Thursday, 29 May 2014
Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá mé thar a bheith buíoch dó as teacht isteach ar an gceist seo. I am very grateful the Minister is present. The reason I raise the issue is that, anecdotally, we all sense that employment in rural areas has been particularly affected in recent years. There is a certain sense that the employment rate nationally and even in the regions is improving but figures in the quarterly national household survey, QNHS, recently revealed the real picture, namely, a decrease in the labour force in various regions, in particular more rural ones. For example, in the midlands region from quarter 1 of 2012 to the end of last year there was a decrease from 129,000 to 128,600. In the west the decrease was from 211,200 to 204,800. In the mid-east the decrease was from 262,000 to 254,000. That gives an indication that the labour force in rural areas is decreasing. One must also consider that the figures for the west include statistics for Galway city where there have been certain successes in terms of employment. However, as someone who speaks on rural issues regularly I am aware that rural areas find it difficult to maintain population levels.
My question for the Minister relates to the agencies under the remit of his Department and the specific targets they have to create employment in rural areas. We had an interesting debate about Forfás, the IDA and Enterprise Ireland. Certain successes are evident in the figures we discussed. The IDA's target for creating more than 50% of jobs outside of Cork and Dublin was not met. It has been difficult to create jobs even in bigger towns around the country. How does the Government plan to rejuvenate rural areas, create employment there and keep people living in rural communities?
Údarás na Gaeltachta does not come specifically under the Minister’s remit but it is a Gaeltacht-based development agency. It is having particular difficulties because its funding has been reduced from €28 million in 2008 to €5.6 million. It is trying to create employment in Gaeltacht areas. Certain protocols are in place with the Department to the effect that if Údarás comes across a project or develops one which might be based in a Gaeltacht, capital funding will be provided. There have been a number of successes in that regard. The Mylan project was announced recently. Notwithstanding that, my understanding is that Údarás na Gaeltachta does have a number of shovel-ready projects where the groundwork has been done and employment could be created but the next step is required.
The Minister mentioned in the previous debate that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has allowed Enterprise Ireland and the IDA to take on extra staff at the coalface but the Údarás has not been given similar powers. Notwithstanding the difficulties experienced by Údarás na Gaeltachta, the most telling example I could give – Senator Keane could relate to it – of the success or otherwise of Údarás vis-à-visother rural areas is Connemara. Even with its faults Údarás na Gaeltachta has done a very good job of creating employment in rural areas in south Connemara but as soon as one goes to north Connemara it is barren from the point of view of industrial development. If it were not for tourism there would be very little there.
We need a rethink in how we approach job creation in rural areas. I look forward to hearing exactly what targets each of the agencies under the Minister’s remit have and what the Government’s strategy is to ensure rural areas get the jobs they need.
I thank the Senator for raising the issue. It is a continuing challenge to get regional spread. We are in a major transition. I was just looking at the figures for the west published by the Central Statistics Office from the census and there was a 60% reduction between 2006 and 2011 in the number of people employed in construction, amounting to a loss of 15,000 jobs. That is evidence of the significant downward suck that happened across the country. The sector had great regional spread. The challenge is to build new sectors that can get the same regional spread. It is challenging, especially when one looks at the IDA, which tends to be focused on highly mobile sectors. The investments we are chasing tend to be focused on sectors with very deep labour pool needs connected to education and hubs. That has been a real challenge to try to get the spread.
We have done interesting things. For example, the IDA has focused more on emerging companies and trying to get companies to make their first internationalisation into Ireland rather than trying to attract the big iconic names. That has been successful and has resulted in somewhat better regional spread. Connect Ireland is another initiative we took which seeks to use the contacts of people within the regions to act as a magnet. We have been taking a number of initiatives. This year is better in terms of regional spread than last year but it is still well short of the 50% target set for the IDA.
If one takes the west as a whole, in the three years from 2008 to 2010, the IDA lost 1,600 jobs while in 2011 to 2013 it added 3,500. That is a big turnaround. Enterprise Ireland similarly lost 2,000 jobs in the first period and added 500 in the second three-year period. We are getting traction in some sectors in particular. Food has been doing exceptionally well and has a very good regional spread. If one looks at the QNHS figures to which Senator Ó Clochartaigh referred one will see there has been solid growth in most regions and it has been spread through all the sectors. Some of it is on-farm and more is in the food sector. There is growth in the food sector and there is very strong growth in the tourism sector which again has given good regional spread.
The question on how we achieve a better regional spread is not just one for the IDA and Enterprise Ireland – the industrial agencies – it is also for those other sectors that are often major areas of competitive strength. We are seeking to develop a regional enterprise framework now that we have the local enterprise offices in place. The IDA and Enterprise Ireland have regional offices and it is timely to create a regional enterprise framework through which we can engage with stakeholders in whichever region to see how we can maximise effort. It will not all fall within our remit but it will play a part. Much of what we seek to do is aimed at small start-ups such as are funded by Microfinance Ireland and local enterprise offices. Those are initiatives through which we seek to give life to both rural and urban areas. This year one area of focus is to incentivise people to trade online in order to get customers, as that could be a lifeline for more remote areas where one has good skills or product capability.
There have been successes like the announcement last week by Green Isle Foods in Longford, which is very much rooted in the rural economy. We will seek to continue to build on those strengths.
Our targets are sectoral, in the sense of seeking to develop different sectors of the economy, and the regional spread comes with that. We have regional offices, each of which is charged with developing and maximising the impact it can make on companies. This year, as Members know, as part of our focus on manufacturing, we are asking our agencies to focus on 200 companies which have the capacity to step up. Every regional office will be looking at companies in its area to see if they have the capacity to step up, enter new markets and build their capabilities. We are seeking to deliver a regional spread through a number of different initiatives. However, I will not say that I am expecting "X" number of jobs from this or that county. It is not really realistic to work that way. That said, if we can get a regional framework in place, we can monitor the progress and look at the opportunities in collaboration with other players in the region. I hope to develop a better framework to address the issues raised by the Senator.
I thank the Minister and appreciate what he has just said. It does strike me, though, with respect, that if there is to be a regeneration of rural areas, then the Minister needs to drive it a little bit more from a rural perspective. If these regional enterprise frameworks are being developed in conjunction with the agencies, it would be useful to give them targets for rural areas. I do not think it will happen unless that is done. We know it is not easy but unless that happens, we will see a continual sucking of people from rural areas into the urban centres. That will have a snowball effect on rural shops, schools and so forth. Therefore, from an industrial development perspective, it would be very useful if the Minister considered the possibility of regional targets for rural areas. The Department must focus on what can be done to create employment in rural Ireland.
We have established our community enterprise centres, numbering 115 across the country. However, we respond to entrepreneurs coming forward with their ideas. We cannot grow entrepreneurs or enterprises in particular areas. We can try to provide facilities in different areas so that anyone who is emerging can get support. If Enterprise Ireland has a competitive start in a region but does not get applicants, it cannot create them. We try to develop the infrastructure and the opportunities but we depend on people coming forward. In that context, setting targets might be unrealistic. That said, I see no reason why we should not be looking for a 25% increase in start ups. I will be asking for that kind of target to be delivered right across the country. That is a realistic way to look at it. Start-ups are the drivers so if we can deliver that through the LEO and Enterprise Ireland network, then we will make real progress. If we then see that certain regions are not achieving, we can look at the reasons and try to learn from that. I take the Senator's point but we cannot start from a high target and work down. We must build the base and support the enterprises that are coming forward and then try to continually do better on the back of that base.