Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Monday, 17 May 2021

Vol. 276 No. 3

Loan Guarantee Schemes Agreements (Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland) Bill 2021: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

It is good to be here again. This is a positive Bill. I welcome the support for the Bill of most contributors on First Stage. With the co-operation of both Houses and the assistance of our teams here, we can deal with this legislation quickly. I thank Members for their support and assistance on that. It is an important Bill for supporting our SME and agricultural communities and our food producers. We also do very important work here in scrutinising the legislation. It is not ideal, therefore, when we ask our colleagues to fast-track stuff. I recognise that and I thank the House for co-operating.

I welcome the opportunity to present the Bill to the House. This short and technical Bill will enable the Ministers for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Agriculture, Food and the Marine to enter into agreements with the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland to facilitate access to finance for qualifying enterprises.

The new Brexit impact loan scheme is part of the Government’s response to Brexit and enactment of this Bill will allow us to launch the scheme in the coming weeks. The Brexit impact loan scheme will be an important support for Irish businesses throughout the country that are facing challenges arising from Brexit while also dealing with the impacts of Covid-19, something we discuss a lot in these Houses. I am conscious that Members are familiar with the situation. It will be available to SMEs, including those in the primary agriculture and the seafood sectors. That is different to the previous Brexit scheme that did not include those sectors so it is important that they are included this time.

To bring this loan scheme to the Irish market as soon as possible, it is imperative that the Ministers are granted the necessary powers to enter into the agreement with the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland in the coming weeks, which includes providing the necessary Exchequer funding. The Bill is about giving us permission to do so.

The scheme is an important component of the Government’s Brexit mitigation measures for businesses as it will provide them the opportunity to borrow for periods of up to six years for liquidity, working capital and investment purposes. The previous loan was for three years. We know from feedback, engagement with the sector and representative bodies and feedback from Members that there is strong demand for a longer six-year product, which is what the Bill will cater for.

The Brexit impact loan scheme has been developed to support those businesses experiencing liquidity issues as well as those wishing to invest and diversify their business by ensuring they have appropriate and affordable financing available to them. This support will provide vulnerable but viable businesses the opportunity to access finance and help them to survive through this period of turbulence, which, of course, will help to maintain jobs. As we speak about businesses, producers and farmers, we recognise that behind them are the jobs we want to create and save. When the Government and colleagues refer to a jobs-led recovery this is what we want. If we are to have a jobs-led recovery we have to support business and stand beside and behind businesses to make sure they have access to variable supports, grants and wage subsidies. We must also recognise that many businesses will have borrowing requirements. We will make this possible through these loan guarantees. A loan guarantee such as that in the Bill will make it easier to access finance and, more important, it will reduce the cost of the finance.

Lending through the scheme will also fuel future economic growth in our important indigenous sectors by helping them to remain competitive. We know the opportunities are out there and we have seen during Covid a number of companies increase their sales, turnover, production and number of employees. Approximately one third stood still and another third is under serious pressure because of Covid. Thankfully, we have seen thousands of businesses reopen in recent weeks, which will certainly assist them. Many will have a difficult period ahead as they try to trade their way through Covid and Brexit. This is what we are trying to deal with.

To unlock the European guarantee fund counter-guarantee, which will be used to leverage funding of up to €330 million for the Brexit impact loan scheme, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine will collectively contribute €29 million in taxpayer funding. Given the particular exposure of the food and agriculture sectors to Brexit, the scheme will be 40% funded by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It is planned that the existing Brexit loan scheme and the Covid-19 working capital scheme will be closed in parallel with the launch of the Brexit impact loan scheme, and the Exchequer funding previously allocated to the Votes of the Departments for the Brexit loan scheme and Covid-19 working capital scheme will be utilised to cover the €29 million cost to the Exchequer of the Brexit impact loan scheme.

The Bill presented today also provides for the potential for further such agreements in the future if needed. The question has been asked as to whether €330 million is enough to cover demand. We believe we are in the right space with this figure but the Bill allows the lending to be increased if needs be. The Attorney General has advised that primary legislation is needed to provide the necessary powers to both Ministers to enter into such an agreement. This is why we are here today.

I will now go through the Heads of the Bill. Section 1 defines the "relevant Minister" as the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment or the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, as the Ministers entering into the agreement with the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland for the Brexit impact loan scheme.

Section 2 provides the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine with the power to enter into agreements with the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, with the consent of the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. This includes providing the necessary financial contribution from the Irish Exchequer and limiting this to an aggregate total of €50 million should the Ministers wish to implement additional schemes concurrently. It also includes the discharge of any additional fees and expenses. Definitions for "qualifying enterprise", "SME" and "small mid-cap" are also referenced here.

Section 3 provides for a review of the operation of the Act after four years following its passing. Section 4 provides that expenses incurred in the administration of the Act be paid out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas. Section 5 provides for the Short Title and commencement provision.

This short Bill is important as it will allow the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to enter into an agreement with the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland to implement the Brexit impact loan scheme. It is a critical component of the Government’s response to Brexit and the scheme has been developed in the context of the compounded financial challenges that Brexit impacted businesses face due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Relative to the existing Brexit loan scheme, the new scheme will provide for longer loan terms, eligibility to primary producers, a wider range of loan purposes, including for investment as well as working capital, and for some level of refinancing. Refinancing will be important for some businesses that drew down these products when the scheme opened up in 2018 but due to Covid and other reasons did not get a chance to fully utilise or fully repay the loan. Given that the arrangement under the Brexit deal did not kick in until 1 January this year, many businesses probably put their preparations on ice for a period and are only now kicking in. Companies now know what their financial and other requirements are to be able to trade through Brexit. This product is a timely response to that market as well.

If we want to ensure that businesses throughout the country succeed and prosper in the face of fundamental challenges like Brexit, it is essential that we take the necessary steps to ensure appropriate financial supports such as this scheme are in place for businesses.

When we debated the Credit Guarantee (Amendment) Bill 2020, much of the conversation focused on what lenders would be involved in the scheme and who could avail of it. Similar to that legislation, this is an open call. In addition to the main banks, which were the original players with regard to the credit guarantee we discussed last year, the credit unions and other lending institutions have come forward. Similar to this legislation, we expect all those providers of finance to apply to the open call to provide this service.

The interest rates on most of the products available last year that we assess have ranged between 2% and 3%. For the majority of drawdowns, they are 2.99%, which is a reduction of between 2% and 4% on all the other products that were available prior to the credit guarantee. Interest rates were a major issue for Senators when we discussed the credit guarantee for Covid.

I thank the Minister of State. I remind all Senators that, as per the Order of the House today, all contributions are five minutes and there is no distinction between spokespersons and other Members.

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. It is an apt day for him to be in the Chamber as it is an incredibly positive day for businesses right across the country. I extend good wishes to all the businesses reopening in Tipperary today. It has been an incredibly tough five months for them. I know from speaking to numerous business owners in Clonmel and Cahir over the weekend that the excitement about being able to get back to work is something else. While they appreciate all the supports they have had in the recent months, there is nothing like making one's own money and having one's own business. Most people who have a business treat it like a child or a family member in the way they run it. I wish them all well.

I welcome the establishment of this new Brexit impact loan scheme, which will have a lending capacity of up to €330 million. As the Minister of State said, the amount can be increased if necessary. The scheme is to be launched in parallel with the closure of the existing Brexit loan scheme and the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland working capital scheme. It is also very important that the Covid-19 credit guarantee scheme will remain in place until the end of 2021 to provide appropriate access to finance options for businesses for which Covid-19 is the primary disrupter. However, these two schemes provide a number of enhancements for Brexit impacted small and medium-sized businesses seeking to access finance. These include providing funding for primary producers; offering longer terms of up to six years, which is a doubling of the previous option of three years; lending for a wider range of loan purposes, including refinancing; and financing to support cashflow and investment purposes.

The enhanced scheme has been developed in the context of the additional complexities and implications that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought about for Brexit impacted businesses. This new Brexit impact loan scheme will give farmers and food producers in County Tipperary, which had previously been unable to do so, to access funding at a much lower rate than they can access anywhere else. This will be another useful tool for businesses in Tipperary post Covid-19 for the creation of local jobs and will lead economic recovery.

As the Minister of State said, it is important to acknowledge that the Bill is being supported by all political parties across the House. I hope that continues today.

This Bill is about supporting businesses and jobs. I am always guilty of talking about Tipperary and jobs there. When we bring through proposals to support businesses, there are benefits. In my county of Tipperary there are many people involved in food production and farming who can benefit from this scheme and who have loans that they can refinance for a lower rate of 3%, if they so wish. If I am correct, I believe that approximately 95% of the loans will be granted at a rate of just under 3%, which is extremely good.

I would encourage anyone who is in farming or food production in Tipperary to look at this as an option going forward. It is just another tool to support them through the Covid pandemic. As the Minister of State outlined, there are many businesses that have only started to see the challenges that have been posed by Brexit in recent months. I deal with many food and drink production companies in Tipperary. It must be stated that many of them have only started to realise the impact that Brexit is having on their businesses. When this scheme is taken into account with the other supports that have been available, such as the Covid restrictions support scheme and the employment wage subsidy scheme and all of the supports that have been introduced over the past 12 months by this Government to help businesses that have been struggling - some businesses have really struggled more than others to survive - it will give them the opportunity to try to get loans that can help them get back on their feet. I encourage businesses to have that confidence to take out loans and to build once they reopen. It will take time. First, businesspeople need the confidence to take that risk. If they do that, and if they are supported by people locally, the period it takes for them to get back to where they were will be shortened.

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for bringing this Bill before us. I hope that the Bill will get the same sort of support today as it did in the Lower House.

I thank the Minister of State for his detailed briefing and for his constant support for all Senators in this House. The Brexit impact loan scheme is very welcome and much needed. Obviously, it is too early to see the full impact of both Brexit and the challenges that have arisen in recent months. However, the early trade figures from this year certainly provide some indication in that regard. My concern relates to the decline in exports of food and drink products, which is particularly worrying. A recent report by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, indicates that these exports fell by 35% from €641 million to €418 million in the first two months of 2021 compared with the same period in 2018. In that report, the CSO noted that while sales to seven of Ireland's ten largest food and drink markets actually increased during that period, the decline in export to Britain was greater, causing a decline in the total food and drink exports. This perhaps reflects how significant a trading partner the UK is for Ireland. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's thoughts on this worrying aspect.

As Senator Ahearn alluded to, the agricultural sector and the stakeholders within it deserve huge credit for their efforts since 2016, when the Brexit vote occurred, to diversify and target new regions and markets. Again, we see this in the trade figures on beef exports. In 2016, the UK market accounted for 56% of Irish beef exports; by last year, the figure was down to 47%. Obviously, it will be substantially lower this year.

That poses significant challenges to the sector. The Government has been proactive in assisting the agricultural sector, which as all Members will be aware, is particularly vulnerable to the huge impact of Brexit. The €100 million capital investment programme for the food processing sector, which was announced in December, was particularly welcome and will assist as the agricultural sector faces post-Brexit challenges identifying and adapting to the requirements of new markets.

The Brexit impact loan scheme will be an additional resource for the agricultural sector and others to draw on when responding to the challenges posed by Brexit. It is particularly welcome that SMEs and small and mid-sized capitalisation companies, including primary producers, will now be included and can utilise lending through the schemes for activities aimed at addressing climate change challenges and other opportunities.

Funding through the Brexit loan scheme can also be utilised for purposes which yield environmental benefit but are under normal lending conditions that are less attractive to lenders due to a longer return on investment periods. That is important and fills a much needed gap in that area.

The essential role played by the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland was evident last year following the pandemic when €1 billion in bank loan guarantee schemes was provided to in excess of 8,000 businesses. The recent expansion of lending beyond retail banks is very welcome and relevant. I note that it involves 19 credit unions spread between three groups and non-bank lenders. This is especially necessary in light of a recent announcement made by KBC Bank Ireland and Ulster Bank.

As alluded to by the Minister of State, I believe we need the broadest possible range of participants in these schemes. I also believe the Government should support the development of credit unions as much as possible, which I have stated before in the House. I would be grateful if the Minister of State could provide his views on this and on whether there may be merit in implementing a quota for lending, which must be done in such schemes other than through major retail banks. I believe there is but I will await his comments

I wish all businesses well that open today across the country, especially retailers that have been under enormous pressure, particularly in Galway West and the west of the country. They have had an extremely difficult five months and more. I wish them well. People want to get back to work. They do not want to be getting supports from the Government even though the supports have been vital to keeping us alive. It is very welcome that businesses are back. One saying common to all in the Government is that there is no return and no going back.

I thank Senator Crowe. We re-echo those latter remarks and also those made earlier by Senator Ahearn regarding people reopening today.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. I welcome the Minister of State to the House.

I want to be associated with the Leas-Chathaoirleach's words regarding the momentous occasion we have all seen today in our towns and villages with so many retail outlets opening. I had the great pleasure of driving through my hometown of Athy this morning and seeing the pride businesses were taking again because they could actually open their doors. As the three previous speakers said, the huge statement we can make today is sending all our good wishes to those businesses, particularly the family-run businesses that take great pride in opening their doors. It was great to see some queues forming this morning outside some of those local businesses in towns in many parts of the country, which is unusual . Again, we obviously need to support them in every way we can.

The Labour Party will be supporting this Bill. As other speakers said, it is a largely technical Bill giving the relevant Ministers the powers to enter into agreements with the SBCI to implement loan guarantee schemes. The reason for the Bill's introduction is, of course, to enable the Government to deliver the Brexit impact loan scheme.

The cost to the Exchequer of the Brexit scheme would be a maximum of €29 million, with more than €300 million in low-cost finance and much more being made available to viable micro SMEs and mid-cap enterprises. It aims to assist them to adapt their businesses to the challenges caused by Brexit.

I have a question related to the built-in review in the fourth year. I ask the Minister of State to ensure that a preliminary assessment of the performance of the scheme is conducted within the first year. The UK will implement new import procedures in October and that is when Brexit will have the greatest impact on Irish business. It is important, therefore, that any unforeseen issues with the administration and drawdown of this scheme can be addressed as quickly as possible, preferably within a year, for the benefit of all of those who may apply.

Speaking of those forthcoming UK import procedures which are due to come into force in October, we had a very important and interesting discussion with representatives from Revenue, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the HSE at the Seanad Special Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union last week. I am sure the Minister of State would agree that it is vital that we prepare companies for the undoubted challenges they will face in exporting goods to the UK from October next. In fairness to all of the agencies that spoke to us last week, their preparations are at an advanced stage. They are working hard with many companies to prepare them for what is coming. It is very important that companies are prepared and that Government agencies continue to support them in their preparations. I am sure the changes that will be rolled out in the UK will necessitate some companies applying for loans to facilitate their business.

It is important that this scheme is advertised to all who may wish to avail of it and that those who may need assistance in applying are provided with same. Many small and medium sized businesses are family run and have been hit very hard by both Covid and Brexit. We must support them and try to ensure that the greatest possible number of jobs are maintained in these viable businesses. It is also important that we recognise the importance of agribusiness to this country and that we support the many start-ups that are struggling at this time.

I am sure there will be many opportunities for business as we exit this pandemic but schemes like this are so important right now, particularly for those who are starting up and need help. I wish those businesses applying under this scheme every success and assure them of our support in the coming months when they may need it most. We look forward to seeing this scheme becoming a success and providing a lifeline for many businesses that need support at this time.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I also welcome this Bill and thank the Department for its work on it. I wish to draw attention to a number of important issues, the first of which is the need to put the credit unions front and centre in the context of this scheme. We must give people choices other than the big banks. Credit unions are really connected with communities and small businesses and in some cases, they would know them better than a lot of the bigger banks. Credit unions have played a huge part in community life for many years through sponsorship and are run by the people themselves. In that context, I hope the Government emphasises the need for this lending to be accessible through credit unions.

I seek clarity on the maximum interest rate applicable. Can we be guaranteed that it will be capped at a very low rate and will not waver in any way?

I welcome the fact that this is happening because it means that smaller businesses will be able to access low-interest loans with 80% guarantees from the Government, which is a huge help. I hope that some will avail of loans to go greener because that will also save them money. A lot of businesses have huge heating bills and this might be a good opportunity to look at that and switch to an air-to-water system, for example. That would reduce their energy bills and they could use the money saved to pay back the loan. The future is green and we know it makes economic sense. These loans can provide lots of opportunities for businesses to become greener while also saving themselves money.

It is great to see the shops finally reopening today and I hope that everybody sticks to local shops as much as they can and for as long as possible. This will give hope back to those people who have been waiting, in some cases for over a year, to have proper one-on-one customer care and interaction. This is the best aspect of small businesses. One cannot buy online the great care one gets from small businesses or the customer satisfaction one gets from supporting them. I really hope that everybody, including politicians, focuses today on going in to small, local businesses before going to the big chains.

It is good to see the Minister of State, Deputy English. It would have been better to see him if Westmeath had held on to that lead yesterday, but it is early in the season, so let us hope we will get another opportunity later on.

The need for a loan guarantee scheme for small and medium enterprises affected by Brexit and Covid-19 is apparent to all. This is particularly true of SMEs and this is why such businesses have been prioritised by this Bill and the schemes that will flow from it.

Sinn Féin supports this Bill and the moneys it will help be loaned out but, as is ever the case, difficulties for businesses in accessing this money comes from what happens between the passing of the Bill and the loaning of the moneys. The design of the scheme, the length of repayments, and the interest charged all contribute to the success of such a loan scheme. We have seen throughout the Covid-19 crisis that some loan schemes are more attractive than others, and it beggars belief that where the State has backed loan schemes that are not popular, the moneys behind those schemes are not moved laterally to better performing loan schemes so they can be of use. Either that or engage with business to figure out what the issues are and rectify those schemes that have a low take-up. This scheme has a built-in review mechanism, but I would hope a preliminary assessment could be carried out into the performance of the scheme within six months to a year rather than the four years mentioned.

It is now, when Covid and Brexit are hitting hardest, that SMEs and family businesses need access to credit. We know the twin crises of Covid and Brexit have caused untold difficulty for businesses, but there is some light at the end of the tunnel. There are opportunities for SMEs to expand in domestic operations and in trading internationally, especially with the European Union. The exit of Britain from the EU and from the Single Market leaves trading opportunities with our European partners. I have no doubt there is scope for indigenous SMEs to expand and secure some of these trading opportunities. The role for the Government and the Oireachtas is to help facilitate that. This is why these schemes are so important and why it is so important they work effectively and efficiently.

On the future economy, the reality is the State is a critical player in our economy, in our economic development, and in the economic direction. It is up to the Government to play its part in working with business, with workers and the trade union movement, and with others to help deliver a more robust, progressive economy: a high-wage, high-productivity and high-growth economy that delivers for everyone. That is the best way to deliver for business and deliver for workers, especially as we exit the Covid crisis.

After the financial crisis and austerity years, the economy was just pieced back together the way it was. That has not worked for ordinary people, for workers or for indigenous SMEs. After this pandemic we need to build back better and use the finances within the State to the benefit all of our people the most. I will highlight in particular the €12 billion the State uses on public procurement every year. We could ensure companies provide a living wage and build a workplace democracy. We could use an innovative policy such as community wealth building to line up our anchor institutions, for example, in Limerick with the University of Limerick, the hospital and the council, to ensure procurement is done in such a way that we have a low carbon footprint, that we see benefits for the workers employed in those businesses that win contracts, and that we see more benefits going to local small businesses than to large multinationals. It is an opportunity to build back better. I hope the Government would realise that and act on it. The moneys the State uses every day of every year must be used to create better working conditions, better pay and regional development across this State.

On regional development, I believe most people would concede our growth has been very much skewed towards the east coast and Dublin over the past ten years. This policy does not really work for Dublin given the horrors we all see in traffic, outrageous rents and so on. Such development feeds Dublin beyond its actual capacity and it starves the regions beyond being sustainable. We need balanced regional development, better local economies, community jobs and growth. We cannot do this without a change of mindset. This relates back to the issue of community wealth building.

We welcome the proposed loan scheme. We would like to keep an eye on it. I ask the Minister of State to consider perhaps giving the scheme an earlier review, if possible. Now is an opportunity to create a better society out of the back of this pandemic where our towns and villages can grow, and where people can live with opportunities around them in their own communities.

I apologise to the Minister of State. I have another meeting I must attend in a few minutes. If I am not here in the Chamber when he responds I will take a note later in the day.

I thank Senator Gavan. The Senator's buoyancy today after the weekend is matched also by Senator Kyne's buoyancy after his results and other personal considerations. I now have the pleasure of inviting Senator Kyne to speak.

Results were mixed but the hurlers did well in any event. We will not say anything else.

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber to debate this important Bill. Like other Senators, I wish all businesses that are reopening a permanent reopening, which is very important. As I said in the Chamber last week when the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, was here, many businesses have had a hellish 14 months with regard to Covid. They have been through the mill. Some businesses may have opened afresh in early 2020 and had their great plans go awry, so it is great to see businesses reopening. It is important that we support local businesses, where possible.

I will not say that one would almost have forgotten about Brexit, given all that has gone on in the past year, but certainly the challenges for businesses in the context of Covid have overshadowed its impact. Brexit has been with us for a number of years, from even before the referendum when there was speculation of the possible impact of Brexit, to the referendum result, to the negotiations and the settlement that took place in 2019. One of the challenges that businesses identified during the Government of 2011-16 related to the availability of credit. Banks that had been flaithulach to all-comers became risk averse in regard to lending to businesses and private individuals.

The Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland was established in 2014 as an organ to provide stable, lower cost, long-term funding options for SMEs and it has proved its worth in terms of the number of SMEs it has supported over that time. It has been somewhat reimagined. Before its inception, the challenge for businesses related to not being able to access funding and then there were the challenges of Brexit, that is, both the anticipation of it and the fact that once it had become a reality, businesses would be impacted. That, of course, was followed by Covid. Some businesses, therefore, have experienced a trifecta of issues over the past ten years. This funding is very important to allow the supports from the Government, through the SBCI, to continue.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine will be those best able to engage with the SBCI with loans from their voted departmental budgets. We need to recognise that because of our good standing as a country and the work done since 2011 to ensure we regained our reputation, we are still able to access funding at low interest rates, which is very important, as are the solidarity from the European Commission and the fact that the SBCI is able to access this fund from Europe. The European Union provides an important solidarity. Others charted their own course and that is part of the reason we need these loans.

I acknowledge all the businesses that have struggled and possibly will continue to struggle arising from the impact of Brexit and Covid. These supports are very important. I acknowledge the work of the Minister of State, the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, and others before them in establishing the SBCI and continuously providing supports. Ultimately, all SMEs, whether small or medium sized, provide critical jobs throughout our country and that is what it is all about. It is about ensuring that as many businesses as possible can stay afloat, continue to hire and possibly expand and hire new people.

I commend the Bill to the House.

On the one hand, it was fantastic to see everywhere opening up. Going along the quays this morning, one certainly knew that it was a new day. I have not seen such traffic chaos for a long time. Nevertheless, we must stay patient because the most important thing is the joy being brought to many businesses, families and people and the hope that we are finally exiting what has been a terrible time. I would still sound a note of caution. We must still be very careful about how we proceed.

I welcome the Minister of State. I listened to his contribution. This is very important legislation. I acknowledge the involvement of the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Minister of State in the context of the SBCI and the implementation of the Brexit impact loan scheme. It might be fair to say that in some respects we do not know what the effect of Brexit will be. We were all consumed by Brexit. After a while, it was not about Brexit, it was about Covid. As we try to get back to some form of normality, we may have more concentration on Brexit and its effects. For counties and areas like my own, the Galway-Roscommon region, and given the importance of farming and small business, it is important that we support them in every way we can. This scheme provides an 80% guarantee to participating lenders on loans to Brexit-impacted businesses and will be underpinned by a counter-guarantee through the European Commission’s pan-European guarantee fund, which is managed by the European Investment Bank Group.

One great thing we have seen in recent years in my county and adjoining counties - mainly rural counties - is agrifood really taking off. This sector is being affected by Brexit so it is so important that we have this type of scheme and this type of lending. It is very welcome to see that the credit union movement has been involved. Senator Garvey referred to that as I was making my way here. In our part of the country, banks are pulling the plug left, right and centre. I made the point here last week that in part of north-east Roscommon, more than 12,000 people will not have access to a bank branch. However, we will have our credit unions. It is really important that when we are producing legislation like this, we include credit unions because many farmers and small businesspeople will deal with credit unions in the future.

The Government has designed the new Brexit impact loan scheme and, as has already been stated, it will provide up to €330 million in lending with loans up to six years being available. Through the SBCI, the Government is inviting all financial providers, including banks and credit unions, to take part. This is extremely important.

The issues facing Irish enterprise have been exacerbated by the challenges of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic. As Members are aware, among its European peers, Ireland is uniquely exposed to the effects of Brexit, which is a significant challenge for our society. Talking to small business owners and farmers, I can see that we have a very resilient population. I hear much talk about how we will not get people back to work but I think that as people see Covid go away, they will go back and will appreciate their jobs. The important thing is to be able to keep our businesses alive. In that regard, I certainly hope that when they see a business is viable, our banks will support it fully because they need the support of our banks.

The documentation relating to the Bill states that it is intended that the scheme will be open to SMEs and small mid-caps, which are businesses of up to 499 employees, including those engaged in farming and fishing. Is there a minimum figure?

If employers employ five, eight or ten people, can they participate in the scheme or must they have a certain number of employees in order to qualify?

This is an important day and this is important legislation. I thank the Minister of State for listening to what I have had to say.

I welcome the Minister of State. I also welcome the opportunity to say a few words on this important legislation. The lack of sufficient finance is the biggest obstacle to businesses. I have seen many businesses fail due to a lack of finance or not being able to secure finance. In some cases, businesses do not have enough finance. In others, they are not able to get it and they fail. Nobody has seen more that more than the Minister of State. He has seen at first hand since the crash of 2008 the many viable businesses that failed because they could not get finance. That is why this legislation is so important. If a person has a coffee cart but not enough funds to buy the coffee, the cartons it is served in or the milk people put in it, he or she cannot operate. Regardless of the level at which one is operating, one has to have sufficient finance. If one cannot get it. one will be at a big disadvantage. It is ironic that we are discussing those matters when many businesses are reopening having been closed for probably 12 months. I take this opportunity to wish every business that has reopened today and those that will open in the future the very best of luck. Small businesses are the lifeblood of this country. They suffered greatly during the past year and a half. They have never seen anything like this pandemic, its impact or the way their trade, be they family businesses or medium to large-sized businesses, has been devastated. The pandemic has had a major effect on them. I am sure everybody would like to wish them the very best of luck.

The Minister of State referred to primary agriculture. Was he saying that large dairy farmers or beef farmers can access this measure or must they have a specific project that is additional to the main enterprise the farm is carrying out, whether it be cheesemaking, liquid milk or some other enterprise? Will they need to have additional facility or can any farmer avail of this measure?

I welcome that credit unions and all the other institutions that provide finance will be involved in this initiative. When this started first, it was only the four main banks that were able to facilitate businesses. The involvement of credit unions is a major and welcome change. I am sure the credit unions and businesspeople will very much appreciate that. Quite a large number of businesses work solely with credit unions. It is their main source of finance and where they do all their banking . Great credit is due to the credit unions for the services they have provided to small businesses and business in general.

The Bill states there will be a cost to the Exchequer of €29 million. Where will that arise? Will it arise in the context of providing funding for the setting up the strategic banking initiative or will it come about in making provision for bad debt? The overall amount of funding being provided is €330 million. How will the cost to the Exchequer of €29 million arise? It may not arise at all but there is provision in the Bill for it. What is the position in that regard?

Basically, it is a technical Bill. I wish the Minister of State well with it. As already stated, this is important legislation. As we have all said, regardless of whether one has a large or a small business, finance is crucial. I fully support the Bill.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the House. Today is an important day for our country and the business sector as retail fully opens up. I take this opportunity to wish all businesses, especially those in my home county of Longford and County Westmeath, every success. I thank the Minister of State and the Department for the support they have given to businesses, our local authority for the work it has done in supporting businesses over the past 12 months and, in particular, the local enterprise offices, LEOs, which have been instrumental in working with businesses.

However, if the funding was not put in place by the Government, it would have been more difficult. It is important we urge everybody to support and shop local over the next 12 months, minimum, to ensure more businesses can get back on their feet.

I welcome this Bill, in that money will be made available for small businesses, including primary producers which were excluded from the previous scheme. It will be supported by all parties. It is a positive Bill which gives a legislative basis for the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to enter into an agreement with the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland so it can implement the Brexit impact loan scheme.

Once launched, it is expected loans under the scheme will range from €25,000 to €1.5 million and will be available for liquidity for investment purposes as well as for refinancing specific forms of existing debt, which many businesses will have after the past 12 months. I welcome the opportunity for investment for small businesses, in particular for those in the farming community. They face plenty of challenges over the months and years ahead in terms of the Common Agricultural Policy and climate action issues which have to be implemented. All of these things will put increased pressures on them and any opportunity for investment or a line of credit, as this Bill will facilitate, is welcome. It is also important we discuss how these and similar schemes are operated. I have engaged with a number of businesses in County Longford which have tried to access these schemes over the past 12 months but have found it difficult to get approval. In many cases, the red tape has been the issue.

A number of schemes are being operated by the banks, on behalf of the Government. However, the banks have strict criteria as regards access to the schemes. They are applying the normal criteria they would have previously applied to loan applications. This defeats the purpose of these schemes.

The reason businesses are looking for help is they have been affected by Brexit and Covid-19. How can these businesses be assessed on normal credit criteria in this case? These are supports to help businesses which have liquidity issues as a direct result of Brexit and Covid-19.

I will refer to a couple of figures of which the Minister of State, Deputy English, is well aware. Some €2 billion was set aside for the Covid-19 credit guarantee scheme. However, only up to €283 million has been loaned out. That raises serious questions as to how the banks have been assessing these applications. The Covid-19 working capital scheme has a fund of €425 million, yet only €138 million worth of approvals. The future growth scheme has been more successful in terms of the amounts which have been approved.

Funding needs to go to the smaller enterprises because they are the backbone of our economy and we are reliant on them in our towns, villages and cities. It is clear changes are needed as to how these loans are administered by the financial institutions. Credit unions are now involved and may not look at them as stringently as the banks have. We will have to do so because this will have a direct impact on how many people are available to do it. It is necessary as these businesses reopen, that more of them are able to access this fund put in place by the Government.

I would also like to welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the House. I always enjoy his contributions because he is always so well prepared and can articulate what is being done in a clear, simple way in which people can understand. Communication is important in these areas because it can be quite technical.

I, too, would like to welcome that we are moving further down the line of easing restrictions. It is a great day when we see so many people back to work with non-essential retail opening.

I wish the people in County Clare who are returning to work today for the first time since before Christmas the very best of luck and good fortune. It is great to see the main streets of our towns throughout County Clare open again and people going in and out of shops. Shopping online was very convenient, and in some ways essential, during the most recent lockdown and people got into the habit of shopping online. However, I encourage and appeal to people to now shop in person and go back into the shops because these are the businesses that pay rates, create employment and sponsor our GAA teams and community events. These are the people who need our support. Some of them operated click and collect services and some set up websites and tried to adapt to social media to sell their products. That is great and I welcome the supports the local enterprise offices gave businesses to embrace social media and new technologies. Sadly, many products were bought from Amazon, the multiples and companies abroad. Unfortunately, when selling tickets for the local GAA lotto, Amazon is nowhere to be found to buy lines or support football teams when they get to county finals and so on. We need to shop local in order to support local and protect local.

While this may be a technical Bill, it is an extremely important one. I love the Titles of technical Bills because they are there for a reason and they knit things together. Brexit has not gone away but it has been sidelined in the narrative because of the pandemic. Thousands of businesses are affected by Brexit and, as has been said already, getting credit is a lifeline for businesses. They cannot make a sale unless they can afford to pay for the cost of the sale and, sadly, the cost of the sale has to be funded before the money comes in from it. This Bill will unlock a very important stream of funding for those businesses.

I am delighted that credit unions will now be involved in partnering with the State to make funding available because sometimes they are the only source of support for small businesses. They have a greater role to play, especially now with the consolidation of financial institutions and two major banks withdrawing from the market. It is critical that the credit union's role in society is enhanced and supported. That is a welcome feature of the Bill.

The agricultural industry, whether direct farming or businesses associated with agriculture, will now be able to benefit from this fund as well. That is very welcome because agrifood, agribusiness and agriculture in general is one of the biggest industries in this country, if not the biggest. This Bill will eliminate some of the red tape and open funding up to more businesses to benefit from it. The Minister of State's commitment that further funding, as well as easing and reducing of administration and red tape, will be made available if necessary to ensure the credit flows to the businesses that need it, is very welcome.

I again thank the Minister of State sincerely, on behalf of all businesses in this country, for the work he and the Tánaiste are doing to ensure businesses are supported, retained and allowed to flourish going forward. That is very important. While many businesses suffered during the pandemic, and sadly some no longer exist, we have succeeded through the State's interventions during the pandemic in retaining a lot of businesses and ensuring they have the platform and funding they need to prosper.

With Brexit, it is only in the future we will realise the extent to which it has an effect on our businesses. However, similar to the pandemic, with proper interventions and with flexible ones, whereby we can change or alter something if we need to, as we are doing today, businesses will certainly be equipped to survive and adapt to the new Brexit reality.

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.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Monday, 24 May 2021.
Sitting suspended at 3 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.