As Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise; Trade and Employment I am acutely aware that COVID-19 has brought particular challenges for individual sectors, including retail and has affected large and small retailers across the country.
As the largest private sector employer, and a key element providing for the needs of society and indeed other sectors of the economy, it is vital that retail continues to operate to the extent possible and continues to develop capability and remain competitive. The supports available from Government are designed to help businesses to open, to help those that are already open to stay open, to get staff back to work and for those who cannot go back to their old jobs, to transition to new opportunities as soon as possible.
On 23 July the Government announced the July Stimulus Package, a substantial financial package to stimulate our economy worth more than €5 billion, with an additional €2 billion in loan guarantees. These new measures are in addition to those already announced since the onset of the Pandemic, including the Temporary Wage Subsidy, the Restart Grant and Restart Grant Plus, grant supports. cash for businesses, low cost loans and commercial rates waivers.
Significantly, to support viable businesses and jobs, including new hires, we have extended the wage subsidy scheme, which will run until the end of March 2021 and we have also improved eligibility criteria for the Pandemic Unemployment Payment. In addition:
- We are providing more and cheaper loan finance through MicroFinance Ireland, SBCI and the new €2bn Credit Guarantee Scheme.
- We announced a six-month reduction in VAT, going from 23% down to 21%, together with a range of additional measures designed to stimulate domestic demand.
- We also announced a €2 million assistance fund for Micro-Enterprises that cannot avail of any sectoral specific supports.
The range of measures in place to assist businesses include direct grants and supports such as the:
- Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS)
- The Restart Grant Plus
- Liquidity supports such as 0% finance for 6 months from MicroFinance Ireland
- Low cost working capital is also available through the SBCI schemes
- State-backed Future Growth Loan Scheme which makes available longer-term lending for strategic investment, with €500 million expansion of the scheme
The Retail Forum, an initiative of my Department, provides a platform for engagement between retail representative bodies, retailers and government on key concerns for the retail sector, including COVID-19 and Brexit. My colleague, Damien English TD Minister of State for Business, Employment and Retail chairs the Retail Forum and continues to engage with the retail sector through this Forum. The most recent meeting of the Retail Forum was on 24 September 2020. Additionally, in recent weeks, Minister English has held a series of one-to-one introductory bilateral meetings with the retail representative bodies as members of the Retail Forum.
Trading online is a very important route for retail businesses to grow and improve their business in the current crisis and will be an important element in their recovery over the longer term. The COVID-19 Online Retail Scheme - a competitive scheme, administered on my Department's behalf by Enterprise Ireland, is to support companies in the indigenous retail sector who have already started an online journey, to further enhance and strengthen their online presence, which will have the most immediate impact enabling them to respond to both domestic and international consumer demand with a competitive online offer.
My Department proposed this Scheme in response to the COVID-19 crisis and the urgent need for retail companies to achieve a step change in online capability. Applicant companies must be an indigenous retailer, employing 10 or more people, have an existing online presence (e.g. website or social media), and have a retail outlet through which they derive the majority of their revenue. The Scheme was launched with an initial fund size of €2m. Due to significant levels of interest for the Scheme from eligible retailers and the particular challenges facing the retail sector during the pandemic, the funding available for Call 1 was increased. On the 2 July 2020, I was pleased to announce that 185 retailers were approved €6.6m in funding as part of the scheme. A second Call, with a total fund size of €5.5m. which was launched by Minister of State English closed on the 28 September 2020.
The Deputy will also be aware of the Trading Online Voucher Scheme administered through the Local Enterprise Offices. As part of the July Jobs Stimulus the Scheme was expanded to assist even more small and micro enterprises, with no more than 10 employees, including those in the retail sector, to get online quickly. Although not designed exclusively for the retail sector it provides significant assistance to retailers to start to trade online. Following a previous expansion of the Scheme in early April, total additional funding for the Scheme is now almost €20m in 2020. Under the Scheme, small businesses can claim up to €5,000 in two vouchers worth €2,500 each.
I am committed to supporting the needs of the retail sector and will work closely with my colleague Minister English and the Retail Forum in ensuring that the needs of the sector are considered including in the development of forthcoming National Economic Plan. I expect that the Plan will set longer term objectives for the economy post crisis and identify policies and strategies to achieve those objectives. The Plan will be progressed over the coming weeks and I would expect it to launch in November.