Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 4 March 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation
Action Plan for Jobs: Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation
I will go through all of the items. Most members are familiar with the Action Plan for Jobs process. Each year we consult business, enterprise, those on both sides of industry and entrepreneurs to try to identify pressure points. We then seek to address them throughout Government. This year is no different. I will not go through all of the areas; I will just highlight some where we have a new focus this year. One is entrepreneurship, where we believe, following the Sean O'Sullivan report, there is much more we can do. We will have a youth entrepreneurship fund and we will streamline mentoring. The 31 local enterprise offices will be linked to the centres of excellence. We will target more female, young and overseas entrepreneurs to try to improve the entire environment.
Another area is strengthening our platform overseas to win new investment and additional trade. We received sanction for 34 more IDA personnel overseas and 20 more Enterprise Ireland personnel overseas. The IDA has a target of 6,000 direct additional jobs over five years and Enterprise Ireland has targets in respect of additional exports to be generated.
Another theme is manufacturing. Last year we had a forum on manufacturing and we believe there is potential to drive our manufacturing capability. This year we will have a targeted approach with regard to 200 mid-sized manufacturing companies which have the capacity to grow, two thirds of which are Enterprise Ireland companies and one third of which are IDA companies. We will target more manufacturing start-ups and will focus our research and development and tech centres on manufacturing. Through the Department of Education and Skills we hope to develop new apprenticeship areas in manufacturing.
The committee is concerned about access to finance, and we have a commitment to improve the terms of the credit guarantee. We are examining new ways to sweat the existing instruments and we have expanded the reach of the Credit Review Office. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, announced an initiative to strengthen the capability of small and medium enterprises to deal with banks. We have a continuing commitment to extend the range of alternative finance, examining in particular crowd-funding and peer-to-peer lending. These new areas are growing rapidly in some countries.
We will also have continuing emphasis on sectors of opportunity and improving the business environment. These are areas that have become the bread and butter of the annual process. This year we will place a particular focus on skills. SOLAS will publish its strategy before the end of next month and we will roll out actions on the apprenticeship review.
Some of the issues targeted by the committee have been picked up with regard to unemployment and youth unemployment . We will try to build programmes with stronger linkages to the labour market.
That is a focus of the Department's work in the areas of both activation and skills. As for a national youth strategy on entrepreneurship, effectively we will start that process with a youth entrepreneurship fund. The revamp and the reform of the apprenticeship system, which the joint committee highlighted, will be implemented this year. On the social economy, as members are aware, the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, is working on a group in the social enterprise area and it is hoped to have actions arising therefrom in the course of the year.
As for the joint committee's second report on mentoring, as part of the partnership focus, the Department has commissioned work on mentoring and has carried out an evaluation. I have just recently had sight of this report, which will be published. There has been an evaluation carried out of our mentoring programmes which, as members are aware, are scattered. Some are funded by the State, such as those in the local enterprise offices, Enterprise Ireland and Skillnets, but there are many other players in that environment. The aim will be to try to sharpen and improve the quality of mentoring, to have greater benchmarking of precisely what is achieved by mentoring projects and to try to deliver a better service. The creation of the centre of excellence in Enterprise Ireland, which will oversee both the mentoring activities of the LEOs and the agency's own mentoring programme, provides a tool with which to work on streamlining in this area. While Deputy Áine Collins is not present today, she has been extremely active in this area.
As for the south east, the Department continues to have an action plan for the south east in terms of its performance and we have had some very good wins. The overall employment numbers in the south east published last week were exceptionally good with a net increase in employment in that region of 15,000 and a reduction of 3.3% in the unemployment rate over the year. That almost was the best regional performance in the country. There have been a number of successes, many of them on the Enterprise Ireland and indigenous side, as opposed to the foreign direct investment, FDI, side, although there were some FDI investments such as Nypro. However, the Department continues to have a focus on the south east, which, even though it has improved, still has the highest unemployment rate in the country. Its industrial base needs to be strengthened and the IDA has committed to build a 2,500 sq. m life sciences facility this year, which again is a recognition that its enterprise infrastructure must be strengthened. Much of what was in that report goes well beyond my areas of responsibility but they are continuing concerns in respect of the action plan for the south east.
I can probably answer questions on the budget allocations, as they are published. However, it is hard to go through them as they are merely presented in tabular form. However, there may be underlying issues with which I could deal. On the moratorium on recruitment to Enterprise Ireland, since 2009 the agency has reduced its staff by approximately 20% and there undoubtedly has been considerable consolidation in Enterprise Ireland. To be fair to Enterprise Ireland, a huge number of staff members, approximately 250 of them, have changed their roles. In other words, there has been huge adaptation of existing staff to the challenges and programmes that have evolved. Naturally, matters continue to evolve and new things have been done in the recession, such as setting up a potential exporters division, greatly enhancing the area that considers lean processes in the existing manufacturing base to try to improve processes therein. Moreover, there have been efforts to establish a stronger technology transfer operation. The position is changing and evolving continually as, for example, female entrepreneurship now has become a major part of Enterprise Ireland's work. I believe concern regarding this issue arose on foot of an internal audit that indicated this pace of change was placing strain on the organisation, which undoubtedly it is. However, to be fair both to those employed and the leadership, that is, both Frank Ryan and now Julie Sinnamon, in my view it has been a really strong organisation as an example of reinventing itself continually even in a difficult environment. It has not failed to deliver on any of its key commitments in respect of the Action Plan for Jobs. I consider it to be a good organisation working in a difficult area with diminishing resources but that is the reality for all my agencies, with the exception of the IDA, which has been protected because of the crucial role that has been playing in recent years.
The first area I wish to consider is what the Minister called disruptive reform last year. Thereafter, I wish to examine the financial side of things and I then wish to make some general comments, if that is all right. I will keep them as brief as I can.
Last year, the big idea of the plan was disruptive reforms and the first of which was to make Ireland the leading country in Europe for big data. How many jobs were created directly in the intervening 12 months or are in the pipeline because of that reform? The third disruptive reform listed was the creation of a single licensing application system for the retail sector. The Minister should provide members with an update on the current status in that regard. In addition, there was a target to get 2,000 more small businesses trading online. What precisely is the current figure? While the Minister still aims to have 2,000 by 2015, which was last year's target, what is the figure at present? Has Enterprise Ireland in particular carried out work in this regard? I note the plan was launched in the offices of a company that specialises in getting retailers online, which is an area in which I have a particular interest.
I have a couple of points in respect of finance. The joint committee has engaged in considerable discussion about Microfinance Ireland and the credit guarantee scheme not reaching or coming close to reaching their targets. The Minister was reviewing the credit guarantee scheme and should indicate what is the current status of that review. What changes have been made to either scheme? What is the position in respect of a new CEO for Microfinance Ireland? The Minister referred to a point contained in the Action Plan for Jobs, which is that the Department is considering alternative sources of financing. Three weeks ago, the joint committee heard a presentation from Linked Finance on crowd financing. I acknowledge this is not in the Minister's nature, but would it not be worth taking a punt on that company in a pilot scheme with a small amount of money? That company came before the joint committee in the company of some of its clients and they had fantastic stories to tell about jobs created that otherwise would not have been created. In particular, given that the credit guarantee scheme and Microfinance Ireland are so behind target, I challenge the Minister to take a punt on a pilot scheme similar to what has been done in the United Kingdom in respect of crowd financing.
During the debate on the Estimates a few weeks ago, I raised a concern with the Minister that the targets for the IDA in particular and for Enterprise Ireland for 2014 were less than what they had achieved in 2013. My concern is that when they overshoot those targets, as they will because they are beneath the achievements of 2013, it will be another opportunity to claim one is great because one has created more jobs. The major new initiative of this year's action plan to target 10,000 new jobs from the IDA, in addition to those targets that already have been set. The target is for 6,000 jobs created directly and a further 4,000 created indirectly over five years, which works out at 1,200 direct and 800 indirect job creations each year and the Department proposes to provide additional resources to the IDA to do this. The intention is to target Middle Eastern markets in particular. However, in 2013, the IDA created 7,070 jobs net and its target for 2014 is 6,000 jobs net. The Minister is setting an ambitious new target that he knows will be reached, based on 2013 activity and the world economy improving. The Minister was somewhat snippy earlier in the Chamber about Deputy Martin's criticisms of the Action Plan for Jobs but this is the kind of thing that frustrates people, that is, where targets are being set beneath the previous monthly or yearly targets. They will be surpassed because the IDA is a fantastic organisation doing a great job and the Minister is providing it with the resources it needs. Consequently, this is a source of frustration. The other issue concerns the timeline in respect of a review of regional policy to which the Minister has committed in the Action Plan for Jobs 2014.
What is the timeline for that? When will we see the changes? Deputy Conaghan spoke about a three- or four-speed Europe in terms of economic recovery, but we have that on this island.
I welcome some of the initiatives on youth employment, particularly on youth entrepreneurship. We really need to move the debate on and encourage people to set up their own businesses. I welcome the fact the Minister is examining Sean O'Sullivan's report. The Minister has committed to looking at the taxation supports for entrepreneurship in 2014. Sean O'Sullivan's group has made some really interesting proposals with regard to taxation of entrepreneurship, capital gains tax, etc. What are the Minister's and the Department's views on that report?
I refer to the jobs figures for 2013. There is an issue in that there were 13,800 fewer employed in the 15-to-34 age group than at the end of 2012. The number of 15-to-24 year olds in the workforce was down by approximately 12,000 in 2013 and the number of 25-to-34 year olds in the labour force was down nearly 25,000.
Emigration is still a major problem. The Minister said the Action Plan for Jobs would create jobs, but can we get all the heads which he says are working together on the Action Plan for Jobs to start to focus on emigration in particular? Why are we losing 25,000 people, including some of our most talented people? These are the people who might benefit from Sean O'Sullivan's recommendations, if implemented, and whom the IDA is trying to sell as our educated workforce, yet 25,000 have emigrated. I am not saying this as a party political charge, but there seems to be a comfort within the system that emigration is there. There seems to be very little discussion about the seriousness of it.
To start with big data, I suspect we could probably aim for something like 5,000 jobs over a certain period of time. However, one cannot set an annual target in this area. What one can say for definite - I can get the data for the Deputy - is that we have had several wins in the IDA area in big data. In order to create the ecosystem, or whatever one likes to call it, in which big data will thrive, we have established the Insight research centre. That was our biggest punt. I think it was €88 million. We have made a big punt on big data, building the capability in this research area. Similarly, we have created a technology centre with both SMEs and IDA Ireland for the application of big data. We have had a series of IDA wins in this area and we are seeking to open up the public data holding as a resource to drive new business opportunities.
One could say that over a five-year period we should see 5,000 jobs, which would be to use a sort of broad brush, but in an emerging area such as this, one could not possibly say we will stand and fall by a certain number of jobs next year. It is not of that nature.
I do not think the Deputy would dispute that the use of information will transform businesses. Businesses that move quickly to use analytic tools to look at their customer bases and processes and use them intelligently will be winners. It is not an area in which we can set targets, for people then to say we failed. This is a longer-term play, as are most disruptive reforms.
In regard to retail licences, we have gone to tender for that process. With regard to trading online, we have had a big take-up of online presence and we have run a series of pilots to design what we will back with an innovation, or a trading online, voucher. Those pilots have been well-designed and we will roll out 2,000 specific vouchers of support.
They have been only pilots so far. We would like to have got this going further but we have gone through a number of pilots to try to get it working right. I think we have a model that we will roll out.
I think it will be 1,000 this year and 1,000 next year but, to be honest, this is trying to prime the pump and encourage people to think in those terms.
In regard to retail, I was in a provincial town recently where a number of people are interested on a commercial basis. Someone is looking at having a collective for the town. That is being done by way of a private initiative and we are not putting money behind it. However, we are trying to move businesses from having a presence online to actively trading online, and we are targeting businesses to go that extra distance. Many of them will have a presence but will not actively trade. I think this will be huge. One can see it already. People are buying their clothes in a different way. I believe that in future retail will carry less stock and will use online trading tools. People will still go into a shop to try things on and to look at the range of things but it will be a different model. I think we have to get people to think in this vein, and we have been working on that.
The specific changes to the credit guarantee scheme are around all of the criteria, although I do not have them with me. We will have to introduce them legislatively, so they will be coming before the House. They are changes to the level of guarantee. Where there is a package of loans, it will be about how much risk we take on it. It will relate to the charge the banks make. In discussions with practitioners, we have identified a suite of changes. I suppose those on the Opposition benches will say they told us so. Obviously we got approval for a certain approach, but it can do more than it is doing and we will bring forward legislation to do that.
We have changed some of the terms for the micro-finance scheme, such as not requiring a refusal, to make it easier. We have had meetings with the banks to try to ensure that where refusals go out, micro-finance is plugged with banks. There is scope for more. The LEOs will be in place as a first-stop shop and as agents for micro-finance, and we hope we will drive take-up. If one looks at the county take-up, one will see that some counties have simply not bought into it at all. Obviously, we will focus on those.
There are no targets. The old target of bank approvals did not work, because even though the banks were perceived to have been meeting growing targets in approving facilities, the actual amount of new lending was declining. We are now going to be more granular on what exactly is happening. My ambition is to set targets in regard to things that matter to business. It had a certain merit but it was not delivering the sort of change required. The commitment is to go in more closely, looking at individual products.
I think there is an improvement. The Deputy will see that the refusal rates have dropped. The RedC surveys have shown that refusal rates have dropped quite considerably, from 30% to 20%. Within the pillar banks, it is quite low - I think it is around 16%. If one looks within the pillar banks for export-oriented companies, it is quite low. Undoubtedly, there is an improvement. The interviews are taking place this week for the CEO of Microfinance Ireland.
I do not disagree with the Deputy that crowd financing is an area at which we should look really hard. There was a crowd financing gig last week which I and the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, attended. We are looking really hard at it. Obviously, we cannot commit to one company in particular because of public procurement issues. We are looking really hard at what we can do to promote that.
The Deputy referred to job targets. One cannot take the IDA for granted. Over recent years the number of jobs created went from 5,000 net to 6,000 net to 6,500 net and it will be at the mid-point of those figures for next year. We are taking a mid-point from what were regarded as three record years as our target. If the IDA delivers that, it is a reasonable target. We will continue to review it but the additional resources are justified. The authority is not overstaffed for what it is delivering. There was not spare capacity to deliver more jobs with existing resources.
We have examined with the authority areas where it could do more and it has targeted specific sectors, emerging companies and emerging countries and that is why we are putting more feet on the ground to deliver the additional 10,000 jobs over a number of years. It will be approximately 1,200 a year but that is a credible target. If we can continue to grow export oriented companies at the rate of recent years through the two agencies over the next number of years, we will be doing well. We will be looking to see whether the domestic economy can respond to that export-led performance. This year, we will look for a recovery in the construction sector from the floor it has hit. If we can keep the two agencies performing at this level, that would be a good performance in the teeth of difficult export markets.
There is not a regional enterprise policy currently. This is the first time we are seriously examining how we can design such a policy.
That is a target at national level outside Dublin and Cork. My challenge is how to get the midlands or whichever region to perform better and examine what enterprise strategy can be implemented, what the region's competitive strengths are, the IDA, EI and LEO strategies and how we can get the stakeholders in the regions to back credible programmes of action to drive a successful regional enterprise strategy. That is needed here. We do not debate enough where are our competitive strengths.
This year through our manufacturing initiative, we are consciously looking at the existing base of companies and trying to grow them and such an instrument can be part of a regional strategy, as can a competitive entrepreneurship fund. We need to develop more tools that can drive such a strategy and that is my ambition in this regard. I will work with colleagues to ascertain how that can be worked out.
With regard to the taxation of entrepreneurship, if we could simplify the successors to the BES, including the EIIS, and make them more user friendly, that would be my priority. They apply to the start-up phase and a PAYE worker can secure a significant block of seed capital to put into a business. We must simplify those schemes and get them to work.
I do not deny the emigration figures, which are there for all to see. Net migration last year was approximately 35,000 with Irish-born people to the fore. Clearly we have a problem. On the other hand, we have created 61,000 jobs and, therefore, more jobs are being created than people emigrating. There is a skills mix issue and that is why skills initiatives should be part of the response. The Deputy is correct about the younger age groups. There is a decline in this cohort of the labour force but that is not all explained by emigration. According to the population curve, the cohort is falling and there is a contraction. Both the numbers employed and unemployed are reducing. It is about more than just emigration; there is a contraction in the numbers in the younger age groups.
However, the numbers will increase because there is a bulge coming through in the school system. I do not say that as a defence of the migration numbers but there has been employment growth among younger age groups. This recession has been characterised by an atrocious impact on young people. By and large, people aged over 35 have not been impacted. This reflects last in, first out policies, a clampdown on recruitment and so on. It has had a massive impact on younger people. All the instruments aimed at young people such as training, ICT skills, Springboard and so on are crucial to confront the emigration issue and to get people skilled in the areas in which they can secure employment in a sustainable, growing economy. Even during the boom, 15,000 people emigrated annually and, therefore, the numbers emigrating will not reduce to zero. During the boom years, significant numbers chose to leave. People make their choice but a total of 35,000 emigrants is not acceptable and, therefore, we need to do better. Addressing the skills mix is the most effective tool we can use to target emigration.
I am intrigued as to why another entrepreneurship competition is needed. Are there not enough of them? The Minister is proposing an allocation of €2 million for this. What will be different about the Brutons as opposed to the Oscars?
It will be run through the LEOs but a standard will be set. We had a competitive start-up fund aimed at women last year and it was massively over subscribed. We trebled the provision and it was still fully subscribed. In the areas where entrepreneurship is under represented, there is an untapped pool and if one can design a scheme aimed at a group of people, that is the best way. One goes after the under represented groups and tries to introduce a programme that sucks them in. It worked in the case of women and I am optimistic that this will work as well.
The issue of regional enterprise jumps out. Over the past few action plans for jobs, the targets in this regard have been deleted while the IDA reports at the end of each year highlight a collapse in investment outside the two major urban areas in the State. That is having a significant effect in both areas with regard to pressure on property prices and services and loss of services where there is no investment. The Action Plan for Jobs does not seek to tackle that in a meaningful way and this is one of the issues that I find increasingly problematic regarding Government policy.
Access to finance remains a significant issue. Investors currently are piling into property speculation in localised bubbles, helped by the tax system. Property speculation is the enemy of enterprise funding. People want their houses valued properly and they want negative equity to disappear. They want family homes to be built but they do not want to be elbowed out by speculators and by property values increasing by €100,000 in small pockets of the State.
The embassy network is not being properly leveraged by Action Plan for Jobs or the Government. No real, meaningful enterprise targets are in place for embassy staff. I know that is not their primary job, they are a diplomatic corps. However, we need to set objectives for them regarding enterprise development.
Social economy is the poor man of the enterprise sector. These are co-operative organisations that provide services and create jobs and, sometimes, profits. Not enough is being done regarding them, especially the new enterprise infrastructure that is being created. One of the major problems regarding the labour supply is the welfare cliff that exists for people who take on work and lose benefits. I am not sure that is being focused on. Could the Minister comment on the methods of measurement being used to analyse the success of the particular parts of Action Plan for Jobs? The debate is two-dimensional. A proposal is presented and implemented, and that is the end of the discussion. The output, positive or negative, is not measured. Education is mentioned a lot in Action Plan for Jobs but in the key areas of science and engineering, especially at third level, we see our education provision drop out of the top 100 universities in the world.
I do not accept that there are no instruments to try to promote a greater regional spread in the IDA. This year we have committed to build in Letterkenny, Athlone and Waterford. We have Connect Ireland, an innovative scheme that is delivering a more regional spread. There was an improvement. IDA investments outside Dublin went from 23% up to 30% and jobs went from 19% to 35%, so there was an improvement in 2013. We need to think a little more about how we have a successful regional enterprise strategy.
Overall the IDA accounts for approximately 8% of employment, so 92% of employment throughout the country is not in IDA firms. In some counties the proportion of employment represented by the IDA is 2% to 4%. This has always been the case and is not due to this Government. A credible regional enterprise strategy cannot be built on the 4% but must be built on the 96%. I am not saying the 4% is not important. A win in IDA is crucial. However, I would like to get away from focusing all the regional enterprise strategy on asking why the IDA is not bringing in more jobs. This is not to let the IDA off the hook but to talk about what is a credible regional strategy and what can we do.
That is why this year we have 200 manufacturing companies, 70 IDA and 130 Enterprise Ireland, with a good regional spread. The challenge is how can we lift their capabilities so our existing base can grow. Some 70% of IDA growth comes from its existing base. We are seeking to build from that base. A credible regional strategy must build from the base, whether IDA or Enterprise Ireland. I hope this tool will foster a more rounded discussion of what we can do in the regions.
It is horses for courses with the IDA. Mobile foreign investment is no longer manufacturing but business services and the nature of the locations they are looking for is different from ten years ago. We cannot change that. We cannot say we are going to compete for a different type of project when the mobile investment is in a certain area. We are out there to win what we can for Ireland Inc. and then try to maximise regional opportunity within that. We need to develop a credible strategy around this. The IDA is reviewing our strategy and we will be looking for a regional focus and at sectors where there is potential for a greater regional spread. We will be asking the IDA to consider sectors on which it has not focused.
Regarding property speculation, I have seen figures that suggest the replacement cost of some properties is multiples of what one could sell them for on the open market. There will be no building where that is the case, so we need some correction of prices to get building going again. If one can buy cheaper than one can build, we will get no building going. In my area, Dublin, I see some building happening because prices have recovered to a point where people are opening up sites. There is pressure on certain types of property but with the sort of controls on mortgage lending, I do not see a bubble or major speculation, but clearly we must be attentive.
The embassy network does not have hard targets. One wonders if one could develop country targets. Enterprise Ireland has targets for, say, the Gulf but the embassy would not have targets because it might have separate targets for Enterprise Ireland, the IDA, Bord Bia and Tourism Ireland. There are targets for the region but Deputy Tóibín is right. The ambassador co-ordinates and tries to drive the team but they still work on the individual targets of their respective agencies. They are all working to targets. None of our agencies is without a target to be delivered from the market in which they operate. There may be a way of addressing this. A review of the trade strategy has been published but they will examine the country strategies more closely.
Work is happening in the social economy. The Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock is involved. What does Deputy Tóibín mean by the "welfare cliff"?
I spoke to an engineering company in Donegal which wanted to employ individuals at a certain wage, maybe approximately €14 per hour. When it went to employ individuals for this role, many of the individuals who had families, perhaps four children in school who were receiving back-to-school allowances and other supports, found their income was not materially improved by taking on the role. There is a welfare cliff whereby people who step off benefits into work reduce their standard of living. There is a necessity to ensure those welfare benefits are still in place while those individuals return to work. That has a negative effect on the individual taking on the job but also on the engineering firm in Donegal which wants to employ people and expand but cannot because it has no access to staff.
The Department of Social Protection produced figures and for 85% of the live register there is an incentive to take up work. The change being made is the move from rent supplement to the housing assistance payment. It will be like a city council differential rent. The rent would be related to one's income, for example 15% of one's income after a certain figure as opposed to losing everything if one works more than 30 hours. The intention is to move to this housing assistance payment which will be income related. That would remove that. That will be piloted in Limerick around March and the aim is to move it further afield. That is the major change, moving from social protection to local authority responsibility for it.
The family income supplement, FIS, fills 60% of the gap between income and target income. It should bridge the whole gap for families with children, and there is also the retention of the medical card. There are efforts to try to tackle that trap. There has been a review of the FIS to see if more can be done in this area. It is tricky. As we saw in the UK, there were attempts to reform its income-related measure; it is now four years on and the UK Government has still not been able to implement the change. The idea was perfect in theory but it seems to have proven to be a disaster in practice.
I agree with the comments regarding measurement of success, and this year we will look in a more granular fashion at the issue. We started with the aspiration to provide 100,000 jobs and improve competitiveness, and this year we will look beneath that to develop measures to cover a suite of options. For example, with regard to entrepreneurship, we will look to provide an indication of how we are doing in the area. Having implemented the suite of measures, we could consider how we are doing with the big goal. That sort of thinking will be introduced as part of this year's plan.
With regard to ranking of universities, with many of those measurements we need to look beneath rankings. We look at innovation in universities, and we are doing pretty well, as Ireland is now ninth in the EU in this respect. We have kept moving up the rankings. We are investing in research and development with a relevance to enterprise and innovation, so we are continuing to do well. Some of these indicators would include big issues such as staff ratios, but I am reasonably satisfied that our institutes of education are still scoring well on the items that matter to enterprise. We must continue in that respect.
Many Deputies have had conversations with representatives of IDA Ireland, focusing on the likes of Meath having such a low level of IDA investment, for example. The response is generally along the lines of telling people to drive up the road. The lack of that type of investment has a material effect on society in counties such as Meath, as we have a lower rates base, for example, than other counties, and therefore a lower income and expenditure base. That trickles right through the delivery of services in the county. This is not just related to the involvement of IDA Ireland; the process must involve Enterprise Ireland and the local enterprise offices.
Previous Governments made brave decisions to have clusters of particular industries in certain locations. For example, few people would have dreamed of having financial investment in the Dublin docklands, but it was a policy decision to cluster businesses there. There was also a decision to have clusters of medical technology companies in the west and pharmaceuticals in the south. We do not seem to have such brave policy decisions to have clusters of new industries. As the Minister mentioned, there is a change in the type of mobile investment that is happening but there is no decision that certain parts of the country will have a clustered centre that could create its own gravity, meaning we will not have to hold the hand of certain areas in ten or 15 years to bring in investment. If successful, mobile investment should want to go to a certain area because of the ten or 15 businesses already clustered there. The debate always seems to concern the chicken-and-egg scenario, but on occasion a government can make a decision to put the necessary investment and strategic supports in place to facilitate such a cluster. This Government is not doing that.
I dispute that. For example, in the west, NUI Galway has been given research money for a cluster of marine and offshore projects. We are identifying future clusters and investing in research centres where expertise is gathered. We have made decisions to provide facilities in Letterkenny, Athlone and Waterford. Waterford is a pharmaceutical and life science area and we can strengthen the cluster there. We are putting our money where our mouth is and building there, as we are doing in Athlone and Letterkenny. We are identifying regional locations where we think we can strengthen existing clusters.
It is not feasible to tell companies that want to cluster around a large, diverse and urban location to cluster elsewhere, as it is the nature of their business. They want multilingual and diverse skills, so they go to areas where they have the elements they need. I agree that we should examine clustering, so we must look at regions and competitive strengths. We must consider where we can build a credible cluster with existing strengths. By all means, we can make a play to win the relevant business in that regard, and that is the sort of discussion we must have with respect to regional opportunity. The west has been very successful in that regard, and if we can build clusters we will do so. The food sector, with its current growth trajectory, offers an opportunity for clusters in a number of areas. Many parties are looking at clean technology and there are a number of small clusters developing in that area. Digital gaming is another relevant sector.
We are developing clustering or sectoral strategies and looking to build on strengths in that regard. Deputy Conaghan would claim that the digital gaming sector is a strength in his neighbourhood, as Ballyfermot was one of the first to move to the gaming and animation industries. We will build where we have the ingredients of a cluster.
People sometimes comment on what the Government and this Minister is doing as if we started in a very favourable position. Some commentators and Deputies tend to forget that the contextual framework of the economy had to be restructured, with a new floor put in and credibility established in order to attract foreign direct investment again. People seem to forget that this economy collapsed a very short time ago. In that context, a considerable amount has been achieved. Some of these criticisms are glib and there is the idea that we started on a very high wave of momentum, but we started in a trough and we have emerged from that in a very short space of time. It is a remarkable story and if Oscar awards were going for this area this country would be up there, like the actors in Hollywood the other night, claiming one of them. It is a remarkable performance and some of the Ministers are stars of it.
We have broadened the reach for exports, and the Tánaiste, Deputy Gilmore, has done much as the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. People forgot he is responsible for trade and wondered what he was doing running around the world. He was getting the embassies to give out the message that this country is not a sinking ship and it would restore its credibility. He did that with the Minister who is here today.
We need to start to broaden the debate about where the economy can create new excitement, impetus, products and growth patterns. For example, I would like to hear more about cultural tourism, the creative economy, film-making, fashion, the social economy, music and the arts. We need to talk about these areas because exciting things are happening there too. We need to invite people to share that excitement with us. I keep mentioning Ballyfermot because the college there was in at the beginning of much of this excitement. It reinvented the animated movie industry and rock music from scratch. There are untold stories about taking something and growing it to a point where one cannot but notice it, and ask what went on there and what can we do to get more of it going on in other places.
Some years ago the Department of Agriculture decided, instead of exporting agricultural products on the hoof to transform them into smart dairy and meat products, which have entered new markets in India and China where emerging middle classes wanted such foods. That can be replicated for the fishing industry. By and large fish, is still exported raw. We need to take the imaginative leap on the western coast, particularly in Killybegs, the premier fishing port, to do for the fishing industry what was done for the agricultural produce industry. That was one of the most transformational decisions ever made in this country, in terms of what we have earned from exports and job creation. We need to explore all these angles and to invite people in to talk about them. Now that the floor is in, and is solid and sound, we can dance a bit harder on it and get more people to join in.
In response to Deputy Conaghan’s point, there is an action in the plan on fish processing, with a target of approximately 100 jobs.
It is great that the committee has a major input into this plan. We have talked a lot here about youth entrepreneurship. Will the Minister have some way of measuring the take-up of the micro-finance, and come back to us if it needs to be reformed or refined?
The message about what is available for start-up companies, individuals who might want to set up their own companies, and established companies, is not getting out. Last night I talked to a man who employs 160 people who had only just become aware of JobsPlus and thought it was an excellent idea. We need some form of portal through which an individual or company can find out what is available. We have been hammering on about this for the past two years but there does not seem to be any action on it. If we can do this by the end of the year it will be very beneficial. The large organisation which supplies the man I spoke to last night did not know about JobsPlus. We need to make it possible to access all the information through one portal and get the message out.
Yesterday I was at the Kildare Enterprise student awards ceremony. The innovation and ideas coming from students in transition year and younger students are very exciting. We should also aim to give kids in primary school an idea of entrepreneurship.
The most important factors affecting jobs in my constituency are foreign direct investment, tourism, farming and the construction sector. These are affected by rates, broadband access, finance, infrastructure and so on. It is too early to know how many jobs the home renovation scheme has generated. The action plan stipulates issues about financing NAMA’s portfolio. Can anything be done about the hoarding of land? In certain areas there may be developers with an abundance of land, hoping for the market to pick up before they move on it. If some of that land could be released it would have a positive impact, particularly as prices rise.
Some 17,000 additional SMEs registered on the Government e-tenders website in 2013. That seems very high. How was that done? The Minister said that he hopes to make it easier for SMEs to win contracts. There has been some concern about the changes in public procurement. Has that had a negative impact on job numbers?
I welcome the commitments on rural broadband. I raised this in a submission to the Action Plan for Jobs 2014. One of the most important Bills that has come through the Oireachtas was the ESB (Electronic Communications Networks) Bill 2013, which received cross-party support and could be a wonderful initiative. I hope it progresses and that ESB finds a partner to roll out the project. Rural areas will continue to need State aid. I hope that will be provided and that changes will take place under State aid rules to enable that. In many areas, not far from Galway city and my constituency, people who want to work at home cannot do so because they have to drive to the local GAA club to pick up a signal to send off files. That is not acceptable when these people want to stay at home and do not want to increase traffic.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is opening a consulate in Austin, Texas. That region is top of the list for job growth in the United States, Dallas is second. Did the Department focus on Austin because of the Ireland House initiative, with collaboration between the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and the consulates? Are the actions achieved in 2012 and 2013 followed up to ensure they continue and the various initiatives are not slackening off?
Are they being followed up to ensure there is no slackening off with various initiatives? Some of them are simple and are not reversible but others require follow-up.
We have a location in Austin, Texas, and hopefully there will be an Ireland House there. As I noted in the Dáil earlier, some policies were not an option for us. People argued that austerity was a disaster and that we should have been spending money but given that we were already spending 50% more than we were taking in, we did not have the option of throwing a wall of money at unemployment. We had to box smart and roll up our sleeves to transform areas. Exports have driven this transformation and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has played a significant role in this regard. It makes a remarkable difference when a strong ambassador is able to co-ordinate these efforts because in addition to the ground hurling that the IDA and Enterprise Ireland practise, there are opportunities to use embassies to meet potential clients and develop networks.
The action plan contains measures on cultural tourism and creative industries. The Craft Council will be driving an initiative in the year of design, which is 2015. There is awareness of the potential for these less recognised sectors. There is also great potential for the fishing industry. The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is probably the best Minister we can get to develop this potential because he understands the fishing industry.
We publish the microfinance information on a quarterly basis. I think approximately €2.5 million has already been invested. We are glad the money is available because it supports a significant number of jobs. We are not planning individual changes because the process is relatively simple and there are not many strings attached to it.
The Youth Guarantee is mainly the remit of the Minister for Social Protection. The only part I deal with is youth entrepreneurship.
Action Plan for Jobs reads:
Communication must become a central part of our suite of actions. In communicating our work, as part of the Year for Jobs, we will aim to deliver information that is easy to find and easy to digest, through channels that the target audiences are known to use to find information, including websites, information packs, local events, and both social and traditional media.Local enterprise offices will be the first stop shop in this regard. There will be attempts to brand material so that it is more recognisable.
Only last night I came across someone who did not know about JobsPlus. It should be widely advertised. This individual runs ten or 11 Centra stores but he says the Musgrave Group did not know the scheme was available.
At the last Action Plan for Jobs meeting I attended in Portlaoise, the Department of Social Protection was represented with a stall from which it advertised its wares. All the local businesses were invited to that meeting.
A communications strategy will be rolled out in 2014. It will be driven by the Department of the Taoiseach so that it applies across all Departments. I will supply the committee with further information on the strategy.
In regard to land hoarding, the Department of the Taoiseach is co-ordinating a construction strategy which it intends to publish by early April. I do not know whether tax strategies can be developed to deal with land hoarding. A measure was introduced in this regard several years ago but it fell flat on its face within 18 months because it proved ineffective. I am not trying to prejudice any new efforts but it is an issue that requires careful thought.
On SME procurement, we propose a number of useful initiatives. Processes will be piloted whereby contracting authorities can provide advice to tenderers in an attempt to resolve any issues that arise. There is a sense that people are not getting a fair crack of the whip. Circular 10/2010, which is designed to give SMEs a fair crack of the whip, is being revised to take account of the new director of procurement and the potential for innovative approaches to procurement will be investigated on a pilot basis. Three or four pilot schemes are being introduced in the procurement areas, and if they work this year, we will try to push them into something bigger next year. We got our foot in the door in the procurement area this year. In regard to the ESB's role in broadband provision, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has ambitions in that area. We try to deliver the Ireland House concept wherever it is practical to do so. An ambassador who can co-ordinate the work involved makes a world of difference in these markets because a significant part of the work involves building relationships. The work done by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade is also important to us.
I welcome the many positive initiatives in Action Plan for Jobs. The action plan for 2013 has delivered significantly and we clearly ought to build on its successes. I welcome the Minister's comments in regard to regional strategies. I come from a region that has suffered significant job losses over the past decade despite its location in the centre of Ireland and excellent access to broadband, public transport and building supply. I would like to see a focus on towns such as Ballinasloe in trying to attract some of the significant job announcements into the regions.
On the skill shortages, the Minister mentioned that many of our best and brightest are leaving, and many of them with some of the skills that we require at home. What contribution does the income tax system make to some of our brightest leaving the country? One hits the high tax rate at €32,500. Is that an issue? Is that driving some of the soundings we heard from Government recently that this an area that will be looked at in future budgets?
On competitiveness, it is encouraging that we have improved our world ranking, from 24th in 2011 to 17th in 2013. How will we be able to improve that competitiveness even further? We all realise how significant a cost is energy to SMEs. Are there are any opportunities in that area?
I agree with Deputy Lawlor that we need to communicate better what is available to employers. I wonder should a communication or flyer of some description be sent to every employer in the country, large and small. It would not cost a great deal. We all will be aware from our records of the businesses operating right throughout the country. I accept that online information is useful, but it appears that those in business do not realise the basic information that one would expect them to have. I have come across employers who do not know about the JobsPlus scheme and do not realise that an employer who takes on an extra person can get significant help towards employing him or her. We need to look at that.
I support the concept of teaching entrepreneurship in second-level schools. Recently, the Minister met a number of people from Ballinasloe who had an innovative idea of piloting a project and I hope that the Department might take that on board and see how it can be developed further.
On the staffing levels and resources of the LEOs, the city and county enterprise boards in some parts of the country have been poorly resourced. Will the resources be provided through the local authorities to the new LEOs, which will be significant one-stop-shops and, hopefully, deliver many new jobs in small start-up situations, and will we be able to move staff around so that those LEOs are adequately resourced?
On the regional issue, this is an area that, I suspect, the committee will come back to. We, on this side of the table, need to put a good deal of thought into it and we are starting that process. I do not know in which quarter, but we are to produce a framework during the course of the year. It will take a bit of work on our side and I would be interested in the committee's thinking on this. It is definitely an area worth having a serious debate on - for instance examining how many visits are occurring, where is the competitive advantage in this area, what should we be targeting, how do we go after it and what would work.
I have stated on a number of occasions that the low threshold at which one hits the high rate of tax here is not jobs friendly and we should seek to change it, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, and others have said so. There are push and pull factors in migration. As far back as the 1920s, there was a report on migration. I remember reading it all those years ago, although I was not around in the 1920s. There are good opportunities for certain skills here, there are people coming in from overseas and then there are Irish people with those skills deciding to go elsewhere. One wonders what is at play. One of our commitments, under the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, is that whereas two years ago 45% of the ICT skills were being met by Irish colleges we aim that by 2018 it will be 75%. We are making a significant shift in ensuring that the young people coming out of our colleges are equipped for real areas of good opportunity. That is our best response.
On competitiveness, there is a significant number of areas of improvement. This year we strengthened the National Competitive Council by adding six industrial partners, such as Ms Louise Phelan, Mr. Seán O'Driscoll, Mr. Dave Shanahan and Ms Heather Reynolds from Eishtec. We have put business people with sharp experience onto the National Competitive Council. They will be reporting quarterly to the Cabinet jobs committee on what can be done in practical terms.
Some of the competitive issues are within the reach of any of our units. One of the issues I will be looking at is to improve our interplay with enterprise. For instance, the Health and Safety Authority will be aiming to increase by 50% the number of companies which use its online tool to meet their health and safety requirements as this is much simpler and much cheaper. If, in all our agencies, we can roll out such facilities, we will improve.
There are particular competitive areas, such as the speed of planning and construction permits, in which we seem to be weak. If we can look at those areas, we will identify where in the chain it is taking too much time. Local authorities could act similarly.
The issue of energy is a tricky one. Science Foundation Ireland is undertaking a pilot research project in Ireland as a test bed to try to use the energy grid to get an advantage. We are building out an all-island energy grid. The question is whether we can turn that into a smart grid that gives us an advantage. Allied to that, generally, energy conservation or energy efficiency is an area where there is probably untapped potential and there are schemes to support that. In terms of pragmatic measures that we can take, that is probably the lowest hanging fruit with the highest return.
When one gets into the cost of energy infrastructures, the problem is our fuel mix is not particularly good. We are reliant on fossil fuels and their prices are only going one way. Even though the shale gas has changed the position in the short term, prices are only going one way in the long term.
In the short term, building out renewables is expensive. It imposes costs on consumers. There are real dilemmas in this area. The expectation is if we can get to a lower carbon energy network, we will have a long-term competitive advantage even though in the short term it might not be so easy. It is a real dilemma.
I note in the recent EU report on this that areas that we do not tend to look at, such as the transmission and various add-on costs, are ones where the greatest growth in energy costs is being driven. It is not from the fuel piece; it is from the add-ons. Better management of the grid, such as its interconnection and the capacity to use cheaper fuels, is fairly important and, obviously, is easier to control than fuel prices.
Senator Mullins is correct about communications and, maybe, we will get back to him. We will ask the Companies Registration Office, CRO, if it has a capacity to get some of that information out or make it more accessible. We are definitely keen to use every facility.
On the local enterprise offices, we have committed to 120 staff. The local authorities have committed to 50 staff. In addition, the local authorities have agreed that there will be services equivalent to those of 40 additional staff, for example, the partial service of a planning officer who would be available to advise businesses.
This is an increased resource. We have also received permission to take on some graduates to facilitate this work. We feel that, overall, these resources will beef up what is available.
I have a couple of questions, just to add to the Minister's problems. I congratulate him and his team on the excellent process that is Action Plan for Jobs. It has turned around how work is done across all Departments. That we are on the third plan and have gone from 250 actions in the first to nearly 400 in this one proves that they are working. The percentage success rate each year is in the high 90s. I compliment the Minister and his team, as they have had a role in that. It is appreciated, as our job is easier if we have something to aim for by the end of the year. I assume that the same logic applies in every Department. It is easy to follow what must be done and by whom. It is a good system.
Naturally, we are glad to see some of our recommendations making their way into the plan. It is important that these issues, be they highlighted to us at our meetings or raised by others, be implemented. We view our committee as a forum to discuss issues that can then be passed up the line.
I have written down the Minister's comment about his Department using its own channels and agencies to convey the information. However, every company deals with Revenue on a monthly, if not weekly, basis. Every e-mail that we receive from the Department of Health or the HSE contains a little message at the bottom about some health initiative it is undertaking, for example, eating healthily, breastfeeding, etc. A simple message could be sent via Revenue or the companies office suggesting that people check out JobsPlus, etc. A tag line at the bottom should not cost much. Companies are under so much pressure that they do not have time to stop and think. Even this committee might not know about all of the Department's schemes. Companies should be targeted. We must use other agencies - for example, companies are members of the chambers and so on - to get messages about the various schemes out there. The Minister has gone to a lot of effort to make this particular scheme simpler and easier to use. The missing element is how to drive the message home.
A prime example is the family income supplement, FIS, although it does not relate to the Minister's Department. We are nearly keeping it a secret, as if we do not want people using it. It is the solution to the gap that many people are trying to close. Getting it can be complicated and the process can be slow, but we can consider that issue. Most people do not know it exists. Perhaps that is on purpose, but we should be pushing this solution.
Many of the airwaves are taken up by companies claiming that they cannot fill vacancies that are not for high-skilled jobs. We cannot blame people for this. Their families' safety nets are their social welfare entitlements. They are afraid to lose them. This situation is down to misinformation, in that people are being told that they will lose out and that it will take six months to get their entitlements back. We need to do something to close that gap. This is the responsibility of the Department of Social Protection, but the Minister's Department also has a role to play. If companies cannot find employees for jobs that are easily fillable, it poses a difficulty. We must try to fight this battle.
We have JobsPlus and so on to encourage the employment of people in receipt of social welfare payments, but such people are afraid to leave their entitlements. Housing assistance will begin in July, but perhaps the simplest approach would be to tell people that they can keep their medical cards and everything else for three months after starting work. The fear is that their jobs might not suit them or vice versaand they must return to social welfare in one or two months time. In some offices, though, getting back on the system is difficult. I accept that, in some offices, the process is straightforward and people can hop on and hop off, but that is not the case everywhere. Will the Minister raise this matter with his colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton? Staying on the system for an extra three months will not break the system.
Last week, we discussed the failure rate with Mr. Sean O'Sullivan and Ireland's perception of failure. I have often encountered this in the agencies under the Minister's aegis, in that they may be afraid of having too many failures on their books, be they the microenterprise loan fund, the enterprise boards or so on. If we do not want a certain amount of failure, it means we are not doing our jobs right because we are not giving people a chance. I have seen some of the agencies' refusals. For example, the microenterprise loan fund is afraid to give €15,000 to a company in case it fails. We must take a whole-of-government approach. If someone is given a loan of €15,000, it gets him or her out of the social welfare system for a year. The taxpayer has not lost if the company goes down the Swanee. I encourage a different approach to grant aid, particularly if entrepreneurs are in receipt of social welfare payments. The two Departments could work together. The State will not lose if we give someone a chance for a year, even if we believe that he or she might fail. The same money is being spent, but by a different Department. It is not the end of the world. We are supposed to have joined-up thinking, but I have still not seen it in some of the agencies. People are doing their jobs right, ticking the boxes and being cautious with taxpayers' money. Joined-up thinking is missing in some cases.
In every agency and support system, red tape can get in the way of common sense and keep someone from getting help, losing us a potential jobs opportunity. This is the greatest shame. Red tape has replaced common sense too often. We must change those systems. Perhaps the Minister should advise his staff on what is an acceptable failure rate. He may have done so already, but I sense the agencies' fear of failing. We must move on.
We have the solutions. It is just a matter of getting the message out there, driven by the right person. At a lower level, the two Departments need to work together to get some people off the system and to give them a chance.
I thank the Chairman for his acknowledgement. It is a good tool. It does not just allow the committee an input, but we also have meetings with enterprise. The rolling programme means that anything started this year can be enhanced and developed. To answer someone's question, the measures we take in previous years are maintained.
The Chairman is right about using Revenue. The communication will be driven from the Taoiseach's office, which will have access to the communications systems of all agencies. It is right that he take responsibility.
To be fair to the Department of Social Protection, it has a system whereby, if one leaves the live register for eight weeks, it guarantees a fast turnaround. It has committed this year to review and extend that period.
People are afraid that it will not happen and that they will be left for one or two months without money. We know from our offices that this happens. Perhaps the simplest approach would be to let people keep the money for two or three months, see how their new jobs go and then leave the system. It is a chicken and egg situation. Someone must take the plunge first. Going a week without money is not an option for most people.
We will ask our counterparts in that Department to consider the retention of entitlements for a certain period. They have experience in this regard. Under the old back to work allowance, which preceded the back to work enterprise allowance, people retained 75% for this, that and so on.
They will at least be able to ascertain whether it worked when it was there. My official, Mr. William Parnell, has reminded me that legislation would be required if they were to change anything like that, which is absolutely true.
Let us ask them to look back on the experience of those schemes. Do they suggest that they are a useful way of dealing with the matter?
With regard to failure, Microfinance Ireland approves about 50% of the applications submitted to it and builds in a loss of around 20%. There is an expectation that when it takes a punt it will lose in 20% of cases. They cannot work on the basis that the money is costless because otherwise those people would be on social welfare.
For very good reason they do not. This month 37,000 people left the live register out of a figure of over 300,000, so 10% leave the live register every month. They are not a stock that exists for all time.
The live register rotates all the time. It is not as if the same people will remain on the register even if we do nothing because people move on and off the register. It will be different people because the register churns all the time.
The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform would say to me that there is a risk one can take and we will accept one taking a 20% risk, but it is not going to allow me to take an 80% risk, and for good reason. The issue is whether the Department is being more conservative than is appropriate in light of the discretion it has been given and in the way it has been applied. There has not been much default on cases. We can examine whether there has been a turning away, but the group has been very clear about the matter. Its Chairman met the committee here and expressed the clear view that it is in no one's interest to fund a projects that it does not believe has an 80% chance of success. She has taken that view and it is right. There is a balance. One takes more risk than any bank would take, but still one does not ignore risk. The people concerned are unbankable because they do not have collateral, etc. It is a question of finding the right point on the scale.
I am not being flippant, but when demand is not being fully met then one could relax the rules. If there is spare capacity in the budget then there is scope to be flexible or review some of the files of those who were refused assistance. I have seen some of these people, and things might click and go right for some of them.
Red tape was mentioned. There was a target of a 20% reduction in the cost of administration. Some Departments, including my own, have been exemplary and hit their targets. The Revenue Commissioners and the CSO are also great examples. However, some Departments have not been successful. One of our ambitions is to create momentum through the quarterly reports-----
I criticised the rules of some of the schemes, not the red tape. There are obvious instances, but it is mainly the Department of Social Protection where common sense prevails, even though one still questions them. It is a shame that the rules prevent common sense from kicking in. We have not cracked that nut in three years. When we first came together as a committee we dealt with three Departments and everyone thought that somewhere along the line we could crack some of these obvious issues. One of the most obvious instances is where a person wants to go to college but is not two years out of the system. He or she is not allowed to get the back-to-education allowance but is allowed to stay on social welfare. The money is the same but one must sit at home for another six months in order to qualify for the college course. Those are the little things that the committee has discovered. There is no extra cost involved so we wonder why we cannot get over the matter. I know the logic is that the person might not be on social welfare, and I accept that point.
There is the issue of displacement and deadweight. The overseers, wherever they are, would come in and ask what is the deadweight, what is the minimum to be given out and whether is it going to happen anyhow.
The Chairman is right. Sometimes a committee gets together and conspires to make a brilliant scheme, but it will not work because it is so complex. We have seen that with a number of schemes. Our target this year is to simplify a few of the entrepreneurship schemes in the tax area, which would be a good day's work. I know the Minister for Finance is keen to do so.
Are there any more questions? No. I apologise to the Minister and his officials for detaining them for so long and thank them for attending today. We have had a good discussion. We have also benefited from the chance to discuss the Action Plan for Jobs so soon after it was published. We may arrange a couple of meetings to debate it over the coming year.