Thursday, 3 June 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
As ever, my questions are very straightforward and very simple and require very simple answers. Mandate recently launched a campaign along with the ICTU on the future of retail. It is extremely important that we do not give up on retail and that we ensure that we save as many retail jobs as possible. That would be good for town centres, city centres and most importantly, very good for jobs.
I thank Deputy O'Reilly for this question and for agreeing to take Question No. 3 first. The retail area is a sector with high importance for the Department. That is the reason we ensured in the programme for Government that we have a Minister whose responsibility would include the area of retail to build on the success of the retail forum in recent years. The past year has been a very difficult one for must businesses, including those in the Irish retail sector. The impact of both the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit have posed significant challenges for businesses and it is vital that businesses continue to develop their resilience in the face of these and future challenges.
I thank businesses and their customers for their continued support of the national effort throughout the unprecedented public health crisis. Many in the retail sector are on the front line, but they still managed to provide an excellent service throughout the pandemic and to reach their customers in many different ways all over the country. That was handled extremely well, in conjunction with employees, employers and their customers following all the protocols and playing their part to suppress the virus.
As the largest private sector employer, and a key element in providing for the needs of society and indeed other sectors of the economy, it is vital that retail continues to develop capability and remains competitive. It is important that there is a strong, diverse, and balanced retail business presence across the country which sustains the local and domestic economy and contributes to the export economy, both online and offline. A long-term goal for the overall retail sector prior to the pandemic was to scale up online offerings to complement physical outlets, but to make sure that we can develop the two. This goal has been accelerated due to the pandemic, and I want to see the digital development of the sector continue. My Department has provided specific funding though the Covid-19 online retail scheme and the trading online voucher scheme to assist the retail sector in its efforts.
For many retailers, developing their digital capability and enhancing their physical retail offering with a strong online presence will support them to become more resilient and to be able to continue with that opportunity in the future. The Department is determined to support that ambition and assist our businesses to increase their digital presence and boost online sales, allowing them to target new and existing customers and shoppers in the online space.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
It also provides consumers with more opportunities to support local businesses in their community, even when shopping online.
I want the retail sector to continue to develop and to become one of our most innovative and resilient sectors, so that those working in retail can be confident about building a long-term career in retail.
As Minister of State, I will support this by continuing to work collaboratively with the sector and to address issues directly affecting the retail sector. My Department is undertaking a retail sector study to look at the future of the retail sector. The study, to be prepared with external experts and stakeholders from the retail sector, will identify and analyse the factors impacting on retailers and their employees, and the likely future trends, opportunities and challenges facing the retail sector. The study will provide an evidence-based foundation for ongoing engagement with retail sector stakeholders and will identify retail sector policy options for consideration by my Department, working with the Department of Social Protection and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and ultimately by the Government. The study will also support the work of the retail forum, which I chair, and will support the ongoing engagement that I and my officials have with the representative bodies of the workers and businesses in the retail sector.
Mandate made the call for the establishment of a task force on the future of retail as a matter of urgency following the loss of 500 jobs in The Carphone Warehouse. It followed the loss of jobs in Topman and Topshop and across the Arcadia Group. It happened after the loss of jobs in Debenhams and the disgraceful carry-on by the company in that regard. The need for this task force is apparent by the very nature of the difficulties that face the sector. There is a future for retail, but we must work out what that is and how it will work. That is why the task force that Mandate has called for is so urgent.
There is no doubt that there are changes in the retail landscape and they pose challenges. Online shopping is here, and it is enjoyed by many, but that cannot mean the end of traditional retail in towns, cities and villages. The Government must stop using the changing retail landscape as an excuse to do nothing to secure the future of the sector. It is really disheartening every time retail and job losses in particular are raised that some in government-----
To be very clear: we are very committed to the retail sector. That is why we are very focused on it in the Department and it is top of our agenda. It involves significant private sector employment, more than 300,000 jobs, albeit that during Covid approximately 70,000 were on the PUP. I hope to see the majority of them back at work.
I have been very clear; I have met with Mandate to discuss its proposals. The Tánaiste and I had a very good meeting with it. We believe we can manage this through the existing retail forum that has been set up and is working through our Department since 2014. We bring all the stakeholders together in the forum. It has proved to be very useful during our response to both Brexit and the pandemic in bringing together all the stakeholders involved throughout the sector, along with the unions as well. Mandate is represented on the forum by Gerry Light. We believe the opportunity exists to develop our response and future plans for the retail sector. We are engaging consultants to look to the future of retail and to set out all the areas we have to deal with in that regard. A major part will be the use of technology and the online opportunities for developing the skills of existing staff and bringing new staff into the sector. We want to see retail develop as a proper career option.
There is scope for the Government to work with communities, local politicians, the trade union movement and businesses to make towns and cities exciting and enjoyable places for people to spend their time. This is why a task force on retail is essential. We must ensure that towns and cities offer people a great experience. That means a relaxed atmosphere, pedestrianised streets to stroll peacefully through and to be able to look into shop windows and pop in and spend a few bob. We need outdoor dining and drinking spaces. I have discussed this with the Tánaiste on a number of occasions. We need true public spaces where people can relax. This is what is going to drive footfall in towns and cities. If we make them enjoyable places to be and to spend time, people will gravitate towards them and, by extension, more people will be willing to spend in shops, pubs and restaurants. This will create jobs. Going online is almost like giving up. We want to hear from the Minister of State that he is going to back the call from Mandate for this retail forum and ensure a future for retail and for retail jobs.
In case there is any doubt here, we are very committed to the online presence as well as the town centre presence. That is why in the programme for Government the town centre first principle exists across Departments, led by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, with our Department and the Department of Rural and Community Development. We will bring forward a framework this month focusing on town centre opportunities. I have engaged with the retail community, formally through the forum, but we also engage on a weekly basis with the various stakeholders. Everybody is committed to the opportunities, which are twofold: they are online. We must understand that approximately 70% of business from Irish purchasers online is going abroad. We want to win that back for local Irish companies and that is why we are involved with other campaigns to look locally.
We are aware the opportunity exists so we have to pursue it. Complementary to that is extending and increasing our offering and, exactly as the Deputy says, developing the experience in town centres. There is a lot of opportunity. We know that in the next 15 or 20 years, there will be an extra 1 million people living in this country. Therefore, there are many additional customers to be won. There has to be a twin-pronged approach, and that is what we will have.