Thursday, 15 September 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Enterprise Support Services
3. To ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he will commit to establishing an Irish enterprise agency to assist small and medium enterprises trading domestically; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45398/22]
Will the Tánaiste commit to the establishment of an Irish enterprise agency to assist small and medium-sized enterprises that are trading domestically? As the Tánaiste will know, this is a long-standing policy of Sinn Féin. Recently, IBEC have publicly backed a similar idea. We believe that this would be a great benefit to our small and medium-sized businesses, micro-businesses and indeed the family business sector.
I thank Deputy O'Reilly for the question. The Government and we as a Department recognise that domestically traded sectors account for a significant number of firms in Ireland and, more importantly, for a high proportion of employment across retail, construction, accommodation and food, play and leisure and many other sectors also. They contribute to the economic and social fabric of towns and villages across Ireland and every region and help us create jobs in all of these areas.
As highlighted during the pandemic, these sectors also provide vital services and ensure the supply of essential products and services and as a Government we want to reach out and support as many as we can. Government policy has ensured a competitive business environment for all firms based on a world-class economic infrastructure; a competitive tax regime that supports start-ups, scaling and investment; and strong institutions that provide access to skills and research and development.
On direct interventions, the local enterprise offices, LEOs, provide various training and consultancy programmes to small businesses, as well as acting as a "first stop shop" or signposting for all firms to find out about resources and programmes available from Government Departments and agencies, such as Revenue, Microfinance Ireland, Fáilte Ireland, the LEADER programme, Enterprise Ireland, Skillnet, education and training boards, ETBs, and many others also.
Over the past number of years, the Government has responded quickly and effectively through these existing State bodies to the challenges faced by domestically-focused firms, whether it is access to finance, supporting firms through Covid-19 or helping firms to navigate the twin transitions of climate action and digitalisation, as well as dealing with the pressures coming from the war in Ukraine.
The forthcoming White Paper on enterprise, which will outline the medium-term strategic direction of enterprise policy, will set out how we can leverage these structures further to improve the overall productivity of this important sector of the economy. We will look towards having that paper published before the end of the year. In this important sector, the local enterprise offices have dramatically expanded their reach over the past number of years. I also have engaged directly with them right throughout the country to see how we can enhance that and increase those limits even further again. They have a new relationship now with many more sectors that they would not have had in the past and we will certainly continue to build on that.
In October 2020, the Tánaiste, in response to Deputy Quinlivan, said that the idea of a new agency is certainly something that he had an open mind on and that many business people he spoke to felt that there was a gap. When business is very small it can get help from local enterprise offices and when it is a bit larger or is an exporter, it can get help from Enterprise Ireland but there is a gap in between. It is that gap that Sinn Féin policy is addressing directly.
When we speak to domestically trading small to medium enterprises, they continuously highlight to us the lack of an agency to act for them at national level. It is very tough to navigate the world of business. It is especially so for a small or medium-sized family-run business or a microenterprise. With this in mind, Sinn Féin has long sought the establishment of an Irish enterprise agency focusing on scaling existing Irish businesses and providing a strong agency for non-export focused start-ups and established companies. It is that gap which we have identified and, to be fair, I think the Minister of State has agreed with us that that gap exists. We have a policy as to how that would be filled but I would be interested to know what the Department will be doing in that regard.
We are trying to reach all of these companies through our various agencies. A lot of effort has gone in but our focus through the Department in the past couple of years is how we can fix relationships with Enterprise Ireland and the local enterprise offices to capture all of those companies. Very often, the gap that is presented to us and, no doubt, to the Deputy, is that when companies go beyond that ten mark, they can fall between the two agencies. The Deputy will see in the Enterprise Ireland strategy that was published last January the new focus to work with the local enterprise offices and to develop a new framework to make sure we capture all of those companies on their way up, although some of them might come back down, and if they were at 15, they might come back down to eight or nine. I can see that relationship has been greatly enhanced over the last couple of years. The framework, which will be published in the new year, identifies how best we will do that.
In addition, through a range of supports through the local enterprise offices, we are reaching many of those companies that the Deputy has identified. We are engaging with them through the Department in order to find the best way. The White Paper that the Tánaiste is leading out on, which will be published before the end of the year, will identify the best way to address any structural deficits to make sure we reach all of these companies.
The conversation about the third agency has been around a long time and I have heard it many times. Our focus has to be on what is the best way to reach these companies to make sure we can assist them in their journey of competitiveness and productivity, their green journey and their digitalisation journey. We are able to do that through all of the competitiveness offerings through the local enterprise offices and through Enterprise Ireland. Of course, every option is being looked at and we would be happy to take on board the Deputy’s suggestions in our review over the next couple of months.
I thank the Minister of State. While we disagree on a huge amount, there is broad agreement that the gap needs to be addressed. We know the IDA has attracted thousands of multinationals since its establishment. The success can be seen in the results for 2021, where we see more than 275,000 people employed in the multinational sector. Enterprise Ireland is also doing a good job in its responsibility for developing and growing export markets. It is just that gap that has been identified. We see agencies like InterTradeIreland and Údarás na Gaeltachta, which do good work in that area. However, for the non-foreign direct investment, FDI, non-exporting companies, there is that gap. Now is the time to move in. We are talking all the time of reasons why businesses might fail. We have the experience of businesses being supported through Covid and the need to protect jobs, particularly at this time. We would welcome the opportunity to work with the Department on this. As I said, it is long-standing Sinn Féin policy. We have identified that gap and we have some ideas. I would be happy to share those with the Minister of State and work with him.
Again, the ambition and the focus has to be to work with companies and to encourage more and more companies to take on international markets. That is the win-win for Ireland and that is where we can create more sustainable jobs. In any of our policy interventions, and I think most businesses get this, we have to also recognise there is a displacement issue. If there are four or five businesses trading domestically, all beside one another, grant-aiding one with direct financial grants can displace jobs in the other, so we always have to be mindful of that. When we sit down and have this conversation with businesses, they recognise that. That is where the ask is and our response has been how we can help them on the competitiveness journey, the green journey and on digitalisation, working with their skills and with their staff.
That is open to companies of all sizes, so I would encourage any company out there to engage. I often hear that companies regret leaving it too late to engage with the local enterprise offices. I would say that from day one, no matter who they are, what they are or what company they are in, right from the start, they should have that conversation with the local enterprise office. It is the signpost that will direct them to all the various supports across many Departments and Government agencies that can assist business. When we talk to them, many businesses had not realised some of the supports that are there, even through the Departments of Education and Social Protection and the Pathways to Work scheme. There are many supports for companies trading domestically and internationally. We want to work with them and to assist them on that competitiveness journey, and to assist them to be able to upskill their staff and create more jobs, which we need.
To be clear, as a Department, we also recognise that we cannot take this for granted. At this current time, we are at a high employment level. We want to build on that and work on that, and work with those companies in a regime that is supportive of job creation, which I do not always hear from Members in this House.
Somebody has to notify the office. I have just checked and there is no notification. I ask the Deputy to double-check what has happened. I will leave it open. If notification has not been given, I cannot do anything.