Thursday, 15 October 2020
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Small and Medium Enterprises
There is never been a more uncertain and worrying time for SMEs. Ensuring that the conditions are set out for the sector to thrive is vital to the economy and its recovery. When the Tánaiste chaired a meeting of the SME growth task force on 25 September last, he said we need to set out a long-term strategic vision for SMEs. With that in mind, and particularly with Brexit preparations in mind, can he provide an outline of what the SME growth task force has done so far and explain the long-term vision for supports for SMEs?
The programme for Government commits to the formation of an SME growth task force to design a national SME growth plan that will map out an ambitious long-term strategic blueprint beyond Covid-19 and Brexit. The task force will draw up detailed plans to help SMEs to start up, scale up and access foreign markets. This includes any potential improvements to the scope of firms covered by the existing enterprise agencies, and recommendations as to how these can be broadened. It will also look at ways to make SMEs more productive and ready for the transition to a digital and green economy.
We held the first meeting of the SME growth task force on 25 September. I chaired the meeting, which was attended by the Ministers of State, Deputies English and Troy. The task force is composed of over 20 entrepreneurs and business leaders, contributing expertise from a broad range of sectors. It is served by four focused subgroups with the capacity and expertise to develop actions in thematic areas arising from the OECD's recommendations. The subgroups are focused on entrepreneurship; productivity, digitalisation and competitiveness; internationalisation; and clustering and networks. These are the areas in which we hope to develop policies and proposals. The task force will develop an SME growth plan, which will be brought to Government for approval as part of the national economic plan in November. A comprehensive OECD review, SME and Entrepreneurship Policy in Ireland, which was finalised in October 2019, provides a hugely informative, objective and deeply researched evidence base for this work. The task force will continue its work over the coming weeks, and I look forward to its proposals.
I thank the Tánaiste. I hope the blueprint will include transport for the SMEs and businesses that will require it. The Tánaiste will have seen yesterday that in preparation for Brexit, the UK Government has invested just under €80 million in four European ferry companies to safeguard their trade in products being imported and exported post Brexit. Particular mention was made of medical products and medicinal appliances. All medicines may be in short supply due to our inability to prepare a daily direct ferry service. I have heard from the Tánaiste and the Minister of State on many occasions that our main task in respect of Brexit and Covid-19 is to prevent mass unemployment. I ask the Tánaiste to set out what preparations are being made for an alternative to the UK land bridge. Such an alternative should involve having a daily direct ferry service in place post Brexit.
I thank the Deputy. This has come up in my various conversations with business groups. Responsibility for transport and logistics falls to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton. However, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation is across this issue because it is essential for business and employment that we have supply chains. The Department of Transport has advised me that we have a great amount of direct capacity in respect of ro-ro ferries from Ireland directly to France, Spain and even Portugal, as well as to the Netherlands and Belgium. It has also informed us that there is approximately 40% unused capacity on those shipping lines which can be used as an alternative to the land bridge if there are significant delays in Kent. This is something that we will have to keep under review in case we need to do more.
If we take seriously a report that was produced by the Irish Maritime Development Office, IMDO, in 2018, and if we add up the figures of the current land bridge traffic having to travel direct post Brexit, we will see that we currently have six daily ferries. According to the IMDO figures, post Brexit we will need 15 services to replace the land bridge traffic. Some 40% available capacity now does not add up to 15 services a week. We need to go back. This matter has been under review for a long time. We have grown since the report was prepared in 2018. I am very concerned that the dots are not being joined. I appreciate the Tánaiste's clarification that this is a matter for the Department of Transport, but his Department is responsible for trade and for business of imports and exports that safeguards jobs. We definitely need to look at this and prepare, not post Brexit but now.
The IMDO report is from 2018. The figure of 40% capacity comes from a more up-to-date report the Department of Transport has done since then. It is not our thinking that everyone will stop using the land bridge. Some hauliers will divert from the British land bridge to direct services. For others, it will still be quicker to go through the UK even if they are stuck there for a few hours. That is the nature of the business, depending on where one is going in continental Europe. That is a decision that will have to be made. We are doing everything we can to work with authorities in continental Europe, such as the French, Belgian and Dutch ports, and with the British authorities to ensure any delays are minimised.