that regardless of what size a company is, we have one category for companies with up to 499 employees and it can be availed of no matter what size the farm is. A question was asked about farming activities and dairy farming. The answer is "Yes". Applicants need only show they have a link to either importing from or exporting to the UK for 15% of their business. That covers nearly every farmer I can think of who would need access to finance, so they can access that as well.
More importantly, I think everybody, led by Senator Ahearn, mentioned the importance of the retail sector fully reopening today. I know it has caused traffic problems for many of us but I remember saying back in 2009 or 2010 that I would never complain about traffic again after that financial crisis. It is the same this time round. While it was great to be able to get in to or out of Dublin from County Meath in less than an hour, I will not complain that it took much longer than that today because it means there is economic activity, which leads to jobs. Of course, we all want to make that better through public transport and everything else, but more importantly, it is for now a sign of activity we are glad to have because we know the pressures many sectors have through over the past 12 months. Especially in the last four or five months, the retail sector took a really hard wallop and of the 300,000 people employed in the sector, more than 70,000 have been on the PUP for most of the past year, and that is not a nice place to be. They want to be back at work, are eager to return, and today many of them are back.
Of course there will be difficulties in that sector and we must continue to work with it in the year or two ahead, as we try to recover. The national economic recovery plan, which the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Cabinet will produce towards the end of the month, will detail the range of supports which will continue, along with today's proposal, to assist businesses of all sizes. It will certainly recognise that retail took a major hit and I thank the sector for its efforts. By closing their doors, retailers have no doubt stopped the spread of the virus in many cases and saved many lives. Likewise, those who were able to open went to great efforts, through the protocol, to protect their staff and customers and we must recognise that. In addition to everyone's appreciation of them today, I ask customers to respect the rules of engagement and the protocols that are there. Retailers have gone to great effort to put them in place. If everybody plays their part, we can stop the spread of the virus, but more importantly, we can get the rest of the businesses that are still closed opened up. Many of them are in leisure, hospitality, play centres and activity centres and so on. There are still many which are not open, but if we can keep the virus under control, they too can reopen.
Senator Crowe asked about the food and drink markets. He is right that we will see the impact with the UK. While things do get more complicated towards October, as Senator Wall mentioned, as things ease up and we get to deal with the Northern Ireland protocol and other parts of this, it may change. Brexit is still in its early days and we should be able to ease some of that and get back to some additional trading and regrowing that. It is true that putting Brexit in place puts barriers on trade. It makes it more complicated and has made it very difficult for the say, 20% of companies importing here. The majority of cases have now found their way through with all the procedures and Departments but there is still a certain percentage in difficulty and it is complicated, so we will work with that as well and, over time, we will build back some of those markets.
More importantly, since 2016, the Department and the Government have been trying to link with all the various businesses to get them to go further than the UK, to access new markets and grow new markets. That has happened, through supports from Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, our local enterprise offices, LEOs, InterTradeIreland and all the various enterprise agencies working on behalf of Departments and the Government. They have been there to assist businesses. Many businesses are only now coming forward looking for extra assistance. That is what we are there for and that is what we will respond to, and it is part of what today's Bill is about as well because there are opportunities out there.
There are a lot of opportunities for Irish enterprises to win market share abroad and those opportunities have been referenced often today. Senator Conway mentioned the loss of business to online competitors in the retail sector. There is a massive opportunity for the retail sector to win back some of that business. Some 70% of retail trade goes away from Irish shores through online sales but we can win that back. That is why we have announced a range of schemes. I am glad that over 13,000 companies last year availed of the online trading voucher to take their business online and win back some of that market share.
I launched a new scheme with Enterprise Ireland last week, another offering to help companies strengthen their online presence. It is important for us to support our bricks and mortar industries and give those businesses every chance to succeed through the town centre first proposals in the programme for Government. We will row in behind that and make it easier and better to create a stronger shopping experience in all our counties. At the same time, there are opportunities for transacting business online. We need to support online and offline business and win in both spheres. That is why I have great hope for the future of retail. There is a lot of opportunity to build and to draw down the supports available in the relevant funds. Apart from winning back the online business, there is a constantly growing online business. We want to support our Irish retail sector to trade abroad and win some other customers from different countries.
People talk about the next 20 years and we know that, over that time, an extra 1 million people will be living here. Our population is still growing quite fast. If our retail sector can survive this year, it will have a prosperous future in the years ahead. It will provide massive employment opportunities. I want to say, on the record, that it is a sector I believe we have a lot to offer in respect of training and recognition of skills. There are an awful lot of people who have been involved in the sector for 20 or 30 years, or more, but do not have a certificate or proof of education to accompany all those years of experience. That is something on which we want to work in order to recognise existing skills and, more importantly, develop and enhance the skills that are needed to handle the retail conditions of the present and the future. There is a lot of opportunity and we can do that in the years ahead.
Aside from asking about food and drink products, Senator Crowe also asked about the involvement of credit unions in the scheme and whether there is a quota for lending. There is a quota for those lenders that are not the main banks, recognising their capacity to lend. We can increase that quota if there is demand for it. I am glad that the credit unions have applied to use the most recent scheme. I have no doubt that they will also apply for this scheme. There has been positive feedback from businesses that are engaging with the credit unions. As everyone in this House will know, I have believed for a long number of years that credit unions need to be more involved in our lending to, and support of, business, as well as supporting communities as credit unions do. At the moment, many credit unions are under pressure and are losing money by having savings. We need to give them more opportunities to use their money wisely because they pay back into communities. They also have a great understanding of local businesses, concerns and issues. Credit unions enhance the situation when it comes to providing finance to SMEs as well as the opportunity for their own members to make money, rather than lose money, on the savings that are in place. The rules around that need to change to allow credit unions invest in more areas. They have changed in the past but there is room for further change when this House is ready to debate the matter.
Senator Wall asked about the review of the scheme. To be clear, section 3 refers to a review of the legislation, after its enactment, and the permission it gives the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Varadkar in this case, to be able to borrow the money, along with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The schemes are constantly reviewed. There is, on one hand, the Act, the permission to borrow the money and the setting aside of money for the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland. On the other hand, there are the schemes, which are constantly evolving. We will constantly monitor the schemes. This scheme is a reaction to what we know the market needs. It is replacing the two previous schemes which have not performed very well. Fewer than 280 loans were drawn down under the previous Brexit loan scheme. The working capital scheme has not performed much better. This scheme recognises those shortcomings, reviews them, adjusts and puts a new scheme in place. We have done that and will continue to do so. We will track, review and monitor the scheme. That is done by the SME community but we will also do it, along with the various Departments and agencies involved.
Senator Garvey had similar issues to Senator Crowe around credit unions. Everybody is talking about the need to support local businesses, jobs and communities. Senator Conway used a nice analogy with a GAA club. I remind everybody who gets a knock on the door from someone asking for sponsorship for the local shop to give the local shop some business because not everyone is doing that. There have been many campaigns over the past year, through our Departments, encouraging people to look local and shop local. I again ask people to do that. All of the Senators have said we should look local and support local. That is what we are trying to encourage to try to create jobs because we want a job-led recovery.
A question was asked about whether there is a maximum level of interest that can be charged. The maximum is 3.75%. We expect the majority to come in under that. Senator Ahearn asked if 95% of the loans will come in at less than 3% interest and the figure is, roughly, 94%. He was only a percentage point out. That applies to 94% of all the loans under all the schemes. Senators should bear in mind that 4,500 people have drawn down funds under the credit review scheme, which was the recent initiative we discussed. Some 6,500 people have been approved for access to that scheme. Less than €400 million is tied up in that scheme while €2 billion had been set aside for it, and more, if needed.
We want to encourage more companies to come forward and avail of these schemes when they are in place. This scheme will run until 2022 and the credit guarantee we discussed last year will finish at the end of this year.
Access to finance, as Senator Paddy Burke said, is key. These credit guarantees enable a company to access to money. I encourage companies to look at their financial positions, not just in the context of today and tomorrow but also with regard to their needs for the remainder of this year and into next. They should avail of these schemes to put in place funding that they might need to draw down. There is no point in doing so when it is too late and one is waiting for cash the next day. There is a process to go through.
Senator Carrigy is right that it is not straightforward or easy trying to draw down money when the amounts involved range from €25,000 to €1.5 million. We are trying to get banks and credit unions to cut out some of the red tape to make it as easy as they possibly can. We have to review that constantly. Some of the schemes were not working so we scaled them back and put more money into the ones that were working. We believe this scheme will work as well.
A credit guarantee of this sort should enable a bank to look at a loan a little bit differently. We would expect that and that is part of the open call. In the credit guarantee, the bank is only exposed for 20%. The State, through the SBCI, is exposed for 24% and the EU for 56%. It is attractive to banks to look at their credit policies and try to make credit available. With the credit guarantee, as we are de-risking it, they can charge a lot less which goes back to Senator Ahearn's point about percentage costs. The majority of these loan are under 3%. We want to continue to do that but it does not work for us if the banks are not engaging. We want those businesses which can prove they can survive with the right access to funding. That is what we will be pushing out through all our lending institutions.
The statistics show a decline rate of 15%. We all know that not all people fill in forms properly. They might start with a phone call but get negative feedback and then pull back. Everyone interested in applying should process their applications and put them in the system. There are appeals mechanisms with the Credit Review Office. If a business is viable and one has been refused a loan for a wrong reason, the Credit Review Office will pick up on that and deal with it. Some adverse decisions on worthwhile applications have been overturned for various reasons. People should always process their loan and not just settle with a phone call. If there is a particular trend in an area, I would be happy to engage with the Senator on it. We expect these products to be used. We set aside €2 billion for the previous scheme and €330 million for this. We would like to see them drawn down. As we are part of the EU framework, it will be worth our while ensuring that everyone uses these schemes. We want them used.
Senator Gavan also referred to the drawdown. It is important to make businesses aware of the scheme. We will certainly advertise it. Having these debates helps. Not every business knows about these opportunities. I accept not every business wants to draw down money. If one was not trading until today, the last thing one wants to do is borrow money. Sometimes, however, it is the wisest thing to do. It can be cheap money. It is important to look at a financial situation, get advice, talk to the local enterprise office, bank, credit union and other financial institutions and avail of products. There is some refinancing allowed under this scheme of up to 30% of an existing loan that is not property-related or 100% if it was a previous Brexit loan. It is worth looking at the schemes and work through it. The schemes are there to help. It is not a four-year review of the legislation not the scheme.
There was talk about good quality jobs and the phrase "build back better" was used. People have this impression that nothing changed after the last recession. They are wrong on that. Before the last recession, there was a dependence on the construction sector to the point where it accounted for 28% of GDP. Such a situation was not sustainable for any country and certainly not when it was built on credit. When it fell apart for different reasons, it had a major impact on jobs and across the economy. When we dealt with that, along with the Action Plan for Jobs sponsored by the then Minister, Deputy Bruton, and a whole-of-government approach under Enda Kenny, there was much investment in many sectors to create jobs not dependent on construction or credit. Enterprise and trading all over the world is what we do best as a country, not just selling houses to each other.
I accept that construction is extremely important. We all know about the shortage of housing and that it took far too long to bring it back to what it should have been. That was because of access to money. Nobody had money, either the State, the builders or anybody. Nobody was building houses. Thankfully, at the first opportunity we could get, finance was drawn down in 2015 and 2016 and we started a housebuilding programme that is now paying off. I accept it is still not enough to catch up. It is important we continue to invest in housing, both publicly and privately. One wants to see a spend of €10 billion a year on housing. We are not there yet but we will be if we access everyone's money to do it correctly under the right conditions.
Again, the construction sector should be at only 10% or 11% of our economy, not 26% or 27%. We have a much better economy than we had previously. Likewise this time, we will rebuild after Covid. There are so many opportunities we can develop. Senator Garvey touched on the access to money for climate adaptation and climate change. The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Varadkar, launched products in that space two weeks ago. A large part of the recovery will be around dealing with climate change, investment in energy efficiency and the green agenda sponsored by Government and backed by Europe, and the digitalisation agenda. There are many business opportunities for which companies are not ready because they are not trading online. Many are not fully ready to handle e-commerce and so on. We need to invest in the technology and skills required in that regard. We need also to ensure we give the access to the right people at the right time. Businesses need to have the confidence to invest in a digital strategy. Many companies, having been burned in the past, are a little nervous to invest in the digitalisation of their business, but it is essential if they are to be competitive and trade into the future.
We have all dealt with people in business and we all understand the concept of drawing down a mortgage to expand the shop floor to bring more customers in the door, but not everyone gets the importance of drawing down money to invest in the online, which is all around us. The payback from investment in an online presence in terms of thousands of new customers without any new infrastructure needs to be understood by everybody and encouraged. People need to be brought through that process. The role of Government and the State is to work with the private sector to bring people on the journey through that system. That is where the opportunities lie.
The Tánaiste has also announced initiatives around sick pay, the minimum wage, a living wage, the terms and conditions of work, including the right to work remotely, and so on. A lot is being done to strengthen the conditions of employment. We want to support business and to support a jobs-led recovery. A large part of that work is high-quality jobs with good conditions for everybody, which is an area in which this country has seen massive improvements over the past 20 or 30 years. We will continue to build on that progress. Some of the recent announcements, often debated in this House, reflect that as well. We are on the right track in this regard. There is good movement.
The plan is to grow the country, not just the east coast. Project Ireland 2040: National Planning Framework, which was published and debated in this House in 2018, sets out the plan to move future development away from the east coast to concentrate on regional development. An analysis of the regional enterprise plans over the past ten years shows regional growth and job creation. I chair four or five of the regional committees and I am aware of the opportunities in the regional plans to develop and invest more in jobs. We will draw down the funding available under the 2040 plan to invest in those actions, but action is required from the bottom up too. I welcome that the local authorities, the education system, the local enterprise offices, LEOs, and chambers of commerce are coming together through those regional plans to bring forward ideas.
The Government, like the two previous Governments, is committed to regional balance and regional growth. In light of Covid, the people have moved ahead of us. A couple of years ago the question under previous plans would have been around how to get people to live in Galway, Sligo, Leitrim, Mayo, Limerick or Cork and what investment over time would be required in terms of infrastructure in those counties. That is happening now. As people can work remotely, they have gone ahead of us and we now have to catch up and provide the services as soon as possible, be they housing, community and banking infrastructure and facilities to grow businesses. A lot has to happen in terms of technologies and broadband. All of that is in play, but we need to monitor and focus on this area continually to ensure we are targeting investment.
There has been much talk about the public finances. There is at least €10 billion available to Government every year for the next ten years, and well beyond, to invest in capital projects in this country. That is how we secure the future of the country. That investment, coupled with businesses being able to access money and credit and being able to trade under normal conditions, will ensure this country can survive and thrive well into the future. We have really good potential. Products such as this loan guarantee scheme were not in place when we came out of the last recession. It took until 2012-2013 to get them in place, when the need for them was almost gone. We needed them from 2008 to 2012 to be able to respond quickly. This time around, they are in place, and over the past year, businesses have been able to avail of all of these facilities and a lot more to be able to drive on and stay afloat. It is to be hoped from this week on they can continue as normal.
I apologise for going over time. I have only two or three more points to make. Everybody here has recognised the support of the LEOs and the great work being done, be that in Longford or elsewhere. The LEOs did stand up. They processed more than 13,000 applications last year for online trading vouchers and they helped many more business with access to schemes and supports.
The local authorities helped us to implement the restart grants on two or three occasions, and are responsible for the small business assistance scheme, SBAS. The Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, is being done by the Revenue. We always compliment the public health response and public health teams but other State agencies and Departments such as the Department of Social Protection quickly made sure people were not left without money. There will always be the odd hard case but that is where we all came in. Our job is to get involved and get those matters sorted out. The majority quickly had access to finance.
Likewise, the enterprise agencies, Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland and InterTradeIreland, and the local enterprise offices all provided access to funding and advice, guidance and support. We know that is not enough for every business to survive, nor does it replace all the lost turnover, sales or jobs. It is assistance to help businesses get through this and get back on their feet. We are in phase 2, which is the recovery as we come out of the pandemic. It is important that Members from all parties fully support the need to work with businesses over the next 18 or 24 months to drive a full jobs-led recovery.
I was asked about the number of applications for the credit guarantee. The number of successful applicants that have drawn down money is 4,450 and more than 6,500 businesses applied for the scheme. The previous Brexit scheme had fewer than 300 successful applicants. We expect demand for this €330 million scheme to be much higher. With the permission of the House today, funding can go beyond that figure if need be.
Senator Paddy Burke asked about the costs behind the €29 million. It is a combination of the cost of the SBCI to run the programme, which is reasonable, and the moneys which, according to the risk analysis, potentially may not be paid back and for which the guarantee could be needed. If the guarantee does not kick in and the money is not needed and if everyone repays on time and in line with conditions, money will flow back to the State. As such, €29 million is our maximum exposure under this scheme. We expect some of that to flow back to the State, as has happened with other schemes. The majority of companies are in a good position to pay back the loans but the credit guarantee gives the banks the confidence to dish them out.
The risk to the SBCI, on behalf of the State, stands at 24%. The EU assumes 56% of the risk and the banks assume the remaining 20%. It is a well-balanced scheme, similar to other schemes.
Senator Burke stated that access to finance is the key. We often argue about the price of money but the difficulty with money is getting one's hands on it. The cheaper it is the better but being able to draw down funding is more important. This scheme does both in providing access to funding at a reduced price.
Senator Kyne asked whether this will be the last reopening. The vaccination plan is working and we can all see the benefits of it. Success is measured both in growing numbers of people getting the vaccine every week and the protection the vaccine offers those who get it. We said we hoped that by mid-May over 95% of those who are vulnerable to Covid would have received two doses of the vaccine. We are probably a week or two behind on that but that is about the height of it. That box will be ticked by the end of May. There are always a few who need to be reached and the system is catching up with them. The majority, over 95% of vulnerable people, have the protection offered by two doses of the vaccine.
The other aim was to vaccinate 80% of adults by the end of June. We will reach and exceed that target. We are in a strong position. Supply is coming in and everybody knows somebody who has got the vaccine. That is always a good sign that something is working because that was not the case a month ago. We were all getting telephone calls, emails and everything else about this matter. This has given businesses the confidence to drive the economy and recovery and it has given me the confidence to be able to say that we are coming out of the last lockdown and we are in a strong position to ensure businesses are kept open. I accept the approach has been cautious for the past two months. That has put added pressure on the retail and hospitality sectors and many other sectors but it will be proven right in the long run because it will mean we can stay open in a safe way.
Senator Murphy asked if applicants must employ a minimum number of people. If a business has one employee, it can apply to the scheme and it is available to businesses with up to 499 employees. It is not available for large companies with more than 499 employees. People appreciate that such businesses can probably manage.
I thank Members for their support. When the Cabinet approved this legislation it gave approval for a priority debate, scrutiny and progression through the Houses. I thank Members for their efforts in support of that. It also sought agreement for early signing of the Bill by the President. We will probably discuss that issue on Committee and Report Stages. If all goes well and we pass the Bill next week, the scheme should be up and running by mid-June or the end of June at the latest.