Wednesday, 6 November 2019
Report of Seanad Public Consultation Committee: Statements
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Breen, and acknowledge his enormous track record in the few years he has been Minister of State with responsibility for this area. I thank, in particular, the rapporteur for the committee, my colleague, Senator Ó Céidigh, and the Leas-Chathaoirleach who is its Chairman. It is a really important piece of work. As I was listening to Senator Ó Céidigh, I was thinking about how we were all small business people. We are involved in enterprise and are like entrepreneurs. I like to keep my language simple. Irish people innately like to make a few bob. We like the challenge of doing something. At the age of 11 years, I kept angora rabbits and sold angora wool. I sent it through the post and was sent back a postal order which I had difficulty cashing. If we bought a bag of sweets for a shilling as little kids, we would cut it open and sell them for a penny each to make a few bob. That is something that is innate to Irish people's psyche. We are dealers. My father was a cattle dealer and I inherited some of his guile and determination, or whatever else one might call it, which drove me to turn a buck and make a bob. I believe it is something all Irish people have. We talk about SMEs and enterprise, but I like to keep it simple. We all like to provide and put a loaf on the table. We realise business is essential in that regard.
I acknowledge, in particular, Senators Coghlan, Ó Céidigh, Ardagh, Buttimer, Byrne, Conway, Mark Daly, Devine, Freeman and Kelleher who make up the committee. The report is a really important piece of work. I will focus in on it but will not take long. It is 186 pages long and includes 129 recommendations. One of the things I really like about the report of the Seanad Public Consultation Committee on small and medium enterprises in Ireland is that it sets out and talks about our key successes. It acknowledges them, which is really positive. It is not all negative or downbeat but acknowledges our key successes. It also acknowledges and sets out the key challenges we face. It is particularly interesting to see how they were built into the report, which is important. More importantly, it includes 129 recommendations. If the report is to have any meaning and not to gather dust like so many others in the Houses of the Oireachtas and Departments, we need to do something about it.
One of the other things I like about the report is the quality of the data. That is what gives it integrity and meaning. I have looked through it and the data and evidence are included. I was taken particularly by the summary of the top four industries in each county, based on the percentage of people engaged in each industry. That is a really powerful infographic included in the report. It confirms everything Senator Ó Céidigh has said about there being different horses for different courses. What works in Dublin might not work elsewhere in Leinster, Munster or different parts of the country. That is an important point.
The report is a great body of work, but it has to have meaning. We need to see its recommendations tracked and a timeline for their delivery. Not everything will happen today or tomorrow. We need to put in place regular reviews of the report to see if it is being implemented. Implementation will be slow, but it is important that the report be implemented and that its implementation be tracked. I know that the Minister of State will agree.
I was particularly impressed by the report's focus on certain issues, one of which I will single out - the farming and agrifood sector. There is an enormous number of small enterprises involved in the production of artisan foods, from mustard to jam to chutney. The country market scene has really grown in Ireland. It is now a popular leisure activity to visit a country market at the weekend. While we have great companies like the Kerry Group at one level, there are loads of little family run niche businesses at another. If a little business just keeps one household going, it is really good. There is a real need to go back to producing holistic and organic products which are home-produced. We are brilliant at it. It is a matter of bringing artisan craft food companies to a higher level. Some of the big companies started in this way. Big oak trees come from small acorns. Businesses have to start somewhere and then grow. If they are nurtured, they will grow. That is a really important point.
I welcome the report's emphasis on farming and, particularly, fisheries. This is an island and the potential of the fisheries sector is enormous, but we have to add value to fish products. We could produce fish-meal, but there are many other things that could be done in the fisheries industry. This ties in with the development of the hospitality and tourism sectors, on which the report also places great emphasis. I was particularly impressed by the focus on innovation and collaboration. These are two key and important words which are central to the tenor of the report.They are particularly good. I want to acknowledge the importance of the data, demographics, research and information in the report.
In his speech the Minister of State said that on 4 October 2019, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, announced 16 LEO projects, which is excellent. He also referenced the LEO productivity challenge fund, which totals €500,000. It is not enough. I know times are tough and it is hard to get money, but only 2,500 vouchers are required. It is not a lot of money overall. People should not have to jump through hoops to secure funding. I know the Minister would like to do more and that resources do not allow us to do more, but I would like that to be under constant review.
I am appealing to the Minister of State, his Government colleagues and everybody here. If we are to address the challenges of small and medium business, impediments to local enterprise and give help to the shopkeepers, shoemakers, sweetshops and newsagents which keep our villages and towns thriving, we have to examine how we are funding local government. The reliance on funding the core day-to-day activities of our 31 local authorities through local businesses is grossly unfair.
The property tax was introduced with great promises. People may recall the leaflets, fanfare and publicity around the local property tax and it was said every citizen was going to make a contribution, and rightly so. I am not against the local property tax, rather, I am against the current mechanism and the fact it does not take into account anyone's ability to pay. I understand the Government is examining reform of the local property tax, which I welcome.
I do not think it is right and proper that businesses are propping up the funding of local authorities. I am aware that some councillors, who have spoken to me, are striking rates today. Businesses are up in arms because shopkeepers and businesses are always the soft target. I understand the difficulties faced by local government, but the best thing we could do over the next number of years is reform how we fund local government and remove the burden and over-reliance on commercial rates to support it from the backs and shoulders of small, medium and large enterprises and entrepreneurs.
If we are to ensure things go further, we have to put in place a tracking and delivery mechanism and ensure there is a constant review of the objectives of this report. Well done to all involved.