Saturday 21 September 2019

Heather Humphreys: 'We have planned for Brexit - and the State will support Irish business'

Uncertainty raised by Brexit presents a huge challenge but we are a resilient country, writes Heather Humphreys

Stock photo: PA Wire/PA Images
Stock photo: PA Wire/PA Images

Heather Humphreys

Brexit is the most significant challenge facing Irish enterprise in more than 50 years, not least because of the uncertainty it brings. What is certain is that it will involve significant change in the trading environment and in how we conduct business.

We are nothing if not a resilient people and the economy is still expected to record strong growth out to 2030. Ireland has traded its way out of challenging times before - and we will do so again. However, this will not happen by accident.

We remain hopeful that the political difficulties at Westminster can be resolved and that the withdrawal agreement will be ratified by the UK. Nevertheless, we cannot afford to sit back and wait.

That is why detailed contingency planning for all possible scenarios is intensifying across Government, including in my Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. It is now incumbent on us all - Government and businesses - to do everything we can to ensure that we are prepared for a worst-case scenario, should it arise.

Business Minister Heather Humphreys. Photo: Steve Humphries
Business Minister Heather Humphreys. Photo: Steve Humphries

In the past few days, for example, I met with key retail grocery players to discuss Brexit preparedness as part of my ongoing engagement with the sector. I was greatly encouraged by the measures they are putting in place to minimise any potential disruptions and I listened to a number of issues they raised with me.

I also met once again with business representative bodies, as well as with my department's enterprise and regulatory agencies, as part of the ramping up of preparations.

A recent survey by Enterprise Ireland showed that 85pc of its most impacted clients were taking Brexit-related actions. That is a positive development, but I want to see 100pc of all affected businesses engaging.

Some businesses are telling me that it is difficult to plan when we still do not know how Brexit will develop. That is understandable. Having managed a business myself, I know that it can be difficult to plan from week-to-week, let alone beyond that and into the unknown.

I understand that retailers, for example, are focused on their core business in the Christmas period when they generate a large portion of their annual sales.

Notwithstanding the uncertainty, however, there are several areas where firms can take immediate action to prepare. I am asking businesses to take heed and to take action now.

Be alert to your supply chains and any possible disruption that might arise. Firms should consider how they plan to move goods into and out of the country, especially if they are relying on ports and hauliers.

The use of alternative sea routes might be explored by importers and exporters with ferry companies if there are concerns, while the potential impact of any delays should be factored into business planning.

Be alert to new customs procedures that might be required. Under almost all scenarios, new procedures will apply on trade with the UK, while tariff and quota issues may arise, particularly in the agri-food sector.

Firms should consider what training or systems might be needed to deal with these new arrangements. Our new Online Customs Training tool, which is provided through Enterprise Ireland, is freely available to all companies.

Be alert to certification, standards and licensing issues. If goods manufactured in Ireland receive their EU-recognised certification marks - known as 'CE marks' - from bodies in the UK, then these firms will need to find alternative bodies in the EU27 to provide these services.

Likewise, if firms are importing products from the UK, they should make themselves aware of the new responsibilities that may arise as a result of Brexit.

Be alert to currency fluctuations. Many firms have already had to deal with currency volatility and further exchange rate movements are likely.

Companies with exposure to foreign currencies should develop hedging strategies as a priority, allowing them to respond more effectively. While large companies have recognised the importance of this issue, many smaller companies are falling behind.

I recently published a guide to Currency Risk Management for SMEs, which is available on my department's website.

Be alert to the State supports and loans schemes available from Government, including through Enterprise Ireland, the LEOs and InterTrade Ireland.

We have been intensively planning for Brexit since before the UK referendum results were even known and my department undertook an in-depth economic evaluation to understand the likely impact of a range of outcomes.

Using this evidence and consulting with businesses, we developed a wide range of supports.

In tandem with this, many of the potential consequences of a "no-deal" Brexit have already been set out in a series of European Commission notices. Firms should look at these notices with their representative bodies to better understand the possible impacts.

The Government's response to the UK decision to leave the EU will continue to evolve as events unfold. Our companies are the beating heart of our economy, we will continue to do everything we can to help your business prepare for Brexit.

Start by giving one person in your firm responsibility for Brexit and ask them to fill out our free online Brexit SME Scorecard. You still have time to prepare - but the time to act is now.

Heather Humphreys is Fine Gael TD for Cavan-Monaghan and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation

Sunday Independent

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