Adjournment Debate.

Job Losses.

Sadly, I rise to speak about a bleak 48 hours for County Kerry, during which over 200 jobs have been lost. On Tuesday, Wilson Sports Socks announced that it would permanently close its plants in Tralee and Caherciveen with the loss of 185 jobs. This was followed this morning by the announcement from the Rosenbluth call centre in Killarney that it would be closing its doors by April of this year with the loss of 40 full-time and other part-time jobs.

There is a worrying local trend in these redundancies that mirrors a similar national trend. On the one hand, the traditional manufacturing sectors, such as the textile industry, are suffering from a lack of economic competitiveness and price increases. This is seen dramatically in the closure of Wilson Sports Socks. A further difficulty for this factory was the fact that the proper infrastructure did not exist to enable it to remain there. At the same time, in the communications sector, as in Rosenbluth, there is a serious situation facing many companies. This sector, and particularly call centres, has repeatedly been identified by the Tánaiste as one of the key growth areas for the future. That assertion cannot be sustained in the wake of today's news, particularly for the people of Killarney.

The employment situation in my constituency is rapidly deteriorating with no response from central Government. The industrial sub-committee of Killarney Urban District Council recently met with Mr. Conor Healy of the IDA. He advised the committee that there had been only one visit by a potential investor to the Killarney Industrial Park in the last 12 months. In the same period, 15 projects were established in Cork city. This clearly illustrates how rural Ireland is losing out to the urban areas, particularly to university towns and cities. It also illustrates the importance of having in place the necessary physical and technological infrastructure to attract industry to an area. Killarney and much of Kerry has been left behind with regard to physical infrastructure, especially broadband. Is it any wonder that only one potential investor has visited Killarney Industrial Park in the last year when there is no broadband infrastructure in place there? This issue must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

For two years, I have been calling on the Tánaiste to visit Kerry and to meet with industry and trade union representatives to discuss employment in the county. I have yet to receive a positive response. She visits Kerry, and I understand the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is due to visit the county next Friday, but with the objective of selecting candidates for the Progressive Democrats in the local elections. It would be preferable if she visited Kerry to address the serious problem of job losses.

There is a perception that Killarney and Kerry are doing well from the tourism industry. However, it must be remembered that tourism is seasonal. The jobs I am discussing were full-time jobs. In 2003, of the 11,000 jobs lost nationwide in the manufacturing industry, 14% were in Kerry. Up to 1994, 850 people were employed in the Pretty Polly factory in Killarney. Those jobs have now gone and that was followed by the loss of several hundred more. Kerry is fast becoming one of the country's unemployment blackspots, despite perceptions to the contrary.

However, the Government cannot bring itself to send the Minister responsible for employment to visit County Kerry and to see for herself the trauma being experienced by families and communities as a result of redundancies. When will the Government sit up and take notice? Are those in County Kerry to be the forgotten people again? Earlier tonight there was a discussion about emigrants. Emigration is what faces the people of south Kerry again.

I thank Deputy Moynihan-Cronin for raising this matter on the Adjournment. The Government is conscious of the adverse effects on workers and their families in Kerry of the recent job loss announcements in the Wilson Sports Socks Company's plants in Caherciveen and Tralee and Rosenbluth in Killarney.

Sports Socks Company (Ireland) Limited announced on Tuesday, 27 January that it will phase out manufacturing in Ireland with the loss of 112 permanent and 53 contract jobs. The phased cessation of production will commence in early March and completion is expected by July 2004. The selection and timing of redundancies will be based on operational needs, with voluntary redundancies sought in the first instance. It is envisaged that 53 contract employees in Caherciveen will cease employment in April 2004.

The company acknowledged the contribution of employees over many years and their flexibility in meeting fluctuating workloads over recent months. The closure decision is as a result of ongoing unsustainable business losses caused by increased costs. The company has been experiencing difficult trading conditions for some time in its main European markets due to strong competition from low cost sources.

American Express acquired Rosenbluth International, Killarney, in July 2003 and undertook a review of its call centre facilities in Europe. On 27 January 2004, Rosenbluth announced to its staff the closure of its facility in Killarney and relocation of the work to the UK where it has spare capacity. There are 43 staff in the Killarney facility and closure will take place between mid March and April 2004.

Finding alternative employment for the workers affected is a priority for FÁS and the State development agencies. FÁS is making available its full range of support services, including skills analysis, training and job placement, to the staff of the affected companies. Arrangements will be made in the coming days with the companies concerned to schedule a suitable interview programme for all staff.

The Deputy should not talk down her county. It is correct that there are 15 new enterprises in Cork and that there are difficulties in the labour market in Killarney at present. It is also true that tourism is a seasonal market and that Kerry is experiencing serious problems in terms of permanent employment. However, in terms of total employment, County Kerry has never had more people working than at present.

In order to continue to improve its attractiveness as a location for inward investment, IDA Ireland has completed site development works on its business and technology park in Killarney and is actively promoting the area for new investment, including a new building facility in the park.

There is no broadband.

Enterprise Ireland has supported a major expansion at Fexco Limited with a job potential of 250. That is currently under way in Killorglin and Cahirciveen. In addition, under the community enterprise centre programme, the agency is supporting the expansion of Killarney Technology Innovation Centre. Enterprise lreland has awarded the Institute of Technology in Tralee a capital grant of €1.97 million for the establishment of campus business incubation centres. Shannon Development has invested approximately €8 million in the development of Kerry Technology Park at Tralee in partnership with the Institute of Technology Tralee, Kerry County Council and the private sector. The House should remember that Kerry County Enterprise Board is also providing valuable support for the establishment of micro-enterprise in the county.

The major decentralisation package announced in the budget includes 165 jobs which will be relocated to Killarney. That move demonstrates the Government's commitment to balanced regional development and will provide a further boost to enterprise development in Kerry. There have been coruscating and negative attacks in this House on all that. We have been told that the decentralisation programme is wrong and that it will be a failure. There is a thriving centre of employment through my Department in Killarney and Cahirciveen. The Tánaiste and I are completely satisfied that the combined efforts of the State development agencies, under the aegis of her Department and in co-operation with Kerry County Development Board, Kerry County Council and other local interests should provide an adequate framework to deal with job losses and job creation in the area.

Decentralisation will not provide jobs for the people who have lost them.

Prison Accommodation.

I thank you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, for the opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment tonight. As the Minister knows, there is grave concern in Portlaoise about his recent statement that the Beladd Park housing scheme, the former prison officers' housing scheme in Portlaoise, may be developed as an open halfway house facility for prisoners. This is totally inappropriate in the middle of an urban area. These houses should be handed over for housing purposes to either the local authority or a voluntary housing agency.

The people in Portlaoise have been concerned about the future use of these houses for a number of years. The houses have a chequered history. Their design is drab and they have a depressing appearance. There has been much controversy about the construction costs and the centralised heating system which has cost the taxpayer a lot of money. I am sure that issue has been raised in the national media and in the House in recent years. We in Portlaoise had hoped that Laois County Council or a voluntary housing agency would be given the opportunity to take over these houses and to carry out a major refurbishment programme to turn them into an attractive housing development. However, the Department has different plans.

Slowly but surely, these houses have been cleared of their residents, the former prison officers. Some went through eviction procedures in the courts. A new wall has been built and security gates erected. That is happening for a reason. It is clear there are definitive plans in place for the future use of these houses. However, we in Portlaoise have not been told about those plans. I tabled a parliamentary question in December and the reply stated that a decision had not been made on this issue. I accept that is possibly technically true, but it is not a full and fair assessment of the position. Although a decision may not be formally finalised and announced, it is clear there is a definitive plan for the future development of this area, given what has happened in recent months. The Minister said in an interview in the Sunday Business Post on 18 January 2004 that he was considering using this former prison officers' housing scheme in Portlaoise as an open halfway house facility. It is understandable that such a statement has sent the fear of God through the people of Portlaoise.

We have two major prisons in the town, Portlaoise Prison and the Midlands Prison. There is an excellent relationship between the community in the town and throughout County Laois and the Prison Service. There have not been any objections to development work or to the expansion of facilities in the town. However, people understood that the prisoners would be behind the prison walls. This is a new scenario and the people are afraid of the development of this halfway facility. We are talking about convicted criminals. The transfer of paedophile prisoners from the Curragh to Portlaoise has caused alarm in the town. The people are concerned that prisoners who are nearing the end of their sentence in this open halfway house will be free to roam throughout the town during certain times of the day. The people are afraid for themselves and their children. Petitions have been signed and it has been discussed at county council and town council meetings. People are becoming more concerned because of the absence of a definitive statement.

I hope the Minister will make a definitive statement this evening on the future plans for this housing scheme. If he says that a decision has not yet been made, it will fuel cynicism that there is something afoot about which we cannot be told. I ask the Minister to be conscious of the effect of any statement he makes in that regard.

This location is not suitable for a halfway house, whether it is run by the Prison Service or the Probation and Welfare Service. It is in the middle of a growing and prosperous town. The people of Portlaoise are not concerned about property values. They are happy to live next door to the prisons and to be good neighbours. Prisons in the town have not affected property values. People are happy to buy and sell houses every day within a couple of hundred yards of the prisons, but they will be worried about the security of their families and children if an open prison is established in the middle of Portlaoise town. Although I have not visited Shelton Abbey in Wicklow and Loughan House in Cavan, I understand they are in a rural setting.

If the use of these houses is changed, it will require planning permission, although it may not be through the normal planning process. That will give the people an opportunity to make their views known. The Minister will hear the people's views if he tries to change the use of these houses from former residential units to places of detention or similar facilities.

On behalf of the people of Portlaoise, I plead with the Minister to think again. The local authority or a housing agency should give these houses a useful purpose which will not compromise security due to their close proximity to the prison walls.

I am very grateful to Deputy Fleming for raising this issue and I am glad to have the opportunity to outline my position with regard to the former prison officers' housing scheme in Portlaoise, known as the Beladd Estate.

The estate referred to by the Deputy comprises 60 houses which were constructed as staff quarters on a site adjacent to Portlaoise Prison in 1980. The physical maintenance of the houses in the estate was the responsibility of the prison, with resultant costs to the Prison Service in financial terms and in staff time. I understand that many serious structural faults were identified in the properties over the years and there have been some security difficulties involving contraband material being propelled over the wall of the new Midlands Prison which is close to the estate.

As part of the ongoing management of State property, my predecessor, Deputy O'Donoghue, concluded in late 2001 that the accommodation arrangements for prison officers at the Beladd Estate were no longer justified and that the property should be recovered and put to more productive use in the overall context of the Prison Service. One of the conditions of the lease arrangement signed by the tenants was that they would vacate the houses following adequate notice, in the event that vacant possession of the property was required by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Following protracted discussions with the tenants of the houses, including a number of court proceedings under the State Property Act, the estate is entirely unoccupied.

As Minister I must decide if it is required to service the needs of the Irish Prison Service, given the proximity of the Midlands and Portlaoise Prisons as well as the Prison Service training centre which is on the same campus. I am considering using part of the land to make additional facilities available to the training centre and it has also been suggested to me that certain courtroom facilities for the Laois area could be relocated there.

The Deputy is asking for a definitive view but I am groping towards a preliminary view, namely, that if I were to locate a prison facility at the Beladd site, then irrespective of the regime within that facility for prisoners, it would have to be contained within a secure enclosed wall or fence, given its location. There is no question of people being at liberty to wander in and out of that place if it was used for the accommodation of prisoners. However, as the remaining tenants have only recently left the estate, I have made no decision on its future use. I will bring a proposal to Government in due course when a decision has been made. Plans are in train as the Deputy has mentioned to erect a fence or wall around the perimeter of the estate to prevent trespass on the estate and to prevent contraband material being propelled over the wall of the Midlands Prison.

I am advised that certain aspects of the existing houses would render their normal domestic use in the future extremely difficult. The experience of technical personnel in Portlaoise Prison was that the underground communal heating system for the estate had very serious problems associated with it. Replacement of that system would be problematic and extremely costly for a local authority or a voluntary housing body. It should also be noted that an informal approach was made to Laois County Council several years ago asking if it would be interested in taking over the estate and the property. This offer was declined at the time. Since then, the Midlands Prison has been built next to the existing Portlaoise Prison. The physical location of the Midlands Prison is such that a renewed offer of the estate to the council would probably not be desirable or be taken up on security grounds.

Officials of Laois County Council have contacted the director general of the Irish Prison Service on this matter and he is awaiting a suitable date from the council for a meeting to explore the possibilities for the site.

I assure the Deputy I have not made up my mind on this property. Several possible uses are under contemplation but I want to make it clear to the people of Portlaoise and the county that I will not do anything which will seriously infringe or diminish their quality of life or their sense of safety. Whatever is done will be in the best economic interests of Portlaoise and County Laois and of the Exchequer. I want to ensure that something which might otherwise become derelict and run down and a problem in terms of social consequences for the neighbourhood will not happen and that whatever thought process must happen in the Prison Service will happen to ensure that this asset over which it has control turns into an asset for the Irish people rather than a liability causing problems for the local community.