Tuesday, 15 April 2014
Small and Medium Enterprises Supports
What is unfolding here highlights the ludicrous scenario that Question Time has become, whereby Opposition spokespersons such as Deputy Calleary and me, who are tasked to hold the Government to account, have seen a reduction in the number of questions we can submit to Ministers while Government Deputies are being given a stronger opportunity to do so. It is obvious that Members on the other side of the House are likely to be less critical and less rigorous in holding Ministers to account. As we are seeing, some Government Deputies are not even bothering to turn up in the Chamber to put the questions they have tabled. For Opposition Deputies to have their ability to question Ministers reduced shows there is a need for reform of this procedure. I ask the Leas-Cheann Comhairle to raise this issue with the powers that be so it can be resolved.
To clarify, it is not just Government Deputies who are absent from the Chamber. In fact, most of these questions were tabled by Opposition Members. Deputy Tóibín's comment is very unfair. It is quite appalling that people put down questions and do not attend Question Time.
I am not making excuses for any Opposition Deputy who fails to turn up in this Chamber. The Minister of State is trying to deflect attention from his own Deputies who failed to turn up. The critical point is that the new rules have reduced the Opposition's opportunity to hold Ministers to account.
A recent report indicated that owners of small and medium enterprises are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the Government's SME policies. There has been an overall reduction in the level of credit afforded to small businesses in their efforts to grow. Will the Minister give his view on why the SME sector is becoming increasingly divergent from the Government's policies in this area?
I do not accept the Deputy's contention that small and medium enterprises are becoming increasingly unhappy. While I recognise that this sector has suffered difficult times, the data indicate that it accounts for the bulk of employment growth. There has been strong growth in the past 12 months in a number of sectors typified by small business, including the tourism and food sectors. There is a broad spread.
The needs of small business in terms of access to credit are regularly reviewed. A broad suite of measures, totalling €2.5 billion, has been introduced to assist small and medium enterprises, including the microenterprise and loan guarantee schemes. Each year, prior to the putting in place of the Action Plan for Jobs, consultative sessions are held with small and medium enterprises to ensure we are addressing their needs.
It is not my contention but that of the survey that the small and medium enterprise sector is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the Government's progress on this issue. In this regard, the survey cites the lack of and reduction in credit over the past year and the procurement rules operated by this State, including the continuing policy of rolling up procurement in this State which makes it inaccessible to SMEs. I have tabled numerous questions to the Minister's Department on the issue but they are continually deflected.
The SME sector is also dissatisfied with the creeping increases in costs here, including the price of diesel, the cost of which in Ireland is the fourth highest in the EU, electricity costs and upward only rents, which issue the Government continues to fail to address. On the issue of rates, businesses want rates to be progressive and to reflect the profitability of a business but there is no effort on the part of Government to try to create a progressive rate to allow this to happen. These are the issues that the business community is focused on. I would encourage the Government to listen to it and to try to resolve those issues.
I agree that there are issues to be resolved. However, the Deputy needs to reflect on the changes that have been made by Government, including the reduction in the VAT level, travel tax and PRSI, all of which are geared towards meeting the needs of small business. Other new initiatives such as the microfinance and loan guarantee schemes-----
-----are aimed at meeting the needs of small business. Also, under JobsPlus a €72 per week subsidy is available to a business that recruits from the live register. These initiatives are very much targeted at the needs of businesses that are small in scale. We regularly review those needs. Another new initiative is the introduction of a first-time exporters scheme to support small business used to trading domestically but now wishing to export. We are currently rolling out a system to assist more businesses get online so that they can have outreach to the broader market. There are a lot of new initiatives taking place.
I accept the Deputy's point in relation to procurement. There is a genuine dilemma in this area. By centralising procurement, real savings and better value can be achieved for the Exchequer but this may mean that small and medium-sized enterprises are squeezed out. The new director of public procurement meets regularly with small businesses, is currently reviewing the code of practice and is introducing pilot systems to consult with small business regarding its experience. There is an openness to small business in the public procurement arena. There is no doubt but that central procurement achieves savings. At a time when the alternative is cuts in real service delivery, one has to review areas such as procurement. There is a balance to be struck.
As other Deputies have joined us, I propose to return to Question No. 105, which is in the name of Deputy Calleary. We will then take questions in the names of Deputies Sean Fleming, Clare Daly, and Thomas P. Broughan.