County Enterprise Boards (Dissolution) Bill 2013

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this reforming Bill, which allows the Government to honour commitments under the programme for Government and the Action Plan for Jobs by merging the employment support functions of local agencies and enterprise boards into a single entity or one-stop-shop. Counties Cavan and Monaghan do not benefit from foreign direct investment to the same extent as the eastern counties. The IDA facilitated three visits to County Cavan in 2012 and only two in 2013. Small businesses need strong support to compensate for this lack of foreign direct investment. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, to give an assurance that he will positively discriminate in favour of counties like Cavan and Monaghan by providing them with additional funding to correct the imbalance. While we will continue to demand our fair share of investment, we also want to support small businesses.

All of us recognise the vital role that the small business sector plays in our continued economic recovery. A consultation paper on the reform of the national micro and small business sector published by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation found that over 90% of our enterprise base is made up of companies with fewer than ten employees and they contribute €10 billion to our Exchequer every year. In light of the contribution the sector makes to our economy, it is crucial that we support it. Small enterprises are the lifeblood of small towns and villages throughout this country.

Section 6 of the Bill deals with the transfer of functions from the existing county enterprise boards to Enterprise Ireland, which has an excellent record in promoting Irish business abroad and ensuring the continued growth of our export market. Enterprise Ireland chiefly deals with businesses which employ more than ten members of staff.

It provides funding, expertise and support to these businesses. County enterprise boards were the traditional support system for mirco-enterprises and local and indigenous traded services. Their track record is similarly impressive and it is important that we recognise the good work they have done over the last 20 years. On average, 1,000 micro-enterprise projects are given direct grant assistance, mentoring and support management every year.

In my county, the Cavan Enterprise Board continues to perform its key role in stimulating economic activity and developing the indigenous enterprise potential of the county. Last year, they approved €419,500 in assistance to a range of 23 different enterprises, which have the potential to create 60 new direct jobs. They are active and are doing an extremely good job. As we bring in the new regime, I should acknowledge the good work done by Mr. Vincent Reynolds, Mr. Jim Fox and all the staff of the Cavan Enterprise Board. They will be available in the new LEO to work for the good of enterprise and to merge their capacities with those of the local authority.

In the area of food, for example, we ran the very successful food fair, with support from the enterprise board and masterminded by the local authority. We also have held the successful Fleadh Cheoil over three years in Cavan. These are indications of the good enterprise culture in Cavan County Council, we have a successful enterprise board and the merging of the two in no way scares me. I do not accept the thesis that local authorities are not capable of dealing with enterprise. We have an enterprise culture in our local authority and I think it can be increased under the legislation.

The reforms contained in section 6 intend to optimise job creation by increasing the efficiency of the county enterprise boards, incorporating them as one under the umbrella of Enterprise Ireland. It will bring micro-enterprise and small business supports together in one place, creating a new centre of excellence. This new centre will monitor, benchmark and standardise best practices nationwide. From speaking with local entrepreneurs and business owners in Cavan, I am aware that they need the one-stop shop so that they can access all of the services under one roof. This is part of the Action Plan for Jobs as well.

Each local enterprise organisation will develop a local plan and that will be important. The local authority will have to support this plan in a myriad of ways. It will increase the enterprise culture of the local authority and the existing expertise of the local enterprise boards, which is considerable and cannot be denigrated, will be brought into play there too.
I welcome the news that it will be up and running in April, with additional funding of €3.5 million and 170 dedicated staff, which as I stated, will incorporate existing staff from the enterprise boards.

The LEOs will be the single source of support. The new services will include the vital young entrepreneurship fund, the Microfinance Ireland fund, the credit guarantee, and access to services from Revenue and the Department Social Protection. These all will be under one roof in one centre, and, ultimately, with democratic control at local level.

In terms of the staffing of the new LEOs, the Minister has already stated that he will be maintaining the staff of the county enterprise board. The Minister of State, Deputy Perry might reiterate that in his reply because it is important there is reassurance in that regard. There will be a new graduate recruitment programme which is important to develop an enterprise culture.

We need more jobs in counties such as Cavan and Monaghan. We need local enterprise supported. We need positive investment to compensate for the pull to the east and to population centres of inward investment. That is crucial.

Section 10 of the Bill will ensure that any loans or grants approved by existing county enterprise boards will be honoured by the new Enterprise Ireland umbrella. There need be no uncertainty or fear among existing clients of the enterprise boards. An implementation group comprising representatives of county enterprise boards, Enterprise Ireland and various Departments, founded in 2012, aims to tackle the administration side of the transfer and I am sure that the carryover of pre-approved grants will be dealt with here.
In a similar vein, I would argue that there is a need for a degree of flexibility in eligibility for supports, including financial. In that context, it should have the least bureaucratic obstacles to those trying to start up a business. Everything should be put in plain language. There should be support to access funds and simplify matters. It should not be an obstacle race. On the contrary, we should revel in and be proud of those who want to create an enterprise. We should applaud such persons, affirm them and give them the wherewithal to get started, and not put obstacles, a multitude of inspections, bureaucracy and form-filling in their way. If necessary, information should be extracted, from those who might not always have the competencies, through conversation and written down for them. I do not see why a lack of capacity to fill forms should be an obstacle to an entrepreneur. If such flexibility and commonsense was not applied, I would be afraid of people losing out.
There is a problem in accessing finance. There is a need for the local enterprise offices to support clients in getting finance. I would be hopeful of success in that area.

The LEOs will deliver business information and advisory services, enterprise support services, entrepreneurship support services and local Enterprise development services. As is usual best practice, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation will still retain overall responsibility for national enterprise policy. That is how it should be. I am pleased with the local democratic input.
All the agencies of the county need to focus in on the LEOs to get a job creation culture going in every county. At present, there is nothing more important than the creation of jobs. We are doing well with the private sector creating 1,200 new jobs per week but we need to improve on this.
All of our economic policies, all of our fiscal policies and all budgetary strategies are really predicated on the idea of creating jobs. Every job is vital, for the human being concerned and in terms of the social welfare budget.

I commend the legislation. It is an exciting new adventure. It will bring the best of what exists together with a democratically controlled expertise of the local authority. With proper funding, it can work well. I look forward to an assurance on funding.
Counties, such as Cavan and Monaghan, which do badly out of jobs announcements should do well out of this.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website