Seanad debates

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Adjournment Matters

Employment Action Plan

5:00 pm

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. The matter relates to the south east employment action plan which has been launched by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. The action plan was developed in response to serious job losses in Waterford city. In recent months and years there have been some high profile closures such as Waterford Crystal and more recently TalkTalk. Much was promised by the Minister. The Government indicated that an action plan would be put in place to help not just Waterford city but the south-east region. I welcome the publication of the plan and that the Minister has brought together stakeholders from across various enterprise agencies and boards, development boards, city and county managers and many others. However, the big problem with the plan is a lack of specifics and measurable elements. For example, there is reference in the document to the rate of unemployment in the south-east region being 18.2% while the national average is 14.5%. The gap is almost 4%. In parts of Waterford city the unemployment figure is more than 20%. The document does not specify whether the Government is going to set a target of reducing unemployment from 18.2% to at least bring the south east into line with the national average. That would still be unacceptable, but at least it would be a specific measurable action contained within the document but that is absent.

Reference is made in the document to the IDA and Enterprise Ireland being committed to pursuing job opportunities. They are doing that anyway; so there is nothing new in that respect. The document also indicates that a strong, regional value proposition, a marketing strategy built around key regional strengths and areas of opportunity, should be developed by means of a co-ordinated approach involving the enterprise agencies, local authorities and other regional stakeholders. What does that mean? To be honest, it is a lot of waffle in terms of what is said and what is not said. The document indicates that there will be a review of the planning and land use and transport strategy, PLUTS. In terms of the enterprise agencies it states that IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland will continue to convene additional first flight workshops and initiate a marketing campaign. There are no measurable goals and few specific actions in the plan.

Reference is made in the plan to a number of areas where Waterford could potentially major in terms of job opportunities such as clean tech, life sciences and tourism. Clean tech and life sciences are two areas where it is suggested that the region could prosper. Another difficulty I have with the document is that it says the agencies will have a spotlight on Waterford. What does that mean? The Minister is saying that the region needs to perform better and the enterprise agencies need to deliver for the region, including the IDA, but does that mean that when there are opportunities for the IDA to attract foreign direct investment and other employment opportunities to this country that they will ring-fence those opportunities for the south east? That is what should be in the plan because if it is taken in isolation to the national plans of Enterprise Ireland and the IDA then the plan is not worth anything. There needs to be measurable and specific goals and real, actionable points to which the people of Waterford can refer and say the Government is serious about job creation in Waterford and ensuring that in life sciences, clean tech and a number of other areas that have been identified, the enterprise agencies will respond accordingly.

The action plan is a regional plan. It is not about Waterford city but if the region is to succeed then Waterford city needs to succeed. One of the things the Government could do immediately is to designate Waterford Institute of Technology as a university for the region. That will not solve all of our problems but it would certainly lift Waterford city and the region. If the city does not perform economically and does not get the opportunities and jobs that we need then, unfortunately, the region will not perform either. The figures in the document prove that.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Labour)
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I thank Senator Cullinane for raising this issue. As outlined by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, during his visit to Waterford following the TalkTalk closure announcement, he decided to oversee the preparation and implementation of a south east employment action plan to investigate the causes of this problem in the city and its hinterland and outline a list of actions to be taken over the short and medium to long term to seek to address it.

The task the Minister set the agencies included: analysis of existing portfolio of activities by agencies and an assessment of their capacity to expand employment; an assessment of the region and Waterford as a gateway for the location of employment; and an assessment of sectoral strengths and emerging sectors that would have a good fit with the region. On receipt of the agencies' responses, an action plan for the south east was prepared by Forfás incorporating inputs from all agencies and those of relevant stakeholders in the region. The report contains specific actions to address the specific employment problems affecting the south east. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, launched the south east action plan last Friday, 2 December, and it is his intention to meet regularly with a forum representing the agencies and stakeholders to progress the implementation of the plan.

The reality is that the structural challenges that the region faces have built up over many years and will not be reversed with a simple set of actions. What is required is to build a stronger enterprise base in the region as a whole. The report identifies many actions that can help deliver on the ambition of having a stronger local enterprise base — but it will only achieve so much. There are challenges for all agencies in the region to help build up the region's competitive advantage and then to promote it in a co-ordinated manner.

One of the key issues that no single agency or Department can hope to address is the overall coherence of the region's "value proposition" to investors from home or abroad. What has arisen again and again in consultation with all the relevant stakeholders and agencies in the region is the need for greater co-ordination of effort from all those with an interest in improving the enterprise potential of the region. This was brought to the fore when all the agencies, local authorities, CEBs, education institutions and other local representative groups met with the Minister, Deputy Bruton, on 24 November. That meeting was the first time that a group of that nature had met collectively with the focus solely on what could be done to improve the region's fortunes. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, intends for the coming year to facilitate a series of further meetings of the same group as a means of both monitoring the implementation of the proposals in this report but also as a means of helping to forge greater co-operation and collaboration between the various stakeholders across the region.

A full set of actions and further analysis is outlined in full in the report prepared by Forfás but it is worth noting a number of specific issues of importance. The IDA will assign a clear priority to the region with a view to attracting additional investment to the area particularly in sectors such as life sciences, financial services and new areas such as clean tech. The IDA will continue to work with local stakeholders to promote the Bellview site to a targeted set of international investors. The IDA will work closely with local authorities and other agencies and will ensure that the region is optimally promoted and wins more site visits from prospective investors. The IDA will continue an intensive process of promoting a replacement company for the existing TalkTalk facility and its qualified workforce through its extensive network of international offices.

In terms of Enterprise Ireland's action, an immediate competitive call for feasibility funding for new start-ups in the south-east region will be launched. Funding of up to €20,000 per project will be made available for ten proposals by Enterprise Ireland. Other Enterprise Ireland activities in the region will include the enterprise platform programme in a new format in the first quarter of 2012, and a first flight workshop, aimed at companies developing export markets for their products, will be convened in Waterford. The IDA and Enterprise Ireland will work with other agencies to exploit the clear regional opportunities in life sciences, clean tech and food to build up the competitive strengths and establish the important linkages these sectors need to develop.

The enterprise agencies will also focus on stimulating increased linkages between firms. These actions can only do so much to improve the region's enterprise base, but it is just a start. A challenge that has built up over many years will not be turned around in a matter of months, but the Minister is determined that we should make a start with the measures proposed in the Forfás report. More than that, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, is keen over the coming 12 months, to see the agencies and the regional stakeholders come together and help drive the positive changes that are clearly overdue.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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Does the Minister of State agree that the Government and the Minister need to do three things with regard to the outworkings of this plan? The first is to set a real target for the reduction of the number of people who are unemployed. The figure could be 14%, for example. There should, at least, be a target. There is no target in the document.

Second, we need to identify the niche areas for Waterford. The document talks about agri-food, clean tech, life sciences and international trading services. I agree with all of that. Does the Minister accept that we now need to amend national plans to reflect that, so that when the IDA is looking at opportunities it positively discriminates in favour of Waterford and the south east?

Third, the plan should be kept under constant review so that when we have established targets and we know our objectives we can measure progress against those targets. The big problem with the document is its lack of targets. I hope the Minister will revisit this matter and set clear targets.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Labour)
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The Government is very serious about job creation. There is a challenge throughout the country with regard to job creation. The Government also recognised that there are particular problems in the south east. Waterford has been especially hit, one could say devastated, by substantial job losses in recent years, most recently with the closure of TalkTalk.

There is a clear plan of action. The State agencies were brought into the picture as quickly as possible. They have identified the niche areas. I take the Senator's point regarding setting targets. That should be done. I will relay his views to the Minister in that regard.

The emphasis is on identifying the strengths of the area and of those areas that need to be strengthened further. We must identify those niche activities in the jobs market where there is most potential to benefit the south east.

Bringing the local stakeholders together is particularly important. It is regrettable that this has not been the case and that there has not been such a forum working and campaigning for the south east. I am glad this has come together. The work of the group now needs to be built upon and the group needs to meet on an ongoing basis and be in constant contact with the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and the State agencies.

No one is suggesting this is easy. Much work needs to be done. Commitment has been demonstrated by the Minister and by the State agencies involved. By working together the south east can be put on the map in terms of job creation. It has significant strengths which need to be built on. The area needs to be sold, and the local people and the local forum can best do that. I agree that they should be setting targets.