Thursday, 9 February 2012
I welcome the Minister of State back to the House again. I have raised on a number of occasions the issue of job creation, job losses and the responsibility of the Government and State agencies in the south east and in Waterford. I raise this Adjournment motion on foot of a response that my party colleague, Deputy Tóibín, received from a number of State enterprise agencies about a county by county breakdown of IDA grants, the number of IDA supported companies in each county, the number of jobs that have been created and lost in each county by the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and enterprise boards.
The last time the Minister of State was in the House, we spoke about the Forfás plan. The plan refers to the south east playing to its strengths. It mentions life sciences, clean technology, internationally trading services, agrifood and so on. I fully support that. However, I had two problems with the plan. First, it failed to address the core problem that the south east has the highest unemployment level in the country, 4% above the national average. Second, it did not set any clear, realistic, deliverable targets that would reduce that figure. Every region wants to see unemployment reduced and we want to see reductions across the board. I know the Government is working on this area, perhaps not to my satisfaction, but it has its own plans.
We are hearing from reports like this that the enterprise agencies will do all of these wonderful things for Waterford and the south east, but when we look at the hard facts and figures, that is not the case. Let us look at the grant aid that has been made available to IDA sponsored companies in Waterford over the last number of years. In 2006, it was €4.6 million. In 2007, it was €7.2 million. In 2008, it was €4.7 million. What did Waterford get when the downturn came? It got €854,000 in 2009 and €1.4 million in 2010. This happened despite the fact that the average investment by the IDA from 2006 to 2008 was about €85 million. In 2010 it was €120 million. The amount of grant aid being made available and spent by the IDA was going up, but the amount that Waterford is getting is going down.
That has a knock-on effect across the region. Kilkenny received nothing in 2006, €635,000 in 2007, nothing in 2008, nothing in 2009 and nothing in 2010. Wexford received nothing in 2008, €190,000 in 2009 and €569,000 in 2010. This has happened in spite of the fact that we have high concentrations of investment going into Cork and Dublin. I do not wish to pitch this as a competition between any area, but I must make the point that the south east is lagging behind. It has the highest level of unemployment.
In two of the last three years, there was not a single visit by an IDA client company into Kilkenny. In two of the last three years, we have seen very few such visits to Wexford. Waterford has received a fair amount of visits, but the companies have not set up. However, the crunch is in the job losses because all of this is about whether the plans are working and whether we are creating jobs. In 2007, there were 6,300 sponsored jobs in Waterford. That dropped to 6,000 in 2008, to 5,600 in 2009, 5,300 in 2010 and 4,600 in 2011. We see the pattern of jobs being lost every year and not being replaced. It is great to have a report and say all of this stuff is happening, but the Forfás report does not put in place any realistic, deliverable, credible proposals that will deal with the facts that I have presented here today, which show that Waterford and the south-east region are lagging behind in job creation. The enterprise agencies are frankly not doing enough.
I would like to endorse everything that Senator Cullinane has said. The south east lags behind in a range of areas, including medical provisions. The unemployment situation is dire. Waterford is the capital of the region and we have seen significant unemployment rise there in recent years, with very badly targeted approaches to resolve it. Wexford continues to be a real unemployment black spot. It ranks consistently third or fourth highest in the unemployment league. There needs to be a really focused effort, rather than just something that allows the Minister of State to answer on an Adjournment debate but does nothing for the people on the ground who are starved of employment and who are seeking to get it.
Wexford has suffered significantly because of the fall in the construction industry. Much of our unemployment was based on that sector and the collapse of that sector has given rise to 18% unemployment, and it is not a whole lot better across the region.
I am glad that both Senators have raised the issue. The last point made was about the over-dependence on the construction industry. That is part of the structural difficulty which exists in many of the regions outside of the larger urban conurbations, where the labour force moved into the construction industry.
When the construction industry fell apart, all of a sudden there were massive rates of unemployment. The south east, in particular, has seen its unemployment rate jump from 4.9% in 2007 - which was marginally above the countrywide average of 4.6% - to 18.2%, compared with a national average of 14.3%. There is a clear acknowledgement of the difficulties facing the south east. I will be frank and say that neither of the two Senators have proffered any solutions. We must acknowledge that State agencies such as Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland, as well as local authorities, academic institutions and enterprise boards, will have to be part of a plan to stem that tide of unemployment and reverse the trend.
The south-east action plan contains specific actions to address the unemployment problems affecting the south east. The plan, which is geographically oriented towards that area, was launched more than two months ago, on 2 December. Its intention is to provide for regular meetings with a forum representing the agencies and local stakeholders to progress its implementation.
The structural challenges faced by the south east region have built up over many years and will not be reversed by a simple set of actions. What is required is to build a stronger local enterprise base in the region as a whole. The report identifies many actions that can help deliver on that ambition, but it will only achieve so much. The Senators will acknowledge that we cannot reverse the unemployment trend overnight. There will need to be structural changes and investments in key areas in order to stem that tide. There are challenges for all agencies to build up the region's competitive advantage and then promote it in a co-ordinated manner.
One of the key issues that no single agency or Department can hope to address is the issue of 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 the agencies, local authorities, CEBs, educational institutions and other local representative groups met with the Minister on 24 November last. That meeting was the first time a group of that nature had met with a focus solely on what could be done to improve the region's fortunes, which is worth noting. We must also bear in mind that the figures quoted by Senator Cullinane are from a time when a different political entity was at the helm. In all fairness, what this Government has done is to seek to meet the challenges faced by the south east head-on, in partnership with the State agencies. I understand the Senator will want to score a point off me, as Minister of State, but he should recognise that people across party political boundaries want to work together to stem the tide of unemployment.
The Minister intends in the coming year to facilitate a series of further meetings of that same group as a means of monitoring the implementation of the proposals in this report and also to forge greater co-operation and collaboration between the various stakeholders across the region. I hope Senator Cullinane will get on board with that process.
I regret the fact that the Minister of State's contribution was defensive. What I was putting on the record were facts, and at no point did I say the Minister of State who is in the Chamber was responsible for any of what has happened in the south east. I was simply saying there was a problem and that it needs to be solved. There is also room for constructive criticism of the Government, because it is this Government - in the form of the Minister of State's colleague, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation - that published the Forfás plan. A previous Minister who sat in that chair acknowledged there was a lack of deliverable targeted responses and that the plan was long on high aspirations and short on specifics.
The Minister of State asked about solutions. The solutions are obvious and staring us in the face when we look at the figures I gave. The solution is balanced regional development. The plan, for example, talks about the region playing to its strengths in life sciences, internationally-traded services and other areas on which we can concentrate. The enterprise agencies should give us the support we need to achieve this. We have seen that from 2009 onwards, companies in Waterford and the south east have received less grant aid at a time when more money is being spent, and that the area has the highest unemployment levels in the country. We must point out these failures. These may not be the fault of the Minister of State sitting in the chair, but they represent a failure of his Government, previous Governments and the State agencies to bring about balanced regional development. Whatever solutions, positive as they are, are established by this Government, I will fully support them, because we all want to see jobs for people in this country, but where there are shortcomings, I am sure the Minister of State will agree that we have a responsibility to point them out.
It is not just a matter of identifying a set of metrics from 2007 to 2010. We need to consider the problem from a qualitative point of view. We cannot just extrapolate from the rate of investment by IDA Ireland or Enterprise Ireland and say that in monetary terms, the south east has not benefited, because other regions have the same claim, in real terms. We can say that the larger urban areas such as Cork, Dublin and Galway have a disproportionately high rate of inward investment in the form of IDA projects, but we also need to consider human capital, soft skills and the relationships among stakeholders. There is now a model, sponsored by the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to deal with this. It is not that I am being defensive. If we are debating an issue, we need to set out the parameters for that debate. We must have due regard to the fact that all of the stakeholders want to drive this on. In fairness to all political entities, they also want to drive this on. If it needs to be critiqued, we are open to that. However, it is not just a question of investment by the IDA, although that is one aspect of it. It is a question, also, of ensuring that we can deliver on education. Senator Cullinane will be aware of my commitment to the Telecommunications Software & Systems Group, TSSG, which is, as far as I am concerned, a beacon for the region. We need to mine more of that intellectual development and human capital. Inch by inch, that is what will restore the region so that we have a level playing field. I have listened to the points that were made. We are not going to be complacent about this. We have a job to do.