Thursday, 27 June 2019

Ceisteanna (8)

Joe Carey


8. Deputy Joe Carey asked the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation the estimated impact the national broadband plan will have in implementing strategies such as Future Jobs Ireland 2019; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [27105/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Business)

I wish to ask the Minister the estimated impact the national broadband plan will have in implementing strategies such as Future Jobs Ireland 2019, and if she will make a statement on the matter. I tabled this question to establish her Department's progress in developing a remote working policy as put forward in the Future Jobs Ireland 2019 strategy.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The national broadband plan is a key commitment in the programme for Government and is a core component of Project Ireland 2040. The national broadband plan will be a key enabler for the delivery of strategies such as Future Jobs Ireland as we prepare for the next stage of our economic development. Future Jobs Ireland is a new medium-term economic framework aimed at ensuring our economy is resilient enough to withstand shocks in the future and agile enough to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. The national broadband plan will support Future Jobs Ireland in helping our workers and businesses succeed in the digital, low-carbon economy of the future.

Digitalisation can drive substantial increases in productivity, innovation, social improvements and connections, and economic growth and jobs. To maximise the benefits from digitalisation we will need a strategic approach. Future Jobs Ireland 2019 sets out how we will begin to implement this strategic approach through the development of a national digital strategy, an industry 4.0 strategy and a national artificial intelligence strategy. The roll-out of the national broadband plan is critical for the use of advanced digital technologies core to all of these strategies.

Fundamentally, a driving goal of Government policy is to increase the living standards of our people. Increasing productivity levels is key to achieving this goal. Through Future Jobs Ireland, we hope to adopt measures to increase the productivity of indigenous SMEs over time. Therefore, I welcome the potential for significant productivity benefits for the almost 44,000 small and microbusinesses in the areas where high-speed broadband will operate under the national broadband plan and the potential for them to link to new markets and develop a global footprint. In line with Future Jobs Ireland aspirations, and complementing several Government strategies, delivery of the national broadband plan will help enhance the potential of the regions in terms of economic development by building regional economic drivers and reinforcing opportunities to diversify and strengthen the rural economy, and to leverage the potential of regional locations and communities. I look forward to an Ireland in which geography no longer disadvantages regional and rural communities in exploiting digital opportunities and digital commerce. The national broadband plan will be a key enabler as officials in my Department work with colleagues in the Department of the Taoiseach, in consultation with relevant stakeholders, on the development of new deliverables for inclusion in Future Jobs Ireland 2019 and beyond.

Over the past months, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Rural and Community Development, which I chair, has had a number of hearings on remote working. I was particularly impressed by an organisation called Grow Remote. It is a voluntary organisation set up to promote and drive this new working practice. It has had great success across the country. The Minister has engaged with Grow Remote directly herself. Flexible working offers the individual great benefits. They do not have to drive to and from work. We can get rid of the long commutes, which is good for the environment and the people, as well as for the employer because one will have a happier, more productive workforce. However, we need a more strategic approach to the development of co-working spaces and remote working. The Future Jobs Ireland strategy outlines that there will be a need for a national policy and I welcome the fact that the Minister has referred to the national digital strategy. I would like to see remote working forming a cornerstone of that policy and would like to hear the Minister's views on it.

I wish to compliment the Deputy, who is a very strong advocate for remote working and has championed it as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Rural and Community Development. The way we are working is changing and this trend is only going to get stronger in the future with the pace of technological change. A key focus of Future Jobs Ireland is on flexible and remote working. We are at full employment and the labour market is tightening. We need to consider how we can make sure that everybody who wants to work has the opportunity. There is a cohort of women who can benefit from remote working. Flexible working can not only bring tangible benefits to employers and employees but can also support a more creative and inclusive society. For the employer, benefits include the greater attraction of workers from a larger pool of talent, which is especially valuable in a tight labour market; staff retention; a more motivated workforce; fewer sick days; and greater productivity. For the employee, flexible working offers the potential for a better work-life balance and can provide solutions for those who would otherwise take unpaid parental leave but cannot afford to do so.

The Minister is taking this on and I welcome that. A key element is to encourage employers and companies to see offering remote working as an opportunity for themselves. It is very hard to attract and retain talent but it could be advantageous to offer the opportunity to work remotely, as the work-life balance aspect could be a serious factor. A person could live and work in and contribute to a local community. Has the Minister any ideas or policies in respect of encouraging companies to take on remote workers?

This is a major focus of Future Jobs Ireland; pillar 4 is focusing on participation. I will host a major stakeholder consultation forum on remote working on 18 July in the Cavan Digital Hub. We will have companies that offer remote working along on the day, such as Amazon, to talk about their experience. We have also invited the National Women's Council. I also want to hear from organisations like Abodoo and Grow Remote, whose representatives I have also met, that match jobs to remote workers' skill sets.

Broadband is going to be a game changer for rural Ireland; there is no doubt about that. I was in New Zealand on a trade mission recently and met one of the Maori leaders. He said broadband has changed the rural face of New Zealand. They are in the second or third year of the roll-out of a national broadband plan very similar to what we plan to do here in terms of those who are not connected. He said it has made such a difference. Broadband in rural and regional areas is the game changer.