Other Questions.

Skills Olympics.

P. J. Sheehan

Question:

58 Deputy P. J. Sheehan asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the amount of money and resources his Department has spent on sending 85 people to Japan and China to participate in the Skills Olympics; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31285/07]

I understand that WorldSkills Council Ireland manages the selection, training and participation of Ireland's team for the WorldSkills competition. The council is chaired by the Department of Education and Science and is representative of the various partners in vocational education and training, including the Department of Education and Science, FÁS, the institutes of technology, the Dublin Institute of Technology, Fáilte Ireland and the Irish Vocational Education Association.

Ireland's participation in this competition, involving almost 50 countries with 824 participants in 47 skills areas, is essential to benchmark our strong craft and technical vocational education training against the technological advances in training in other countries. The WorldSkills competition was established with the aim of achieving world-class standards and competencies in commerce, services and industry. Ireland first competed in 1957 and hosted the competition in Dublin in 1963 and in Cork in 1979.

Ireland has an excellent record in this competition and finished third overall in 1999. In 2005 the Irish team finished seventh in the world with three gold medals, one silver, one bronze and nine medallions of excellence. In Japan 2007, the Irish team achieved one gold medal, four bronze medals and ten medallions of excellence and finished 13th of 47 participating counties.

The results achieved in the WorldSkills competition signal to multinational companies wishing to invest in Ireland that its young people have a wide range of skills, knowledge and competencies to support technically advanced industries and service providers.

In the context of a global economy and Ireland's economic success over the past decade, there has been a very significant increase in the number of young people engaged in apprenticeship training and education. This is reflected in the increase in competitors from skills areas by over 50% from the 2001 competition.

This year Ireland sent 85 people to the competition, including 54 competitors, judges and team leaders, and 31 others, including logistical and support staff. Some 37 of the 85 team members were FÁS apprentices, experts, technical staff or WorldSkills Council Ireland members.

The increased numbers from the previous competition are directly attributable to the inclusion in the competition of four additional skills areas, a change in competition rules requiring an additional team leader and an additional six technical supports for all skills areas due to the dispersed nature of the competition site in ten different buildings.

Participating organisations in the competition contribute pro rata to the cost in accordance with the numbers from each organisation. I understand that it is expected that FÁS will contribute around €480,000 towards the cost of preparing and sending the Irish team to participate in the WorldSkills competition in Japan in November 2007. This includes the cost of pre-departure training, the payment of FÁS training allowances during the pre-departure and competition periods, materials and equipment for use in the competition and the travel, accommodation and subsistence costs of the FÁS participants, other than the apprentices.

I asked this question because of the concerns expressed by the organisers at the extremely high number of people sent from Ireland to this event. It seems extraordinary that we are spending half a million euro of taxpayers' money to send 85 people to this event. Only 54 of these people are participants and not all of that group are actually competitors. Does the Minister feel that the amount being spent is justifiable and did he seek a cost estimate beforehand? With previous WorldSkills competitions in mind, can the Minister explain the huge change in the ratio of participants to hangers-on? In Helsinki the numbers were 43 and 22, respectively, a ratio of 2:1 and in St. Gallen the numbers were 42 and 16, respectively, a ratio of 3:1. This time the ratio is 1:1.5. Why has there been an explosion on this occasion and why are we so big in Japan?

FÁS is a contributing partner to this event and I take a different approach to this matter than the Deputy. I have been familiar with the Skill Olympics since my time in the Department of Education and Science and I know that the staff of the colleges do not have to partake in it. It is a labour of love for many of the personnel of our institutes of technology and we should celebrate and appreciate them because they drive the national effort at the Skill Olympics.

I do not know the exact details relating to the Deputy's question but I can explain the increase in personnel. However, I take a totally different approach. I will consult the organisers to see if particular issues arise and if the Deputy has a problem I would appreciate if he shared it with me. On a broader level, we should not undermine something that has been good for generations of apprentices in Ireland.

When some institutes of technology, including Cork Institute of Technology, CIT, and Dublin Institute of Technology, DIT, were drifting from apprenticeship training we made great efforts and were heartened by the fact that people in these institutions and elsewhere were prepared to fight the good fight, celebrate apprenticeship at the highest level and strive for world-class excellence. The only way this can be done is by participating in international competitions and my attitude to this matter is different from the Deputy's.

I will not take a niggardly approach, trying to pull the rug from under these people by suggesting there were many hangers-on there merely to have a good time. I know the exacting efforts the participants put into these competitions.

Why was the proportion of hangers-on so much higher on this occasion?

Activity levels increased on this occasion.

There was increased activity among hangers-on, not participants.

I do not know who are the hangers-on to whom the Deputy refers.

The Minister should find out if he is going to spend half a million euro of our money on them.

The Deputy put the question and is labelling these people hangers-on; I am not describing anyone as a hanger-on.

The Minister described these people as non-participants.

We are in the business of trying to inform and question and I suggest the Deputy should talk to the people who organised our participation in this event. He can come back to me if his perspective on this matter has not changed.

I will, but so should the Minister before he spends half a million euro of taxpayers' money.

Industrial Development.

Enda Kenny

Question:

59 Deputy Enda Kenny asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he will ask IDA Ireland to make available to local authorities, enterprise boards and community groups the large number of vacant properties in its possession, to be used as incubator units for small business or for an alternative appropriate use; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31330/07]

Under the Industrial Development Act 1986, as amended by the Acts of 1993 and 1995, IDA Ireland has the power to acquire, hold and dispose of land and any other property or any interest therein for the purpose of facilitating an industrial undertaking. Accordingly, the management of IDA Ireland's industrial property portfolio is a day-to-day operational matter for the agency, as part of the statutory responsibility assigned to it by the Oireachtas. It is not a matter in which I have a function.

The agency has a stock of buildings that it either owns or leases. These are marketed along with buildings on its industrial parks that are owned by private developers. The use to which IDA Ireland property can be put is prescribed by legislation and the disposal of property for any alternative use requires the consent of the Minister of the day. However, the agency is always available to discuss proposals regarding availability or suitability of individual buildings with local authorities, enterprise boards or community groups, and I will be pleased to consider any request for such consent should it be required.

With regard to the 67 buildings that are owned by IDA Ireland, 28 of these are now vacant. Of these 28 buildings, a total of 11 are classified as available. However, only four smaller units of these 11 buildings are considered suitable for use by small business and the agency is in discussion with the respective local authorities regarding passing the buildings to them. The other seven buildings that are classified as available would not be suitable for use as incubator units or for small businesses.

With regard to buildings that are leased by IDA Ireland, there are several large factory buildings which it leases in gateway, hub and other towns for use by client companies of the agency, Enterprise Ireland and the county enterprise boards. These buildings would not be suitable for use as incubator units. Conversion costs and the relatively short period left in the leases would make it uneconomic to refit them for such a purpose. They were designed as single-occupant facilities for manufacturing use. However, IDA Ireland also leases 18 smaller units, which are available, and is in discussion with the landlords and local authorities regarding their future use. Each of these units will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

The number of buildings in which IDA Ireland has an interest has fallen dramatically in recent years. The policy decision to divest of buildings was taken in the 1990s and this decision was re-affirmed in the expenditure review of the IDA Ireland property programme that was concluded in 2004. In disposing of these buildings the agency must balance the need to have properties available in key locations that will help it deliver on its mandate. The agency must also seek to maximize the financial return to the Exchequer in disposing of property.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I acknowledge that he does not have day-to-day responsibility for the activities of IDA Ireland. I accept it is now the policy of IDA Ireland to move away from owning and operating properties. At the time that policy was adopted, 18% of the agency's properties was vacant. However, although it has since off-loaded many of its properties, there is now a vacancy rate of 41%. In other words, the number of vacant properties has increased phenomenally despite this policy of off-loading buildings.

Would it be appropriate for the Minister to request an audit of all vacant properties and to ask IDA Ireland, within a defined timeframe of perhaps one or two years, either to dispose of properties that are no longer suitable or to make suitable properties available to local authorities, county enterprise boards or local community groups?

Where it makes sense in local environments, we work with IDA Ireland to make a site available for an enterprise centre, for example, or for indigenous enterprise as opposed to foreign direct investment. Some 41% of properties are vacant but this percentage relates to a much smaller total than was the case previously. In 1998, there were 613 buildings in the IDA Ireland portfolio, but this figure has decreased to 150.

I issue a note of caution in response to the Deputy's suggestion. Yesterday, we announced the investment decision by Merck, Sharp & Dohme to open a 65-acre facility in Carlow. I have visited Carlow frequently in the past three years and the pressure was on us to lease that site. We almost leased a small part of it to an indigenous enterprise but that arrangement fell through. In hindsight, this seems like a positive outcome because the 65 acres are adequate for a value-added, high-end manufacturing investment. This is an example of a case where one might lose out by getting rid of property too quickly and so be left without options. In Ballina, there have been long-standing difficulties in securing a site for the county council to market the town for the purposes of securing foreign direct investment. That scheme is being held up by legal difficulties between the council and the vendor.

IDA Ireland's strategic approach to property is to dispose of those it does not need, to develop more strategic land sites, such as those in Oranmore, Athenry and in the north east, that can accommodate high-end industry, and to use the private sector more effectively.

I am sure the Minister is aware of the difficulties encountered by entrepreneurs in getting started in business. I agree entirely with the sentiment of the question and the points made by Deputy Varadkar. Does the Minister accept that one of the difficulties experienced by entrepreneurs is acquiring accommodation? The Minister does not have responsibility for planning but would he be prepared to advocate within the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to secure some provision for what might best be described as "garage industry" for a limited period, thus enabling and facilitating enterprise?

That is a fair point. Through Enterprise Ireland's enterprise centre programme, we have allocated significant funding for enterprise. In recent weeks, for instance, we announced a significant raft of decisions in regard to enterprise centres throughout the State, particularly in rural areas and in those counties that may not have had the same success as others in securing foreign direct investment.

In regard to planning, I have encountered individual cases in rural areas, for example, where long established businesses struggle when new planning edicts or frameworks are introduced. Such businesses, which may have been providing as many as 100 jobs for a long period, often have limited capacity to expand other than through the purchase of expensive properties close to a town. I ask planners and local authorities to give greater consideration to the needs of enterprise in this regard. Account should be taken of history and heritage and how these businesses have functioned in communities. These are not fly-by-night entities but people who have been in business for many years and have come under pressure in recent times to move to expand, with significant cost implications.

Will the Minister issue instructions to local authority planners to zone a certain amount of land to facilitate enterprise? It is often the case that planners are unwilling to zone too much land, for whatever reason. Guidance from the Department in this regard would be useful.

Will the Minister consider assigning vacant land in the ownership of IDA Ireland for the purposes of providing car parks to serve small businesses in towns in which there is significant traffic congestion? There are parking problems in most towns that are not bypassed and businesses there are under serious pressure because of lack of footfall. The provision of temporary parking facilities on vacant land belonging to IDA Ireland would remove employees' cars from the town centre. Is the Minister open to considering such a scheme?

I am not in a position to instruct local authority officials.

I accept that. I refer to guidance rather than instruction.

I take the Deputy's point. We work closely with local authorities and there are many pro-enterprise county managers and town clerks throughout the State with innovative development plans. In Mallow, for example, a proactive leadership approach is being taken in terms of involving the local community in decisions regarding the zoning of land for enterprise purposes. In Dungarvan, there have been positive responses from the county manager in terms of providing sites and engaging with enterprise.

Some of the planners get it right.

That is the model we want. We invariably find that the types of practices to which the Deputy referred occur most often in those areas that are loudest in seeking investment but have the least proactive policies.

The Deputy's second question relates to a function of local authorities. Park and ride facilities are the type of infrastructure that can best facilitate access to parking for workers. There has been innovation from some local authorities in this regard.

If vacant IDA Ireland properties are available, is the Minister willing to allow them to be used to provide temporary car parks?

That is a matter for local authorities. It can only be decided on a case-by-case basis.

I ask only that the Minister does not rule out such an arrangement.

Work Permits.

Róisín Shortall

Question:

60 Deputy Róisín Shortall asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if, in regard to the number of proceedings commenced and convictions obtained from 2003 to 30 October 2007 for offences under the Employment Permits Act 2003, he will break down the proceedings and convictions against employers and employees; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31153/07]

Under the Employment Permits Acts 2003 and 2006, it is illegal to employ a non-EEA national without an employment permit where one is required. These Acts provide for a large number of obligations and offences, including those relating to the employment of foreign nationals except in accordance with an employment permit, refusal to co-operate with Garda inquiries, forgery, fraudulent alteration or fraudulent use of an employment permit, and misuse by employer or employee of an employment permit. Prosecutions under these Acts have been initiated by the Garda Síochána, which comes under the auspices of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has provided details of the proceedings commenced and convictions secured under the Employment Permits Act 2003. In 2003, 90 proceedings commenced, with eight convictions; in 2004, 81 proceedings commenced, with 20 convictions; in 2005, 73 proceedings commenced, with 45 convictions; in 2006, 45 proceedings commenced, with seven convictions; and in 2007, three proceedings commenced, with one conviction. I understand no proceedings have commenced to date for offences under the Employment Permits Act 2006, which commenced on 1 January 2007.

With regard to the breakdown of these proceedings and convictions into those against employers and those against employees, I am informed the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has made inquiries with the Garda authorities but it has not been possible in the timeframe available to obtain the statistical information requested. This information will be forwarded to the Deputy as soon as it is available.

I thank the Minister for his reply, which is very similar to the response given on 24 October. Unfortunately, since that time the Minister's colleagues in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform have not been able to provide the breakdown asked for.

Is it not time for the Department, or a relevant sub-agency within the Department, to take on the responsibility for proceedings, as the Revenue Commissioners have done? All of us have enough experience of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to realise this is very low on its priorities. It will not enter into prosecutions of this kind because the matter is low on the scale of criminality as far as the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is concerned.

I appreciate that the breakdown of employees and employers will be sent to me but the Minister might respond to my net question. There should be teeth to initiate prosecutions in order to give effective policing of the labour market, of which this is a part, along with the welcome addition of the labour inspectorate, or we will not go the final mile. If the Department depends on the Garda and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, there will be no value for the increase in inspections of the labour market.

Will the Minister consider taking back or giving the Department a power to initiate prosecutions, as the Revenue Commissioners have done? It was previously dependent on other agencies.

I agree with the Deputy and the Employment Permits Act 2006 gives me those teeth. It states "the Minister may appoint in writing such and so many of his or her officers to be authorised officers for the purposes of all or any of the provisions of this Act or the Act of 2003". It was a gap in the 2003 legislation that the issue of prosecution was left to An Garda.

These people will not wake up in the middle of the night thinking they must deal with the issue.

The GAMA episode, which may still be in the Supreme Court, made this matter crystal clear for me. We were quite vulnerable to legal challenge, even in the compilation of a report. I have instructed my officials that the national employment rights agency, NERA, will be the agency to prosecute for breaches of the Employment Permits Act2006.

When will that come into effect?

The Bill to give NERA statutory provision is being drafted currently by the Parliamentary Counsel, and it should be placed on a statutory footing in early 2008. The overall approach is to build compliance. NERA is in discussions currently with the GNIB——

I welcome the Minister's reply but I am conscious of the time. When NERA is brought into effect, can the provision be activated from the first day? Will the Minister undertake to do so?

They are authorised officers of my Department so I can activate it. I have had discussions with NERA on this specific issue last week. The GNIB still has a significant role to play because there is a migration aspect to this. A benefit of this Act, which will give us more teeth, is the capacity for the Revenue Commissioners, the Department of Social and Family Affairs and my Department to work collaboratively on a specific sector or a particular company. This has already had an impact, particularly in the construction sector.

The message for anybody out there who wishes to break employment permit or labour law is that we will bring the whole house down on top of them.

Tom Sheahan

Question:

61 Deputy Tom Sheahan asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he will ease the restrictions on work permits for nursing homes seeking work permits for nurses and carers, as many nursing homes are having difficulty filling posts since the process was changed in February 2007; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31302/07]

Under the new employment permit arrangements I launched earlier this year, registered nurses and specialist nurses are both occupations for which green cards may be issued for posts with an annual salary over €30,000. Nurses must be fully qualified and registered with An Bord Altranais. In 2007 to the end of October, a total of 1,331 employment permits have issued in respect of nurses, of which the majority would have been green cards.

The work permit scheme, on the other hand, is designed to address labour shortages and, accordingly, it is not normally required that work permit holders would be expected to have a third level education. All work permit holders are however required to possess skills and experience appropriate to their position.

The Deputy should note that only in exceptional circumstances are new work permits issued for positions where the annual salary is less than €30,000. In contrast to the green card system, a labour market needs test is applied for each case. In 2007 to the end of January , a total of 1,083 employment permits have issued in respect of carers and nurses' aides, with 375 new applicants and 708 renewals.

With regard to nursing homes, if the Irish Nursing Homes Association has concerns about the new system, we are open to having discussions to facilitate the concerns.

I am not sure if the Minister has yet had an opportunity to meet with representatives of the Irish Nursing Homes Association. If he has not done so, I hope he will as soon as possible. This is an issue in which I have an interest and am involved. Since the introduction of the new rules in February this year, there has been a clear problem for many nursing homes in meeting the 50% rules and in getting carers or nurses who would, in general, be paid less than €30,000.

It is possible a number of nursing homes will have to close wards or curtail numbers in the coming months, particularly as longer-standing Filipino staff go on maternity leave or go on holidays later in the summer. It is an emerging problem in a sector with a long history of Filipino and Indian nurses, in particular, coming to Ireland to work in nursing homes. Labour is not necessarily available from other EU countries.

I am not sure if the Minister has received a request for a meeting yet from the Irish Nursing Homes Association but if he has, I encourage him to meet with a delegation as soon as possible. If he has not yet received an invitation, he will shortly.

My officials discussed the matter this morning and we understand the association may have articulated the difficulties outlined by the Deputy; we will facilitate a meeting to work through a proper system. There has always been a specific allowance for health care because it was an area identified repeatedly, along with IT and construction professionals, as having skills shortages.

This must be balanced with ensuring there is no exploitation and there is proper policing of rights. We can achieve that balance, and we have dealt with other sectors. The €30,000 limit can be a bit high if one considers initial trainees in some instances but we are flexible in facilitating measures for a genuine need, without in any way compromising basic and proper standards in accordance with our labour laws.

Telecommunications Services.

Olivia Mitchell

Question:

62 Deputy Olivia Mitchell asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment his views on whether Ireland’s broadband infrastructure, connectivity and bandwidth, as indicated in recent OECD surveys, is limiting Ireland’s competitiveness and economic progress; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31271/07]

Broadband infrastructure and telecommunications policy is the primary responsibility of my colleague, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.

There has been much debate and discussion about broadband provision over the past few years. As a result of forward-thinking investment many years ago our international broadband connectivity is superior to or as advanced as any provided by our competitors. This is a key factor in Ireland winning ground-breaking investment, most recently from Microsoft that will see an investment of $500 million in a new data centre that will house tens of thousands of Internet servers. Furthermore Novell has decided to centralise its Europe, Middle East and Africa TeleWeb operations in Ireland.

These are just a few of the major Internet investments we have won against robust international competition from other countries equally ambitious to be knowledge centres for tomorrow's Internet and broadband economy. Ireland has been successful because these companies rely on robust, resilient and extensive broadband networks for their business, which we provide.

I am aware that there are still challenges in this area and that we are playing catch-up with regard to overall on-line applications, participation rates and penetration. We have seen significant increases in this respect and I recently received a copy of a letter sent to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, from the director of eBay and I have agreed to meet with him to discuss his concerns.

At national level broadband subscriptions now account for over 63% of all Internet subscriptions, of which there are almost 700,000. This is an 87% increase on the corresponding June 2006 figure, so we are making belated but dramatic progress. ComReg estimates that Irish broadband penetration, including mobile broadband, in June this year was 16.48% compared with 18.1% across the EU 25.

Of much more significance is how broadband penetration is growing. The recent OECD report shows that Ireland has the strongest per capita subscriber growth rate in the OECD, adding 6.6 subscribers per 100 inhabitants during the year, far ahead of the OECD average of 3.65 per 100 inhabitants. Accelerating broadband connections at this pace is rapidly shrinking the gap between Ireland and other countries. On residential costs, which are also important for competitiveness, Ireland is five places less expensive than the European Union average. None of this is to suggest complacency on our part. There are issues around the evenness of availability of broadband across the country as well as the adequacy of the infrastructure in use.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

Total investment under the communications and broadband programme 2007-13 will be €435 million. To date all gateways have open access, high-speed fibre networks constructed under the MANs. The MANs consist of high speed, fibre optic rings linking the main business districts to a co-location centre. By making these available to all operators on an open access, carrier-neutral basis they are stimulating competition by removing the need for service operators to build their own networks. The group broadband scheme enables smaller communities to obtain broadband through Government grants. Some 27 MANs have been built and between 2007 and 2008 some 90 networks will be completed. A total of 160 GBS projects have been approved. Funding has also enabled the construction of a third fibre optic backbone network by ESB Telecom and the upgrading of more than 50 telephone exchanges to permit DSL broadband delivery. Consideration will be given to a further phase of MANs once the effectiveness of spending under the first phase has been assessed.

With a view to our future needs in the domain of telecommunications, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources will, in the coming months, publish a policy paper on next generation networks, NGNs. The paper will consider and learn from international experience in NGN roll-out, review current communications policy and analyse policy options on the optimum role for Government in the evolution to next generation broadband. I understand the Minister intends to convene a national advisory forum on NGNs to critique the paper and provide expert high-level guidance on future developments in the telecommunications sector. This is an important initiative because next generation communications infrastructure is emerging as an important factor in the competitiveness of advanced economies and in our circumstances to help progress to the next stages of economic growth.

I appreciate the Minister's acknowledgement that we are in a catch-up phase. It is perhaps a more honest answer than the one I got from the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan. John McElligott, managing director, of eBay also wrote to me on foot of previous questions I asked. I will quote one line from his letter. "I am embarrassed to tell my peers in other countries about Ireland's connectivity problems. Ireland is nowhere in terms of on-line application usage and innovation." While that might be an exaggeration, it is clear that we are behind and playing catch up. My difficulty is that the Minister's answers always seem to relate to EU averages. Ireland should not be talking about EU averages. We should be a world leader in broadband and technology.

I highlight the area of broadband speeds where we are behind other countries. I would particularly like the Minister to address this area. The average advertised speed for broadband in Ireland is 3,011 megabits per second compared with Japan where it is 93,000 megabits per second and France where it is 44,000 megabits per second. If Ireland is to become a fibre island, a knowledge economy and the world leader about which we all talk and preach, we cannot afford to be 30 times slower than Japan or in 28th place in the broadband league table of OECD countries, ahead of only Turkey and Mexico. I appreciate that the Minister is not being complacent about it, accepts there is a problem and that we are playing catch up. However, we are not catching up fast enough and are very far behind. I would particularly like the Minister to address the issue of speeds.

I accept the Deputy's point on speed. There is no argument about the OECD measurement. There are reasons for this in that countries like Japan have higher population densities, which give them some advantage over lower speed countries. For example, 26 million people live in the greater Seoul area, half of whom live in apartment blocks.

Seoul is in South Korea.

The point is that I do not disagree with the Deputy. The other competitive issue regarding the digital and Internet space is energy. That would be of concern to me in the medium term as it affects the cost base that may apply. I have also discussed that area with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan. The Deputy has said we are playing catch up. We know and it is accepted that the privatisation of Telecom Éireann, now Eircom, caused difficulties here in the interim period. The Government introduced the MAN initiative, which has had an impact. We are now the fastest growing country in the OECD. We are catching up pretty quickly. To be fair, the private sector companies are putting their shoulder to the wheel in this regard.

That is because we slipped down very badly.

We are moving particularly quickly.

We slipped——

——because of the crazy privatisation.

I am not interested in——

The Minister should tell this to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, who is in total fantasy land regarding broadband. At least the Minister, Deputy Martin, has some realisation that we are behind and trying to catch up.

I take the Deputy's point that we always aim to be the best. Although I note that just as the Deputy criticises me for using European parameters, on another day the Opposition loves to use European averages. I accept the Deputy's basic point that it is not the key issue for us. The key issue for us relates to FDI. We compete with Israel, Singapore, Puerto Rico, eastern Europe and other countries for significant investments.

I call Deputy Morgan.

On the issue of density, we are four times slower than Australia——

Allow Deputy Morgan to speak.

——which is pretty sparsely populated unless you count the kangaroos.

The Deputy should speak through the Chair.

I acknowledge that broadband is not in the portfolio of the Minister, Deputy Martin, which may be unfortunate. Is he aware of the negative impact its lack is having on enterprise? Every week all Members of this House get a bundle of representations on the dearth of broadband provision. I ask him to bring to bear any influence he can on the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, to prioritise the matter, which is a huge problem for Irish industry. Clearly the Minister, Deputy Ryan, is not aware of that.

The Minister, Deputy Ryan, is ahead of the game in that he is already calling together a forum regarding next generation technologies.

He is not dealing with this generation.

He is. He is very keen to advance this agenda and he will leave an impact on this area — of that I have no doubt. There are pluses and minuses. We have the strongest per capita subscriber growth in the OECD. We have added 6.6 subscribers per 100 inhabitants in the past year, which is far ahead of anybody else. We improved to 21st out of 32 countries as benchmarked by Forfás in June 2007. While we have moved up, we still have a significant journey to travel. Broadband access is an important issue for competitiveness.

Industrial Development.

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

63 Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the steps he has taken to address the issue of competitiveness in the economy with particular reference to Irish exports on world markets; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31219/07]

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

75 Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he is satisfied that import and export trends are sufficiently positive for the future of the economy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31218/07]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 63 and 75 together.

The most recent full year merchandise trade figures published by the Central Statistics Office relate to 2006. Between 2004 and 2005 imports rose from €51.1 billion to €57.5 billion, a rise of €6.4 billion, 12.5%, while between 2005 and 2006 imports rose from €57.5 billion to €60.7 billion, a rise of €3.2 billion, 5.7%. These figures represent a significant slowing in the rate of increase in the level of imports, despite the fact that it occurred in the face of sharp increases in world energy costs, as Ireland imports all of our oil and a significant proportion of our natural gas requirements.

The figures also show that there was continued growth in our exports, rising from €84.4 billion in 2004 to €86.8 billion in 2006, resulting in a significant trade surplus of €26.1 billion last year.

The latest merchandise trade figures, released by the Central Statistics Office last week, show that for the first eight months of this year, exports rose from €56.9 billion to €59.7 billion, an increase of 5% compared with the same period in 2006. This is impressive considering that significant portions of our exports are priced in dollars, which means that the nominal value of exports will inevitably be influenced by movements in the currency markets, such as the steady fall in the value of the dollar against the euro. This is particularly significant given that the United States is our largest single merchandise export market, accounting for approximately 20% of these exports.

In addition to merchandise trade the other element of our external trade is the services sector. The figures show continued improvement in the level of this trade. Between 2003 and 2006, while services imports rose from €48.2 billion to €62.5 billion, an increase of 29.6%, it is significant that exports of services rose from €37.1 billion to €55.1 billion, an increase of 48.5%. These figures represent a narrowing of the deficit between imports and exports during this period by an impressive 33.1%.

The Government's policy has, for a number of years, been to exploit our membership of the European Union fully by diversifying into EU export markets, and also to focus on new opportunities in the US and further afield. From a position of 75% of Irish merchandise exports going to the UK in the 1960s, we have now reached a point where the European Union accounts for 64% of our exports, with only 17% of exports going to the UK. During 2006, the value of exports going to key markets such as the United States, Germany and Belgium showed solid growth.

Since the accession of the new EU member states, new export opportunities have been developed and exports to these countries are increasing. For example, during 2006, exports to Poland increased in value terms by 36%, to the Czech Republic by 38%, to Slovakia by 28% and to Estonia by 60%. I have no doubt that over time, Irish exporters will establish a substantial presence in central and eastern Europe.

The second phase of the Asia strategy, launched by the Taoiseach in 2005, prioritises eight countries in Asia and sets out targets for increasing our exports to that region up to 2009. Within the context of this strategy, work is under way to ensure that agencies such as Enterprise Ireland, Bord Bia, Tourism Ireland and organisations engaged in the education sector, will be combining closely to exploit and increase Irish exporting opportunities in this area over the lifetime of the Asia strategy and beyond. Already there has been significant expansion in our trade with China and India and the level of our services exports to Asia has increased significantly.

In addition, both myself, and the Ministers of State in my Department continue to be active in leading trade missions, in conjunction with Enterprise Ireland, to target markets abroad with a view to increasing our share of exports by Irish companies in all markets. Recently, Enterprise Ireland opened a new office in Brazil, with the objective of expanding our export opportunities with Brazil and other South American countries.

I am confident that the strategy of diversifying into export markets abroad, such as the wider European Union, the Americas, Asia and emerging markets, including the Middle East and South America, is a sound one. Directly related to that strategy is the ongoing process of building on the higher value sectors of the economy, particularly in the knowledge-based areas. This will ensure that Irish exporters will continue to rise to the challenges posed by the global trading environment and increase the value of their sales incrementally for the future.

Question No. 63 asked the Minister to comment on the competitiveness of Irish exports. Energy costs, local authority charges and wage levels, for example, can make it quite expensive to do business here. Such expenses are ultimately reflected in prices. Does the Minister agree that those who export are at a disadvantage as a result of these factors? What can be done to reduce such costs?

The key strategy we have adopted involves trying to move to value-added activities which can be more effective in terms of dealing with our cost base. Our capacity to compete in sectors like low-cost services and low-cost merchandise has been reducing. As we invest more in research and innovation, small and medium sized enterprises and companies of that nature are in a better position to develop products, services and solutions which are of use to world business. We want to turn Ireland into a country that offers solutions on a competitive basis to the global marketplace. I have been impressed by the quality of our software and internationally traded services companies, as well as some of our engineering, high-end manufacturing and life sciences enterprises.

Having been on trade missions in the United States and elsewhere with officials from such organisations, I am aware that they are winning good contracts with blue-chip companies throughout the world, which demonstrates the quality of their products. We are doing certain things well as we try to maximise our competitiveness, although we should be doing better in other respects. The World Economic Forum ranks Ireland first in terms of the prevalence of foreign ownership, the impact of business rules on foreign direct investment and foreign direct investment and technology transfer. We are fifth in terms of the quality of primary education and seventh in terms of the quality of overall education.

Work Permits.

Billy Timmins

Question:

64 Deputy Billy Timmins asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment his views on making fees paid by employers seeking work permits to be refundable in full or in part if an employee changes job; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31337/07]

Under the Employment Permits Act 2006, the fee for an employment permit may be refunded if an application has been refused or withdrawn prior to the issuing of the permit. The fee is not normally refunded, however, after the permit has been issued. Employment permits are processed in accordance with the Employment Permits Acts 2003 and 2006 and SI Nos. 682 and 683 of 2006, which clearly and comprehensively set out in legislation the procedures relating to applications for permits, the granting or refusal of permits and the fees which apply to permits. Under the 2006 Act, a new permit is not normally considered unless a period of 12 months has elapsed since the foreign national first commenced employment in the State. This retention measure was included to allay the fears of employers who have spent time and money on trying to source suitable employees. However, permits may be issued within 12 months if there appears to have been abuse of an employee or there are other exceptional circumstances.

It is fair to say that work permits are not cheap. I am not sure what the exact cost of a work permit is — I think it is approximately €1,000.

It costs €1,000 for two years.

Given that approximately €10 million accrued to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment last year in respect of fees for work permits, it seems reasonable that a portion of the fee should be refunded if the employment terminates within six months, for any reason. I ask the Minister to consider that suggestion.

The danger with that proposal is that our approach is vacancy-driven. When an employment vacancy occurs, that can be the catalyst for an application by an employer or an employee for a work permit. We do not want a free-for-all to develop, whereby somebody utilises a vacancy to get a work permit and then goes somewhere else within two months. That would bring the entire system into disarray. There are no problems in the vast majority of cases in which employers bring people to Ireland, look after them well and retain them as part of their good human resources policy. I will keep this issue under review. If Deputy Varadkar is aware of particular cases, and is able to give the employer's side of the story, I will listen to him. We should be careful not to undermine the entire edifice we have constructed in this respect.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.