With the British General Election Campaign underway we do not have the relentless coverage of BREXIT issues that we have been used to for most of three years.
However, the issues surrounding BREXIT still confront our country. There are particular challenges for our own border region and Government and Statutory Agencies must continue to put in place adequate supports for business to deal with all the potential adverse impacts of BREXIT.
Attached is a Report of Dáil questions I posed to Minister Humphreys in relation to the particular needs of the border region. These issues must continue to command the full attention of Government.
QUESTIONS TO JOBS, ENTERPRISE AND INNOVATION MINISTER
Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation her plans to introduce specific programmes to assist small and medium-sized enterprises in the Border region, which are heavily dependent on Britain as an export market, to deal with the adverse impacts of Brexit and help protect employment; and if she will make a statement on the matter.
We have discussed previously the adverse impacts Brexit, be it no-deal or otherwise, will have on our particular economy in the Border region. As the Minister knows, our economy is interdependent with our neighbours in Northern Ireland. The sectors critically important to our local economy in Cavan and Monaghan are equally important in Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh.
I welcome the funding provided in the budget for a no-deal Brexit. As my colleague, Deputy Troy, said earlier, we want to know the details of how this will be shared between equity loans or grants. Will the Minister ensure the sectors most vulnerable to a no-deal Brexit are given particular attention and a specific scheme of grant aid?
I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 and 10 together.
Since 2016, my Department has worked with the enterprise development agencies, businesses and representative bodies to ensure we have the appropriate mix of supports for businesses to prepare and manage through whatever Brexit we may face over the coming period.
The most immediate consequences of a hard Brexit are likely to be currency movements, supply chain constraints, delays, duties and tariffs. In the first instance, this will put a strain on the working capital position of businesses. I am progressing legislation to increase the amount which Microfinance Ireland can lend from €25,000 up to €50,000, which increases support to any microenterprise employing ten workers or fewer. This is open to everyone from hairdressers to hauliers. This will support an additional 1,000 enterprises with short-term loans.
For higher working capital challenges, the €300 million Brexit loan scheme provides loans of up to €1.5 million at a rate of 4% or less and approval is valid for four months. I advise businesses to secure approval now to be ready for any scenario. The overdraft facility can be in place but will only be paid for when it is used.
For longer-term loan requirements, the future growth loan scheme is another €300 million for investment by SMEs, primary agriculture and seafood business. Both Government schemes are administered by the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland and delivered through the banks.
The joint Skillnet and Enterprise Ireland clear customs scheme was launched on 7 August to help customs agents, intermediaries and affected Irish businesses deal with additional customs requirements. This is a free customs training programme delivered nationwide by Skillnet, coupled with €3 million funding that I allocated to Enterprise Ireland for a support payment of up to €6,000 per employee to help with extra costs to manage customs compliance. Two weeks ago, I saw first-hand one of these courses in Cavan.
The large suite of supports available also include the Brexit scorecard, grant aid, consultancy, mentoring, advisory clinics, agile innovation fund, operational excellence offer and market discovery fund. These supports help companies consider various risks such as supply chain vulnerabilities and act to mitigate against them. All of these supports are critical for businesses in the highly vulnerable Border areas and for exporters who are heavily exposed to the UK market in sectors such as construction, engineering and food.
I recently collaborated with the accountancy bodies on four Brexit briefing events between July and September, covering several counties in the Border regions that are likely to be most impacted by Brexit. The events took place in July in Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal and in September in Louth with over 500 people in attendance. These Brexit events covered a broad range of important topics to help businesses prepare for Brexit such as supply chain, cashflow and accreditation. The events provided an opportunity for me to speak directly to companies impacted by Brexit in the Border region.
I acknowledge Deputy Brendan Smith’s work on Brexit as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence. I am from the Clones area and Deputy Brendan Smith’s home is not far from Belturbet, Bawnboy and Ballyconnell, towns which bore the brunt of the Troubles when a hard border was in place. We do not want to go back to those days. That is why everything the Government is doing is focused on ensuring we do not have a hard border on this island. In recent months, Deputy Brendan Smith has brought delegations and parliamentarians to the Border region to highlight the impact Brexit would have.
It is important to acknowledge that the joined-up approach to Brexit we have seen to date in this Parliament is in stark contrast to what we have seen at Westminster.
I welcome the Minister’s commitment to ensure smaller enterprises will receive support. It is very important that these enterprises have the capacity and capability to draw down whatever support is necessary. When programmes of assistance are available, often it is the most needy who are not in a position to draw down that support. It is extremely important that we address that issue.
In the context of Mr. Johnson’s proposals, Manufacturing Northern Ireland made the point recently that 99% of manufacturing businesses in Northern Ireland were small and medium enterprises. Only 1% of manufacturing businesses in Northern Ireland are large. As the economy of the Border counties is similar, it is extremely important that assistance be targeted at small and medium enterprises.
I mentioned, as did the Minister, the importance of the agrifood sector, the construction products sector, engineering and tourism to the Border economy. The economies are inter-dependent. The message must be got across both to the Northern Ireland and British authorities and within the agencies in this state that we need businesses, North and South, working together. The companies in Clones or Ballyconnell that export to Fermanagh, Tyrone or Armagh do not regard it as an export but as local trade. We have to factor in to all decision-making the inter-dependence of the economies, North and South.
The Deputy is absolutely right. Nobody knows better than he and I do the links between businesses north and south of the Border. That is the reason I allocated additional funding in budget 2019 to InterTradeIreland, which has planning vouchers worth up to €2,250 of which companies can avail easily to help them to employ somebody to identify and mitigate the risks presented by Brexit. As part of the €110 million Brexit package announcement yesterday, a further €2 million will be allocated to InterTradeIreland because the Deputy and I both know that people losing their jobs north of the Border can mean people losing theirs south of the Border and vice versa. That is the reason we need joined-up thinking and InterTradeIreland has been doing great work. Even though there is no Executive in Northern Ireland – matching funding is normally provided – once again we stepped up to the mark and are providing InterTradeIreland with the additional funding it will need to ensure all support possible will be given to businesses in the Border region because I know that we are very exposed owing to our geographical location close to the Border with Northern Ireland.
I thank the Minister. The absence of the Assembly and the Executive in Northern Ireland is deplorable at this time when the North-South Ministerial Council should be meeting and preparing an all-Ireland approach to Brexit. Unfortunately, that is the position. Can the Minister give the House an assurance that there is good and active co-operation between the authorities here and Northern Ireland Departments and agencies? I am sure business people from Fermanagh and Tyrone speak to the Minister, as they do to me, about their concerns regarding a non-functioning Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland. They are anxious that there be the utmost co-operation between the authorities here and in Northern Ireland to ensure the concerns of businesses, North and South, will be addressed and that the inter-dependence of businesses will be kept on the agenda at all times.
The Deputy is absolutely right. There is contact at official level between my Department and officials in the Department in Northern Ireland on the question of how we can co-operate. We want to make sure we can assist in every way possible because Brexit will throw up many challenges. Obviously, there is co-operation on a governmental basis also. The Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, visits the North on a regular basis. I take any opportunity I get to travel to the North, as I know the Deputy does also. I have spoken on a number of occasions to the Confederation of British Industry and outlined what we are doing here. On one of those occasions it told me that it was very pleased to hear what was happening here because it is looking to the Dublin Government to find out the next steps to be taken. Brexit will be catastrophic for businesses in Northern Ireland if they cannot have their goods exported south of the Border without tariffs and checks. We want the position to remain as it is. It is so important that the free movement of people and goods continue. In terms of the agreement, the common travel area is protected. It is important that people know that they can travel seamlessly across the Border.