First of all, let me thank you for the invitation to address your political leaders’ series. This event was scheduled before the Taoiseach let us all know the date he had long planned for the election.
I want to respect the Dublin Chamber’s long-established reputation as a non-partisan forum focused on the economic, social and cultural interests of our capital city.
So this will not be another election speech – but please let there be no doubt that we are still looking for your votes and we want a change of government.
It is always a pleasure to meet with the members of the Chamber and discuss the challenges and opportunities which they see for Dublin.
I and my party value the engagement which we have with an organisation representing so many businesses and which is always focused on a much wider range of issues.
Dublin is a strong and international city. This strength has fundamentally been built on long-term foundations.
It has been built on the basis of the skills, knowledge and innovation of the people of Dublin and those who it has attracted to a proud city which has a remarkable past and leads the world in many important areas.
However, Dublin, like our country, faces very serious challenges – and the biggest of these is to stop the growing division between those who are able to prosper and those who, even when they work incredibly hard, feel they are locked out of the opportunity to have a secure place in our society and economy.
As I have said many times, my greatest political hero is Seán Lemass – also the greatest political leader produced by Dublin. In so many ways he is the father of modern Ireland.
After over four decades in politics, and with a career as a reforming minister behind him, he became Taoiseach of a country which had almost given up on the idea that it could prosper.
When he looked at Ireland’s future he set out certain core principles which he believed were essential to bringing Ireland from being one of Europe’s poorest countries to being able to support its own people.
He believed that social and economic goals must go together. Business needs a strong society and a strong society needs successful and dynamic business.
He believed in Ireland looking outwards through joining what is now the European Union.
He believed in working to overcome historic divisions on this island was essential,
And he believed that investment in our people must always be our priority.
I, and so many of my contemporaries were given opportunity by the dramatic expansion in education which he commenced and remains my party’s proudest policy.
Dublin is lucky to have four great universities where thousands of graduates qualify on a yearly basis.
We are all aware of the challenges in third level funding which has been lagging behind other EU countries.
This has to be corrected. We are committed to allocating another €100m to third level funding as recommended in the Cassells Report.
Modern Ireland has thrived, but equally it is today failing to cope with many deep challenges – and these challenges can only be tackled by a renewed commitment to delivering practical action in both the social and economic fields.
The homelessness we see every day on the streets of Dublin and other cities is a challenge which faces us all.
The difficulties which people face in finding a place to buy or rent is both a social and an economic issue. The shortage of suitable and affordable rented accommodation is affecting businesses ability to recruit staff.
Safe communities and accessible services are as much of an issue for businesses who want to thrive as they are for everyone else.
That is why I believe we need to broaden how we talk about economic issues – and it is why we need to see the many separate elements which have to be addressed if we want to have a successful and inclusive country.
I have talked at length in recent days about urgent issues relating to public services, so in these short remarks, before open questions, I will add to them by discussing a very specific series of issues impacting on businesses and the general economy. Specifically, I want to outline policies which we believe should be implemented:
• Taxation and prudent economical management
• Supporting our SMEs.
• Competitiveness and cutting the costs of doing business.
Income tax package and the Economy
The urgent public need is for a focus on public services which are today caught in a crisis.
However, people also need targeted tax relief.
Yesterday, our Finance Spokesperson laid out a detailed income tax package, which we want to implement.
This package is very much aimed at middle income earners.
With rising incomes, hardworking middle income individuals and couples will face annual tax increases unless changes are made to the current tax code.
The burden placed on these employees and families is even more difficult with escalating childcare costs and rents.
Therefore, we believe that ambitious measures are possible such as:
• Reducing the 4.5% Universal Social Charge by one percent to 3.5%;
• Increasing the Standard Rate Income Tax Band by €3,000 for an individual and €6,000 for a couple;
• Fully equalising the self-employed tax credit with PAYE workers by increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit to €1,650;
Action on affordable childcare is also urgent, and the opportunity is there to address it.
We have a range of policy suggestions in this area and they will be launched in our Party’s manifesto tomorrow.
These include extending the ECCE Scheme from 38 to 40 weeks, increasing the National Childcare Scheme from €20 to €80 per week, regulating au pairs and also introducing a tax credit for parents who use registered child minders.
On the macroeconomic front having a well-funded rainy day fund will safeguard our public finances.
We believe it should be increased and can provide an important underpinning to long-term confidence in the economy.
The economic cycle never stands still, so we must be prudent in putting in place a buffer if current international trading factors change course.
We are fully satisfied that the resources in the rainy day fund will be available to deploy if called upon, while meeting the conditions under the Stability and Growth pact.
Finally, the tax system has too many traps and too often the revenue it generates is unexpected or unsustainable.
That’s why we believe there should be Commission on Taxation to oversee the sustainability of our tax system and its core pro-enterprise orientation.
Supporting our SMEs
Multinational firms are thriving in Ireland and bring much added value in employment and exports.
This is great and I’m proud of the work which we did in this field.
But our indigenous small businesses are still not realising their full potential.
The recent OECD review of government SME policy confirmed this untapped potential.
The substantial review said, “challenges remain with regard to Ireland’s domestic SME sector, which is still lagging behind and displaying much lower levels of competitiveness, productivity and R&D spending than large multinationals”.
Most damming of all, the OECD says, “the country lacks a unified SME and entrepreneurship policy document”.
It is paramount that that policy is refocused towards our 250,000 indigenous enterprises located in every village, town and city nationwide.
The SME sector must be radically supported so that our domestic enterprises can grow and become the powerhouse of the economy into the future.
In the 1950s, Seán Lemass set out a radical plan for increased FDI that has benefited the economy to the present day.
Irish small businesses now require the same strategic focus to be set out in a national SME masterplan.
This will require setting out a new visionary long-term strategic blueprint to recast SME policy in Ireland for the next decade, one which engenders pro-enterprise and pro-entrepreneur policies.
This needs to be a genuine national, collective priority.
So, I can confirm that, if we are in a position to do so, Fianna Fáil will establish a SME Growth Taskforce comprised of department representatives, Enterprise agencies and SME stakeholders to design a National SME Masterplan.
This Masterplan will incorporate the best elements of the OECD roadmap on SME and entrepreneurship policy.
It will also set out targets to augment small business growth as well as improving start-up rates, productivity rates; and R&D business activity.
Tomorrow, we will also outline detailed plans on specific supports that will further incentivise SME start ups and scaling up of existing enterprises.
Meanwhile, Brexit represents one of the biggest threats to Irish businesses, exports and jobs since the foundation of the State.
We must collectively work to limit and mitigate the negative impact from this outcome in any future trading arrangement.
The business community has regularly criticised the extremely restrictive conditionality and limits in existing loans schemes.
It speaks for itself that only 30% of the Brexit loan schemes have been drawn down.
Regardless, you can be certain that we are focused on ensuring that we avoid a disorderly Brexit at the end of 2021.
We are focused on securing a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement and level playing field provisions to safeguard Ireland’s competitiveness and our economy.
Competitiveness and Cutting the costs of doing business
Ireland remains an expensive location to do business in across many areas such as property, insurance, transport, energy and business services.
The National Competitiveness Council has outlined that Ireland is a ‘high cost” location approaching the same level as Japan and Denmark.
Regrettably, competitiveness is not receiving the attention it deserves with Ireland falling to its lowest ranking in the 12-year history of the World Bank’s “ease of doing business” standings.
Businesses are being put to the pin of their collars with mounting costs.
I hear it every day I meet small business owners in villages, towns, and cities of the absolute need to reduce the costs of doing business.
Combined with this, public liability insurance premiums soar for businesses, which are hampering your day to day existence.
Insurance reforms have not been rapid enough.
My party has put several pieces of insurance reform forward in the last Dáil, which were unfortunately blocked, but we will continue to pursue them if elected to government.
These will cut down on insurance fraudsters, exaggerated claims, as well as reforming the Personal Injuries Assessment Board.
Last month, the first annual Private Motor Insurance Report of the National Claims Information Database was published by the Central Bank.
It is vital that a national claims information database for employer liability and public liability is compiled to track the level of claims for business insurance.
There are many areas which we could discuss in greater detail, third level education, availability of skilled staff, support for training, start-up incentives, delivering clean and safe cities and investment in critical infrastructure to address the commuter gridlock which is defining too many parts of our cities. I hope we can discuss these during the open session.
The core pillars for a successful Dublin and a successful country remain those outlined by Seán Lemass – a pro-enterprise policy, investment in education at all levels, being open to the world, investment in social supports, and development of critical infrastructure.
I believe that this is a defining moment for our capital and our country. One thing we know for sure is that the blockages we see everywhere simply have to be overcome.
We need a new urgency and active engagement – not a complacency which waits for issues to become a crisis before they are addressed.