Friday, 30 April 2021
Business and Covid-19: Statements
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Is deas é a fheiceáil sa Teach seo don chéad uair ó toghadh don Seanad mé. I welcome the Tánaiste. It is good to see him in the House for the first time since I became a Senator. It is a very positive day today. People woke up slightly happier, maybe, than they have been in 14 months.
Bearing in mind there has been provision of approximately €30 billion in supports for individuals and businesses, how will the phasing out of these supports be done in a way that will still support vulnerable sectors, such as tourism, aviation and hospitality? These are three key matters we really need focus on, not just in my area of Clare, but in the entire region. Some 260,000 people work in the tourism sector alone. In the mid-west, the tourism sector brought in €472 million in 2019. As you can imagine, that has paled into non-existence, practically, in the past 14 months. Some 90% of the 270,000 jobs in tourism were lost during Covid. In Clare alone there would normally be 10,000 people employed in the tourism sector.
To help salvage this industry, I ask to see what extra supports the Government is hoping to bring in. I have talked to tourism businesses and the head of tourism. I have talked and listened to many people. I heard a couple of good examples of more funding, such as for tourism boards locally for advertising why visitors should come to their county and for a staycation initiative for people who might travel to other counties now that they can. There are many places to discover. We all know about the famous ones but every county has these special places. It is now time that people rediscovered places that are not so well known because we still want to maintain social distancing and spread out more. I would like to see some extra supports for tourism boards, like Clare tourism, to be able to promote these places.
Can local authority rates be waived until March 2022? This is basically a wish list. The retention of the 9% VAT rate is one of the things that really makes a difference to businesses. Ireland has some of the highest business costs in Europe, so we need our tourism tax rate to be in line with the rest of Europe. We need to keep the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, in place until March 2022 to help the tourism industry through the winter period. We also need to provide more supports for the local enterprise offices.I cannot emphasise them enough and the Minister himself mentioned the important role the LEOs have played. That was ironic as they have the same name as the Minister. The local enterprise offices have played a huge role in helping small businesses keep afloat during the pandemic. They have worked tirelessly to get businesses online, help them with marketing and help them get sales online. It is of paramount importance that we support them further because they have a lot more work left to do. They need extra staff and funding. They can currently only support member employers with up to ten staff. There is a gap between the LEOs and Enterprise Ireland for the firms with up to 20 staff. That cohort is falling between the cracks and I would like to see the LEOs being able to extend their offerings to that sector.
I know the Minister attended the opening of the Green for Micro scheme. That is something we need to look at because the recovery has to involve a green economy but not just because of the climate. As I have been saying for about 20 years, it makes economic sense as well to be green and Green for Micro is a superb programme. It also needs to be extended to other businesses. If people do not know about it we should tell every small business that the Green for Micro scheme will come into a business, offer a free two-day audit and then give the business a report on how it can save money and energy in the business by cutting costs. That is invaluable and saves businesses money.
I have to mention Shannon Airport because not only is it an airport but it is the nucleus of everything in that region. Pre-Covid, we saw a complete imbalance in the distribution of flights into the country. We need to address that issue and I ask the Minister to take that seriously because it affects the whole region of the mid-west.
I mention the Safe Pass programme. We need jobs for young people and the construction industry has been at a halt. I have been working with Deputy Niall Collins on this issue. We have to prioritise Safe Pass. It was stalled last year and it has not been possible to run the courses because they are all offline. Can the Minister clarify the extension of the expiry dates of the Safe Pass certificates? Can he get it online as is done in the rest of Europe? It is ridiculous that in this day and age we cannot do it online and simplify the whole thing. We should have done that already.
On small businesses and how they can cut costs by being greener, it would be good to see more incentives for them. When there are businesses carrying out green initiatives, they should be given extra praise or warranting as well. My fear is that as we move into a green economy, we have had greenwashing for years. It is time that greenwashing was not acceptable anymore. I remember seeing a petrol station getting the national green award. Those days are over. Let us recognise the people who are really doing the work. There is a woman in west Clare who is recycling plastics. Some 90% of her work is recycling and the rest is selling them as fencing posts. Sharon Barrington in west Clare was talking to me about her work. Those kinds of people are heroes. I would like to see extra supports put in place and I ask the Minister to read the book Small Is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher if he has not done so because moving forward we have to do what is better for our pockets and planet.