I apologise for having to leave but I had to go to the Dáil and then attend to another matter.
I thank the Ministers for being here and making themselves and their teams available, as they have always done. I very much appreciate their efforts. I value the Ministers' engagement, which is always very forthcoming. I know they are obliged to be forthcoming but we appreciate it and I am thankful for it.
These are unprecedented times. One of the issues I will home in on is business. Both Ministers are extremely committed to small businesses and SMEs throughout the country because they are the backbone of employment. In smaller and more rural areas in particular, the people who create a job for themselves or one, two or ten others in the community are the backbone of society. They are really hurting and finding life extremely difficult.
A reporter for a local newspaper in County Kerry who is doing a story on the effects of energy costs on businesses asked me today how businesses are being affected and how they are managing. Obviously I left out the medical side because nothing was worse than the loss of life during Covid, as we all readily acknowledged, but I am being hard-nosed about this in talking about business. From a business point of view, I truthfully believe that energy costs are worse. Through the efforts of the Minister for Finance and his officials and the good work of the Government in supporting small business, doors were kept open. Even though the doors were shut during Covid, the Government handled the situation in such a way that businesses were financially supported and could open their doors when the rules and regulations allowed them to do so. Now we find that the doors are open, businesses are operating, as they are entitled to do, and open for business, but the costs are so enormous that they do not have the benefit of the Government supports and are really struggling. The Ministers know this but I feel I must say it. What is happening now, from a business point of view, is worse than Covid because we do not have the back-up of the Government.
I look forward to seeing what measures the Government will put in place. I do not believe the measures will be enough. I am not being negative when I say that because everyone knows I am not that way. I am not criticising the budget before I know what it contains but I find it hard to envisage how the Government will be able to do for small business now what was done for them during Covid. I hope I am proved wrong and the Minister will be the saviour small business needs in terms of addressing the energy costs encountered by shopkeepers, hairdressers, and the owners of beauty salons, small engineering works and so on.
We hear about the issue of declaring interests. I have a small shop myself, so I see it myself. The bills that were €1,500 or €2,000 every eight weeks are now €9,500. One can deal with that once or twice, but when one has to contend with that and sees it go nowhere but up, one would wonder if it is possible to keep the business open. The people I represent tell me that they are more fearful than ever before.
I have another matter to put to the Ministers. I was grateful that the rates review that was being carried out a couple of years ago was, rightly, deferred because of Covid. It is now going ahead. The local authorities are rolling it out for every business and rateable properly. It is not being looked at with a view to reducing the rates but with a view to increasing them. I do not think, in the times we are in, that it is a good time to tell people in small businesses that their rates are going up. It is the exact opposite. We should look at deferring this. I humbly ask the Ministers, on behalf of the businesspeople in Kerry, to please not touch the rates. I am sure other people around the country would say exactly the same thing. People will not be able to afford the rates. Kerry County Council and its finance department, as the Ministers know, is excellent at its job. I know that local authorities can look at inability to pay case by case. Unfortunately, many businesses will be unable to pay. Rather than pursuing a rates increase, I ask the Ministers to look at that. I know they might say it is outside their sphere, but if the people in charge of the Department of Finance cannot look at that in a sensible way, then who else can?
The Ministers have often heard me talk about mum's purse. One could be the Minister for Finance, be over in Europe and doing everything in the world, but if Mrs. Murphy or Mrs. Sullivan's purse is not in order on a Friday evening and she cannot manage the bills or run her house, then everything else is in serious trouble too. Unfortunately, mum's purse is at breaking point because there is nothing in it. During Covid, the Government was good at trying to support all those circumstances. Unfortunately, a bag of coal for Christmas is now €40 or €45. It is fine to tell people to retrofit their home and that the Government will give them a big grant, but I know nobody with €30,000 or €40,000 under the bed to produce to retrofit their home.
While I hate telling the Ministers this, though it is a fact, the majority of businesses installing solar energy are doing so without the grant. One might say it is insane to leave a grant of 20% or 30% on the table, but I will tell the Ministers why that happens. One of the first things that has to be done is an energy audit, which costs between €10,000 and €12,000. The Government might say that it will provide grant aid of 50% or maybe a bit less. It is telling businesses to get a big bundle of paper. They will have to provide €10,000 or €12,000 and the Government will give them €5,000 or €6,000. The paperwork will delay the project by nine months. Every eight weeks, one has to pay an energy bill of between €9,000 and €12,000. People are better off, by hook or by crook, to go ahead and put up the solar panels without the benefit of the grant. A grant should not be set up that way. It should be more user-friendly and easier to get.
The buzzword of the Government seems to be that it has to do its part for the environment and rightly so, but there is no good reason, by now, for every roof in Ireland not to have solar panels. The Government is not actually serious about that. I do not like telling the Ministers that, but it is a fact. Talk to the people who are installing the systems and who want to have these systems. They will say that it is not working because the bureaucracy involved in getting the grants is turning off households. The energy audits and so on are just not practical for businesses. That is why so few take this up. If one was up in the sky looking down at roofs in Ireland, every farm building should be covered in solar panels. Every day when the weather is at all fair, we should have between 70% and 80% of our energy coming from solar. Even on a bad, cloudy day, we should be self-sufficient to the tune of 20% to 30% coming from the sky. We are not. What has been done so far is like a spit in the ocean. I would like the Ministers to work on those things.
I express my hope that the budget will do meaningful things. Regarding what has happened in the past, there was much talk about the €200 that people got off their ESB bill. I respect it very much. The €200 was a lot of money in the week when it came out of people's accounts. Many bad weeks have come and gone both before and after that. We want to see more of those meaningful measures. I am fearful for older people who, in many instances, can only hope to heat their homes this winter through what they buy, whether it is timber, coal or turf, if they are allowed to do so. One can call those homes energy inefficient, but they cannot be made efficient and, in those people's lifetimes, they probably will not be able to change in the way the Ministers might like them to change. These are the types of problems we have.
I will finish like I always do. I thank the Ministers for the work they are doing. I acknowledge the people in the Department of Finance who work behind the scenes. As a small businessperson, compared with someone running the finances of the country, it is all relative. It is like running a bigger business and trying to do everything the right way. It is the same in a small business. One tries to pay the bills, to do things right and to keep one's nose clean. That is what the Ministers are trying to do on a larger scale. I thank everybody involved and hope that they will make the best decisions that they can for the people who are hard-pressed and need help in this budget more than ever before.
I am sorry if I ran over time.