Thursday, 10 April 2014
On 26 March 2014, I met a delegation from the European Parliament's committee on regional development, REGI, to discuss the next round of Structural Funds spending in Ireland. I was accompanied at the meeting by Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes. The REGI committee is a key committee of the European Parliament that is responsible for regional and cohesion policy, including the European regional development fund and other instruments of the
Union's regional policy. It was on a three-day visit to Ireland that included a meeting with the Chair of the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and visits to Waterford and Kilkenny where the delegation had an opportunity to see how Structural Funds are being spent on the ground.
During our meeting, I briefed the committee on preparations for the next round of structural funds spending in Ireland. As the Deputy may be aware, Ireland was successful in securing €1.2 billion of cohesion policy funding from the European regional development fund and the European social fund for the period 2014-2020. This represents an increase of 8% in real terms over the 2007-2013 programming period at a time when the overall EU budget for cohesion policy has been reduced by 8%. It includes special allocations for the BMW region and towards a new Northern Ireland PEACE programme.
I discussed with the committee how funding from the European social fund and the European regional development fund will be targeted at combating long-term and youth unemployment and social exclusion, as well as promoting research and development investment, the competitiveness of the business sector and an environmentally-friendly and resource-efficient economy. The funding will complement the Government's jobs and growth agenda.
The committee acknowledged the key role that Ireland had played last year during our Presidency of the Council of Ministers towards brokering an agreement on the package of regulations that will govern the next round of structural funds across Europe. For my part, I thanked the committee for its constructive engagement in the complex and lengthy negotiations and acknowledged the role of the European Parliament in setting the legislative framework for a wide range of key policy areas and in particular for its contribution to the development of cohesion policy for the 2014-2020 round.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
The Minister of State and I also briefed the committee on the progress the Government is making in repairing the economy and returning it to growth. We discussed the contribution Structural Funds can make to that process. The REGI committee appreciates the importance of the European structural and investment funds for a country like Ireland and was keen to hear how we propose to maximise the value of available funding.
Would the Minister agree that it is a tragedy and a shame to see the effect of the economic crisis and the baleful effects of austerity, particularly in regional areas and rural Ireland? This is iconically illustrated by the inability of local GAA clubs and possibly other sports to field teams because young people are forced out through lack of employment. Does the Minister agree that balanced regional development is crucial? What key proposals does he envisage between 2014 and 2020 with regard to the regional funds? What proposals and job creation figures does he envisage coming from that? Mindful of the fact that unemployment is tragically and unacceptably high in Dublin, what are the implications for working-class people who are in difficulty or people who are unemployed there?
The Deputy is touching on a very important point. We are experiencing recovery in this country but it is not a balanced recovery, as the Deputy rightly said.
It is clear that parts of our main cities are doing very well now but other parts are not and rural areas, small rural towns in particular, have yet to feel the real impact of recovery. That is a work in progress. The Government has proposed a number of initiatives and if Deputy Higgins reads the comprehensive nature of the jobs strategy outlined by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Employment he will see specific balancing initiatives in the package to ensure that every place is impacted upon positively.
We had a comprehensive rural support system through Leader in the past and I wish to have an analogous system to support inner city areas where there are real pockets of inequality and underdevelopment. I hope that can be manifest as well. We want to front-load the funding to deal with the themes we set out during our Presidency - youth unemployment and the youth guarantee - because Deputy Higgins is correct that the most important element is getting people back to work.
I put it to the Minister that the recovery is more apparent than real. Ordinary people do not feel the recovery in their daily lives, in their pockets and in the availability of enough jobs. I put it to the Minister that inner city Dublin needs attention but so too do the suburbs where there is very high unemployment, many problems and a huge housing crisis. A resolution of those problems is required. It is crucial that critical funding is made available. We cannot be convinced by the EU, which has taken so much through forcing the Irish people to take on debts of bondholders and bankers that were not there and then pretending to make up in this particular way.
As a Labour Minister, Deputy Howlin should be concerned by the figures for housing which I read the other day. In the 1970s the State was building between 7,000 and 8,000 local authority houses per year, whereas now the Government is building a few hundred. Could the Minister comment on the matter in terms of the funding that is available?
Neither the European Regional Development Fund, ERDF, nor the Energy Efficiency Finance Facility, EEFF, will fund local authority houses. That is a different issue. We must find the resources to do that. I recommend to the Deputy a very fine document published by the Labour Parliamentary Party last week on the housing crisis. I accept there is an issue in that regard and perhaps we could have common cause in addressing some aspects of it.
I do not accept Deputy Higgins's assertion that the recovery is not real. The recovery is happening. Unemployment is falling. Instead of heading towards the 0.5 million mark, as it was when we came into government, it is falling month on month. I hope the trend will continue. A total of 60,000 additional jobs was created last year. It is said that emigration is impacting on the figure but in fact more people are now at work. There are 1.91 million people at work, which is back to the level it was at in 2009. However, we need to do an awful lot more, which is why the Taoiseach has designated this year as the year of jobs. Getting people back to work is the most important element in providing the feeling of recovery in every household. We must continue to work at that.
In terms of the very valid point Deputy Higgins made, a lot of people have had a lot of money taken out of their pockets. We have increased taxation and people are squeezed in terms of their wage rates, in particular in the public sector. Until we get out of that situation and people have more money in their pocket we will not lift that sense of the impact on families and individuals given the awful period we have come through that has manifested itself in so many Irish households.