Thursday, 10 November 2005
EU Regional Aid.
Currently the new regional aid designations are being considered by the Government and the European Union. The south-east region has made application through its director, Mr. Tom Byrne, by letter dated 29 August 2005 to the Department of Finance for consideration and approval for designation under the draft guidelines on national regional aid for 2007-13. While the regional aid guidelines will be set by the European Commission the qualifying areas will be selected by national governments, in this case the Irish Government. I strongly support the case of the south-east region, including south Tipperary, for designation for regional aid purposes.
The position in the south east is that it has lost out economically in recent times. Unemployment rates in the south east generally are approximately 131% of the national average, which is one of the criteria for designation. In the submission from the south-east region, its director said it is clearly the case that the south-east region meets the unemployment criteria for regional designation, that is to be higher than the national average by 115%. Currently, the region's unemployment rate stands at 131% the average and for the same period in 2004 the region's unemployment rate was 20% higher than the national average. The rate of unemployment in the south east is consistently a percentage point higher than the national average and currently it is 5.4% as against a national average of 4.1%.
A number of unemployment blackspots have been identified by the south-east regional authority in Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford. In the case of my county, Carrick-on-Suir is one of the identified blackspots which has an unemployment rate of 20.6%, five times the national average. I have raised that issue here on a number of occasions. There is a number of unemployment blackspots in Waterford city while the Enniscorthy urban area has an unemployment rate of 20.6%.
On the issue of household income relative to the national average, the south east stands at 92.2% as against 113.4% in Dublin, and 93.9% in the west. The west has already been designated for Category 1 status regional aid. Disposable income per person in south Tipperary at €15,228 lags behind north Tipperary at €16,414. It is even behind counties that already have Category 1 status like Galway, which has €16,094 and Sligo with approximately €15,500 and Louth with €15,900. In the south east 19.7% of the workforce have third level qualifications as against 26% nationally. I ask the Minister to consider the case of the south east seriously. I my view and that of the regional authority it qualifies for designation. The rules for designation give flexibility to the Government and the Minister should seriously consider designating south Tipperary and the south east region for this regional aid.
I thank the Deputy for raising this question as it provides an opportunity to outline to the House the position regarding Ireland's continued eligibility for Objective One status under the European Union's Cohesion Policy. The main goal of Cohesion Policy in the European Union is economic and social cohesion. This is based on financial solidarity, whereby more than one third of the Union's budget is transferred to those regions lagging behind in their development, undergoing restructuring or facing specific geographical, economic or social problems. Priority is given to poorer regions to enable them to better address their challenges and difficulties and to benefit fully from the opportunities offered by the single market by underpinning their long-term structural development.
Eligibility for Objective One status, or the Convergence Priority as it will be known after 2006, applies to designated Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics, NUTS, level 2 regions. Eligibility is determined independently by the European Commission based on a range of economic and social indicators and is not determined by the governments of the member states. Only those NUTS 2 regions with a per capita gross domestic product lower than 75% of the Union's average are eligible under Objective One. Both of Ireland's NUTS 2 regions, the Border, midland and western and the southern and eastern regions, have GDP figures above this level.
Under this criterion, neither of the Irish regions will be eligible for the Convergence Priority after 2006. This is a reflection of the degree of economic progress the country has achieved since Objective One was last determined and which underpinned our eligibility for the 2000 to 2006 round of Structural Funds. The southern and eastern region has a figure of approximately 142% of the EU 25 average. This is well above the threshold level. The BMW region is nearly 94%.
The Commission's proposals for Cohesion Policy after 2006 have been broadly welcomed by the Government. We fully recognise the impact of our improved economic position and accept that one of the consequences of this success is that Ireland as a whole will lose Objective One status after 2006. We support the Commission proposals to concentrate the Union's resources on supporting the development of the new member states as a priority. It is important to keep in mind that both Irish regions will continue to benefit from Cohesion Policy from 2007 onwards. However, it should be appreciated that the level of Structural Funds available under the next round will be much reduced. Despite this, Structural Funds can continue to play an important role in the continued economic and social development of the regions.
Funding in the next round will be deployed in accordance with a broad strategic framework oriented to achieve regional competitiveness and support the Lisbon Agenda. The emphasis will be on investment in innovation, in research and development and in the knowledge economy and on improving the employment opportunities for under-skilled workers. The Government has already agreed that the regional assemblies will play a more central role in developing operational programmes for the future programming period. Assembly members will have a significant challenge in determining the priorities, themes or geographic areas to be funded and will be able to articulate local and regional issues and solutions as part of this process.
Ireland has had a good track record in investing Structural Funds in productive activities. We have used them well and they have assisted our development so that we will no longer be eligible for funding at the highest rate. The challenge now is to ensure that future funding is used in an innovative manner to address residual development needs where the added value of cohesion policy can clearly be demonstrated. The issues raised by the Deputy are probably more appropriate for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I will ask that Department to respond to the issue he raised.