Thursday, 8 December 2005
The strategic role of ICT in business development has been identified in the national e-business strategy launched by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment in December 2004.
Within this overall framework, the development agencies charged with promoting the growth of industry in general, and the agri-food industry in particular, are committed to optimising the potential of ICT in working with companies and in assisting the growth of strong and sustainable business.
Food companies were among those to benefit from earlier initiatives such as the e-business acceleration fund initiative launched by the Tánaiste and then Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, in May 2000 and the e-BIT initiative launched in May 2003. Enterprise Ireland is committed to mainstreaming e-business among its company base and this includes embedding ICT management skills in SMEs, building awareness of the impact of new technologies on businesses and promoting the use of ICT as a marketing and sales channel. In 2006 the e-business unit in Enterprise Ireland will organise a series of events on growing competitiveness through e-business and on-line marketing and e-marketplaces to raise awareness about e-marketplaces, provide advice on promoting companies' on-line presence internationally and guidance on electronic trading.
With regard to food and drinks companies specifically, Bord Bia has launched an electronic portal to provide market intelligence and advice. The portal already has 690 members, which is not far short of the total number of food and drinks companies manufacturing in Ireland, and is currently recording some 6,800 visits and 57,000 pages viewed per annum. Bord Bia's website includes, among other publications, a guide to farmers' markets which can be easily downloaded and updated to promote this growing alternative route to market.
My Department and Teagasc have also been to the fore in providing e-services and e-payments to food producers, processors and exporters and in extending the reach and quality of those services to encourage the sustainable growth of the very important indigenous food and drinks sector.
I thank the Minister for her reply and welcome the innovation indicated therein. However, once again I will dare to quote from the report, Rural Ireland 2025: Foresight Perspectives, whose eminent authors from the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Teagasc cannot be dismissed lightly.
The authors state, "Access to broadband connection to the 'information highway' is more restricted in Ireland with only half of the country's telephone lines being capable of giving access". In summary, they state:
Ireland's place in the 'knowledge economy' stakes indicates serious weaknesses. This is especially bad news for rural Ireland were the future actually turn out to be like this 'business as usual' scenario.
It is absolutely critical that every effort is made by the Department of Agriculture and Food and other relevant Departments to ensure Ireland is a keen competitor. Clearly, we are now in a global economy and we will be left behind if we are not able to compete in this area.
I agree that in terms of infrastructure, it is not necessarily only what we can physically see that is important and in that context, the issue of broadband availability is relevant. This is particularly so with regard to the ability of small and artisan businesses to sell goods and services on-line.
I do not wholeheartedly agree with some of the forecasts in the report. I see them as depicting a doomsday scenario and I do not see the situation in that light at all. I agree that the roll-out of the broadband programme by my colleague, the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, will support small businesses and enterprises greatly. An enormous amount of money is being invested under that programme — I do not have the exact figures with me but they can be made available by way of other parliamentary questions — and I will be doing everything I can to drive and support the new technologies coming on stream within agriculture. Information technology and the knowledge economy do not only apply to particular types of education or industry, they are also very much a part of agriculture in terms of research, development and education within agriculture and support mechanisms for our food and drink industry.
Much work has been done on this initiative and work will continue on that, as well as on the support mechanisms and new methodologies of linking with our farmers.
In the context of the aforementioned report and given what has happened in the sugar, pig and poultry industries recently, we could reach the authors' prediction on the number of farmers in Ireland in 2025 very soon.
The Minister referred to the artisan food companies. The Internet certainly is a potential vehicle for them but there must be an overall structure provided by Bord Bia so that they are not scattered, willy-nilly, all over the Internet. We must develop a co-ordinated approach to Internet sales. Has the Minister taken any steps in that regard?
The level of flexibility in dealing with the Department of Agriculture and Food is great for those who have access to the Internet. The Department must be complimented in that regard. However, many people will never be able to avail of it. Has the Minister had discussions with the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources about making that technology available via the local post office network for the many people who neither have Internet access nor the skills to access the facilities made available by the Department?
I refute the Deputy's political innuendo. The support for agriculture from the Government and, in particular, my team has been second to none. It is high time we took the scaremongering out of what are very serious issues arising from the nitrates directive. Instead of issuing press releases we need to work with the sector to ensure it is viable. I have demonstrated my commitment with huge investment in farm waste management and huge investment in alternatives, €4 million having been made available this year. Above all I, the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, and the Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Smith, will pursue that vigorously.
As it is coming up to Christmas I will, however, be magnanimous by saying that Internet access at post offices is not a bad idea. I will consider it. I am delighted at the interest of the farming community in Internet access to their schemes, such as the CMMS database, and the use of mobile telephones. It augurs well but we will still have to provide both schemes, as the Deputy will appreciate, given the part of the country from which he comes. There are some who, if a computer was sitting on the table, would be afraid of it.