Unemployment: Motion (Resumed).

The following motion was moved by Deputy Willie Penrose on Tuesday, 7 October 2008:
That Dáil Éireann:
notes with particular concern, the huge growth in unemployment reflected in:
the regular announcement of job losses, particularly in the manufacturing industry;
the increase of almost 80,000 over the past 12 months in the actual and seasonally adjusted numbers on the live register;
the doubling of numbers signing on at some social welfare offices since the general election; and
the warning from FÁS that up to 65,400 construction workers may lose their jobs by the end of 2009;
expresses its serious concern at the social and economic impact of any return to structural long term unemployment for large numbers of people;
deplores the failure of the Government to take any new initiatives to protect existing jobs or promote the provision of new employment or facilitate retraining or educational opportunities for those who have lost their jobs; and
calls on the Government to launch a major programme to counter the huge increase in unemployment that would have as its key elements:
a major school building programme to take up to 40,000 children out of prefabs and to provide alternative employment for those who have lost their jobs as a result of the downturn in construction;
a national insulation scheme to provide energy efficient homes and contribute to the lowering of carbon emissions that would also provide alternative employment for building workers;
a substantial programme of investment in skills and retraining, including a greater role for the institutes of technology in this area and an increase in the number of places available under the vocational training opportunities scheme (currently capped at 5,000) and the use of vacant places in universities and colleges;
a strengthening of the role of the county enterprise boards and, in particular, the removal of the limitation on the type of enterprises the boards can support and raising the limit on the number of jobs they can create above the current figure of ten, as well as a significant increase in Measure 1 funding to allow the boards to achieve their full potential;
a reduction in the lead-in time for eligibility for the back to education allowance;
an improvement in access of community employment and jobs initiative schemes; and
access to a local employment service for every unemployed person."
Debate resumed on amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:
"recognises:
the increase in the number of people signing on the live register; and
that the Government have brought forward the 2009 budget by six weeks to address the effects of the dramatic downturn in the global economy;
commends the Government for:
stabilising the banking system to ensure that Irish enterprises, small, medium and large, have access to the funds necessary for their day to day operation, therefore protecting jobs and confidence in the Irish economy;
its stewardship of the economy and employment market to date, which means that Ireland meets the current challenges from a strong position with over 640,000 jobs having been created over the last 11 years and over 2.1 million in employment;
the measures it is putting in place to ensure that those who become unemployed are given effective employment services and training supports to assist their return to employment and, in particular, the increased Government focus on activation and jobs facilitation;
the retraining of those previously employed in the construction sector;
the measures being taken to help apprentices to complete their training despite the current conditions in the construction sector;
the strong successes that have been achieved in attracting foreign direct investment to Ireland;
the substantial support given to community employment schemes, which give people employment experience and assist in their return to the open labour market;
the continued training and upskilling of the workforce in line with the National Skills Strategy by various agencies including FÁS and Skillnets; and
the work of the county and city enterprise boards which have a clearly defined role as the principal deliverers of State support to the micro-enterprise sector in Ireland and which deliver targeted valuable assistance, both financial and non-financial, to business start-ups with good growth and employment potential;
and acknowledges:
that the conditions for the back to education allowance have been amended to provide immediate access to the scheme for people who are awarded statutory redundancy and have established an entitlement to a social welfare payment."
—(Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment).

I wish to share time with Deputy Enright.

Is that agreed? Agreed. I understand the Deputy will have five minutes and Deputy Enright will have five minutes. There is a clock blocking my view of the screen at the moment.

Shall we wait until a Minister appears?

I am just getting the list of people I will be sharing time with from the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

Perhaps the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will let me know when I reach four minutes so I do not eat into Deputy Enright's time.

I welcome the motion from the Labour Party. The Fine Gael amendment reads:

to delete all words after "employment" in the second last paragraph and substitute the following paragraphs:

"—access to a local employment service for every unemployed person;

maintaining investment in NDP projects that will improve our competitiveness such as metro and broadband;

a total overhaul of FÁS to ensure that training and upskilling programmes are effective in terms of outcome and efficient in the use of tax-payers money;

embarking on a radical programme to reduce the administrative cost of regulation by 25% using the International Standards Cost Model."

There is no question that the current position regarding unemployment is very worrying as there are now over 240,000 people on the live register. It will clearly break 250,000 by next month and by January it will be over 270,000, meaning the numbers signing on will be higher than when former Deputies John Bruton and Dick Spring left power 11 or 12 years ago.

At 6.1% — the standardised unemployment rate, which is the internationally comparable figure — our unemployment is now higher than in America, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark, Singapore, the Czech Republic, Japan, Israel, Luxembourg and Norway. I could go on. It is pretty clear that within the next few months we will overtake Italy, and within the next year we will probably overtake France and Germany as well. Once again we are becoming a country of relatively high unemployment.

I welcome the Labour motion, which I agree with thoroughly. I concur that a major school building programme could help employment and I agree with the proposal on a national insulation scheme. I have always been between two minds with the county enterprise boards but Deputy English has convinced me on that point, as well as the lead-in time for the back to education allowance. Deputy Enright will comment on that, as well as the community employment schemes.

Some 25,000 people are now involved in such schemes and to be honest, they statistically have little value as an active labour market measure. They have very strong and important value in terms of social employment. Members of my extended family who suffer from mental illness have done very well on community employment schemes and there may well be a case over the coming months and years to begin increasing the number of such schemes again, particularly as one considers welfare payments are largely being replaced with payments for doing something. There is a strong case for this, particularly if the schemes are freed from the dead hand of FÁS, which adds additional costs and little benefit. I expect local authorities would do a much better job.

There is probably only one small aspect of the Labour Party motion I do not agree with, the proposal to improve access to the jobs initiative. This initiative is really being abandoned by Government and rightly so. The entry is closed and the scheme is being scaled down, which is the right measure. It was so ineffective in getting long-term unemployed people back to work that a decision was made to cancel it, which was correct. If we are to act on the long-term unemployed, we must do something new. To bring back a scheme that cost a fortune and did not work would not be something I would not agree with.

Our amendment would add some ideas, as dealing with unemployment will not just be about State supports and spending. We will also have to create the environment of job creation. When this Government took power 11 or 12 years ago, Ireland was a great place to employ people. Our costs were low and there was an available work force with the skills to match but that is all being eroded. The basis for the Celtic tiger economy has been worn away over the last ten years. We have provided one or two things to help.

The first is ongoing investment in the national development plan projects, especially those that make sense such as school building, the metro and broadband in particular. That is another area where we have fallen behind. When the rainbow Government left power we were the fourth most competitive economy in the world. Today, according to the World Economic Forum, we lie in 22nd place despite the efforts of the National Competitiveness Council and all the talk we heard from the Ministers, Deputy Micheál Martin and Mary Coughlan, over the years. They have achieved nothing with respect to improving competitiveness in the past six years, an indictment of the way our economy has been run.

We have identified the issue of regulation and the use of the standard cost model in particular. This will first assess the cost of regulation to business and then bring it down.

Unemployment is without doubt a growing and real problem. I am disappointed with the blasé response we have received from Ministers to date and welcome the motion from the Labour Party. I particularly welcome that it is full of ideas and suggestions as to what we can do to help people who are losing their jobs, as they will suffer the most in the coming months. All of us with jobs will pay a little bit more, those on welfare will get a little more but the people who will really suffer are those who are losing their jobs. They will lose perhaps 75% of their income almost overnight. That is where we should focus our concern.

This debate really shows a difference between Labour, which has suggested so many good ideas; Fine Gael, which has made some suggestions also; and a Government which has not taken a single initiative in the last year to deal with the crisis.

I welcome the Labour Party motion. As with many of last night's speakers, my constituency of Laois-Offaly has experienced severe job losses in the past year. I will deal briefly with the constituency figures. In Offaly, the number has risen by over 1,500 and in Laois the number has risen by just under 2,000 in the last year. Breaking these figures into their respective areas, they are particularly stark. The lowest loss is in the Rathdowney area, with 211, Birr has 311 and Edenderry has 390. Getting to the bigger towns the loss is substantial. For example, the figure for Portarlington is 763, Tullamore is 831 and Portlaoise is 980.

The most worrying part of this is that in both Laois and Offaly, 27% of those who lost their jobs in the past year are under 25. That figure speaks for itself. We have greater reason to worry in that we have had two significant announcements of job cuts this year in Boston Scientific and Rationel Vinduer. This will be well over 300 jobs that have not joined those figures yet, as those companies are to close in the coming months. That is the scale of the problem in my area, although others have spoken of other areas.

Having read the speech by the Minister and Tánaiste, Deputy Mary Coughlan, last night, I am unconvinced there is a recognition of the scale of the problem we face. The constant harping back to the line that this is part of something happening in the rest of the world is incorrect and shows the Government is failing to get to grips with the problem. The fall in growth in this country far outstrips the fall in the rest of the euro area and our rise in unemployment runs contrary to the overall euro area experience.

We hear the Minister say we have an employment market well placed to meet and tackle the current economic challenges but the figures do not bear that out. That is my concern.

I will deal specifically with the adequacy of the State response. I questioned the Minister and Tánaiste, as well as FÁS, about the loss of apprenticeships this year. I raised the matter at the beginning of the summer and again through parliamentary questions and in committee, when Deputy Varadkar was present. The steps being taken give no hope for the thousands of apprentices who have lost their apprenticeships in the past few months.

To be told last week that FÁS has opened discussions with relevant bodies and authorities does not inspire confidence that this idea is getting the urgency it deserves. These are young people left with no qualification and no real opportunity of work without qualification. They have no real opportunity to complete their apprenticeship in order to qualify in the current climate. This calls for a little bit of imagination. We should look to our institutes of technology and all our third level institutions so we can see what opportunity exists for these apprentices to qualify through the system. It demands thinking outside the box that the Government is so fond of staying in. We must act to give these young people any chance.

I am glad the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Hanafin, is here. The back to education allowance must be addressed by the Government, as it has again ignored the reality. Every Deputy in this House has had a queue of people coming to him or her who are caught because they have not been unemployed for a year. Everybody believes there must be rules for schemes but there is a lack of flexibility in this scheme, particularly in the current climate. These people are still being paid jobseeker's allowance but it would be far more cost-effective to pay them to go to third level and get a qualification.

This should be considered for people on the minimum wage as well. A person on jobseeker's allowance may be getting rent supplement, a medical card and so on, and such people come out with a euro per week more than somebody on the minimum wage. The operation of the back to education allowance is an example of bureaucracy gone mad. While there will be cuts in next week's budget, I hope common sense will prevail and schemes will be made much more cost effective.

While it is easy in the current climate to focus on large multinational employers, we must also emphasise the role of small and medium size employers, for example, a local clothes or shoe shop which employs three or four people. This sector is being hit hard in current economic conditions and its position is likely to worsen after Christmas.

Following next week's budget, local authorities will commence their estimates process. I am concerned that hikes in rates will result in the closure of companies which would otherwise manage, perhaps only barely, to stay in business. This issue must be addressed next week. It will be pointless to blame county councillors if small and medium size businesses are effectively forced to close in a few months because local councils decide to increase rates as a result of an inadequate allocation by central Government.

I understand the Minister will share time with the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Jimmy Devins, and Deputies Charlie O'Connor, M. J. Nolan, Timmy Dooley and Mary O'Rourke.

I share the concern expressed by Deputies about the social and economic impact of rising unemployment. We are all conscious that behind the latest live register figures lie real people with families who have mortgages and concerns about the future. I assure the House that the Government is determined to do all it can to help people get back to work as quickly as possible.

The longer people spend on social welfare, the more dependent they become. The main welfare to work measure is the national employment action plan, NEAP, under which people who are approaching three months on the live register are identified by the Department of Social and Family Affairs and referred to FÁS for interview with a view to job placement or an offer of training. Slightly more than 30,000 people were referred to FÁS under the NEAP in the first six months of 2008. Of these, 13,350 or 44% have left the live register. I have also discussed with FÁS ways in which we can increase uptake of this process.

A team of facilitators is in place in the Department to provide additional, more intensive assistance for those who need it, including those who have been identified by FÁS as needing further support. As part of the priority now placed on activation, the Department's facilitators are working closely with FÁS and other agencies at national and local level to target their assistance at such groups. A particular priority is being placed on younger people, significant numbers of whom are losing their jobs, those signing on for the first time and those who have completed the employment action plan process but remain on the live register. As I indicated, it is important that people do not become dependent on social welfare for extended periods.

The facilitator programme is designed to be a targeted approach, involving active case management and the development of an individualised personal progression plan. The facilitator and individual will work together to identify the most appropriate method of progressing to training or employment. The Department appointed additional facilitators in September to support the process.

We are also committed to eliminating poverty traps and removing barriers to work. Significant progress has been made in this regard in recent years through improvements such as changes in means testing arrangements for certain payments and the tapered withdrawal of benefits. The back to work allowance provides a monetary incentive for people who have been dependent on social welfare payments for long periods to make return to work financially attractive and viable.

Deputy Enright referred to a number of additional benefits available to people who are unemployed. While the benefits in question support those who are unemployed, they can also deter people from returning to work.

That is the problem. The system is not working.

It is important to avoid poverty traps and to try to support people by ensuring they do not become too dependent on social welfare and helping them to return to work. When discrepancies arise, my Department will try to rectify them.

The back to education allowance scheme is designed to help those who have not worked for some time to improve their employability and job readiness by acquiring educational qualifications. The scheme is a recognition of the special difficulties such persons can face when attempting to gain a foothold in the labour market. The requirement to be in receipt of a relevant social welfare payment for a minimum period has always been a feature of the scheme and is considered necessary to ensure limited resources are directed at those most in need. It is important to avoid circumstances in which those who have recently completed the leaving certificate examination spend a few months in receipt of social welfare payments with a view to qualifying for the back to education allowance.

It is not necessary to have a qualification period of a full year.

The allowance is paid at a standard weekly rate equivalent to the maximum rate of the relevant social welfare payment that qualifies the applicant for participation in the scheme. It essentially replaces the person's existing social welfare income and an annual €500 cost of education allowance is payable. To qualify for participation an applicant must be in receipt of a relevant social welfare payment and at least 21 years of age prior to commencing an approved course of study. However, lone parents and persons in receipt of unemployment payments can qualify at 18 years of age provided they have not been in formal education for at least two years.

In general, an applicant must be in receipt of a relevant social welfare payment for six months if pursuing a second level course or 12 months if pursuing a third level course. However, since 2007 people who are awarded statutory redundancy may access the back to education allowance scheme immediately, provided an entitlement to a relevant social welfare payment is established prior to commencing an approved course of study. This measure has increased the number of people participating in the scheme.

In addition, the qualifying period for access to the third level option has been reduced to nine months for persons who are participating in the national employment action plan process and where a FÁS employment services officer recommends pursuance of such a course. I intend to keep the current scheme under review. In September, we organised a useful seminar through Mr. Brian Mooney of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors which brought together facilitators from around the country to inform them of the various educational opportunities available in order that they could advise their clients of same. Those who attended the seminar found it useful.

The number of participants on the back to education allowance scheme has increased in recent years, supported by a growth in expenditure on the scheme from €38 million in 2003 to a provision of €70 million this year.

Several speakers referred to the delays in processing claims being experienced in some social welfare offices. This problem, which has arisen as a result of the number of people signing on, can be difficult for individuals. However, we are taking measures to ensure the process is accelerated. These include additional posts assigned to local offices from other parts of the Department, the use of temporary staff to fill vacancies, increased overtime and prioritisation of work. These measures are being reviewed on a continuous basis as I am anxious to ensure the service is efficient.

The Government is determined to ensure those who become unemployed receive the financial support they need in a timely manner and, more important, are able to secure help to return to work through the back to education allowance or by preparing them for the future.

Following on from last evening's address to the House by the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Mary Coughlan, I welcome this opportunity to reaffirm the excellent track record of county enterprise boards in fostering local entrepreneurial potential. Since their establishment in 1993, the enterprise boards have gone from strength to strength. They have never stagnated but have grown with their clientele and successfully adapted to the needs of their client base.

On the provision of financial assistance, there has been a gradual shift in emphasis from direct financial assistance towards increasing resort to repayable forms of assistance. The Department is satisfied that this form of finance meets the needs of the client companies of the county enterprise boards and allows for significantly more companies to benefit from the available funds. This must be a priority consideration in the current circumstances.

The county enterprise boards have deepened their role in promoting a culture of entrepreneurship in their respective localities. The provision of management capability training, direct mentoring and networked opportunities carries its own value and weight and has been a significant financial investment by the State in the micro-enterprise sector for the past 15 years.

I will comment briefly on the provision of financial assistance, an issue raised yesterday evening by Opposition Deputies. The total budget available for the county enterprise board network in 2008 is more than €34 million, of which €20 million is available for capital expenditure alone. The allocation of individual budgets to the 35 county and enterprise boards is carried out by the county enterprise boards central co-ordination unit, known as the CCU. This unit was established in Enterprise Ireland to carry out a number of functions in relation to the boards which had previously been undertaken by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Such functions include the allocation of budgets to individual boards for the year and the effective management of available resources to the county enterprise board network to maximise sustainable development in the micro-enterprise sector.

In determining the 2008 allocations for individual boards, the CCU adopted a systemic approach to ensure the maximum degree of objectivity and equity of treatment. It is a matter for individual boards to determine how they will use allocated funds as well as the own income funds available to them from repayable grants in the most effective manner possible. Some boards may choose to commit all their available funding as projects present themselves, even if this means their funding is exhausted relatively early in the year, while others may choose to reserve some funding until later in the year in order that they are in a position to support other high quality projects that emerge at that time. This would explain why some boards may have utilised their funding earlier in the year than other boards. As part of the normal yearly budgetary cycle, some boards will request additional funding to support a variety of expenditures beyond their original allocations. Such requests are made by boards in the knowledge that these requests can only be considered should additional funding become available.

As part of the CCU's ongoing management of available funding for 2008, the unit has already conducted a review of CEB spending in August. This exercise has in the past been carried out in September-October and it has generally been the case that a number of boards are not in a position to spend all their annual allocations. Accordingly, where surplus funding became available, it was reallocated to any boards in a position to spend additional funds, subject to thorough assessment of the rationale and justification for the level of funding being requested.

Following an exercise carried out in August, no county enterprise board was at that time in a position to surrender money, while 13 of the 35 CEBs located around the country indicated to the CCU that they could utilise additional capital funding. A further such trawl of the boards will take place shortly after which some boards may be able to surrender money in respect of grant allocations. Any such surrenders would be available to redistribute to other boards.

On foot of the August exercise, my Department has made available additional capital finance of €500,000 for use by boards for direct grant aid to enterprises. This was originally allocated to the CEBs to part fund another specific initiative for which the full allocation is not now required. In addition to the annual budget allocation to each board, including the €500,000 allocation I mentioned, boards also have access to significant moneys from repaid grants which they can recycle to provide further grants to eligible clients.

It should be stressed that it is a basic expectation of boards that they will manage the delivery of their support programmes on the basis of their allocated amount over the year as a whole. As with all State-funded assistance, boards are expected to prioritise and manage available funding in a targeted and effective manner.

I welcome this opportunity to briefly contribute to this serious and important debate. In his absence, I compliment Deputy Penrose, my good friend and colleague, on his work in this regard.

I am delighted the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, is present in the Chamber. Those of us who strongly believe in social inclusion and that the vulnerable and the disadvantaged should be looked after are confident she will show sufficient care to ensure they are well looked after next week. The Minister will have a demanding week next week and I wish her well and have great confidence in what she will do and will continue to do. Fianna Fáil has had a proud record of achievement in the provision of social welfare benefits, on which I am sure even Deputy Penrose will agree, over the decades, long before many of us Members were elected. We continue to strive for such provision.

If one was to listen to the RTE News or Sky News today, one might be afraid to get out of bed because of the changes in the world and the difficulties we face. Many Members spoke about the difficulties in the 1980s and I remember the 1980s; I can vaguely remember the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s but I certainly remember the 1980s. I bring to politics my life experiences. I was made redundant three times in my life and I know what it is like to go home to one's family and tell them that one has been made redundant and has to start all over again. I am glad I have that experience and I understand the concerns of the people who come to see me.

I remember being a founder member, with many other colleagues, of the Get Tallaght Working Group in 1984. That was a time when Tallaght, the third largest population centre in the country, needed jobs, impetus, investment and for things to happen, and thank God that has happened. Like other major centres, considerable progress in job creation has been made in recent times, but now we face challenges.

I was glad to hear the Minister of State, Deputy Devins, talk about the contribution enterprise boards can make. We all know that the best way out of poverty is to make sure people have jobs. I quoted the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, many times in this respect, namely, when the big boats are rising, we must remember the little boats, but if the big boats are struggling, we absolutely must remember the little boats. Every Deputy will talk about the job creation needs of their constituencies, with which I have no problem. I live in Tallaght in Dublin South-West, which is a major population centre. We have needs in that regard and I am never afraid to point them out.

The Minister of State, Deputy Devins, was correct in that in areas where big jobs cannot be created, enterprise boards and organisations such as Partas in Tallaght have a clear role to play, through the enterprise centres, to create employment. The Minister of State made a very positive statement, but I advise him that the county enterprise boards always face challenges. There are a few changes that could be made in that respect. In the context of the remit of the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, I hope the services her Department and that of the Tánaiste provide will continue to be client friendly.

I record that the Minister spoke about the fine contribution the enterprise boards make in south Dublin, but people within the organisation advise me that the enterprise boards throughout the country — this is certainly true in Tallaght — should be given the ability to assist companies that are in trouble. They should also be allowed to help those companies in relation to their size because that issue is still a difficulty and there are still restrictions in that respect.

I am also advised by people who go to enterprise boards seeking to create jobs that it would be helpful if county enterprise boards were allowed to give guarantees to companies to help secure bank loans. They are not able to do that. I am advised, as confirmed by information down-loaded from the Internet by a colleague today, that this is done through the Small Business Association in the United States. That is an issue that should be addressed.

These are difficult times and people of my generation have lived through difficult times before. We have to keep going, keep investing and make sure that the vulnerable are looked after. I look forward to continuing to support that.

I share with Deputies on all sides of the House the concern about the extraordinary increase in the number of people signing on the live register. We are living in unprecedented and extraordinary economic times. There was a time when the economy changed by the week, but now it is not changing by the week nor by the day but by the hour. The Government must recognise that and deal with the issues as they arise. The increase in the number of those signing on the live register is indicative of what is happening not only in Ireland but in the international economy. It may be fire-fighting to an extent, but the Government has had to deal with the economy, which has been in a downturn for some time, and with issues as they arise such as the extraordinary scenes we witnessed last week when the banking sector was on the brink of collapse and would have done so were it not for the quick and effective action of the Government in dealing with the matter on Tuesday night. Its action is to be commended and Ministers for Finance in other countries, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, are taking a leaf out of the Government's book.

It is important to record, lest we forget, that more than 640,000 jobs were created in the past 11 years and more than 2 million people are working in this country. I am glad the Minister for Social and Family Affairs is present in the Chamber. She referred to the back to work and back to education allowances. We should encourage young people, in particular, who now find themselves unemployed, having lost a job, and who wish to seek further education to take up that allowance. One of the conditions of the back to education allowance is that the person must be unemployed and signing on for unemployment assistance for the 12 months immediately prior to claiming the allowance, but some individuals may not have been entitled to unemployment for one reason or other, perhaps based on their parents' income. I ask that changes be introduced to allow those individuals to avail of this scheme because it is worthwhile. Education was the cornerstone of our economic recovery in the past 20 years and anything the Minister can do, other than pay out social welfare, to encourage people back into the education system is to be welcomed.

Another issue to which I wish to refer is that of energy efficiency and the impact that the increasingly high cost of fuel is having on social welfare recipients, particularly those who are senior citizens. In recent years, Government policy has focused on increasing primary social welfare rates in order to ensure that those on benefit payments can meet their heating and basic living costs throughout the year. There has been a dramatic rise in the cost of fuel and heating oil during the past months. In recent days, the price of oil has decreased but it is still significantly higher than it was 12 months ago.

The Department of Social and Family Affairs also pays dedicated allowances that are specifically designed to supplement other payments. These include the electricity or gas allowance, paid as part of the household benefits package, and the fuel allowance scheme and are aimed at mitigating the impact of high energy costs. I accept that times are difficult but I encourage the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, in the context of next week's budget, to fight her corner and ensure that those on the margins of society are well catered for. People are uncertain with regard to what they are facing into this winter and they deserve the protection and guardianship of the Government and the Minister in particular.

The Government will have a difficult job in addressing the problems we face. It is acting effectively, efficiently and in a timely manner on the domestic scene. Unfortunately, however, Ireland's is a small, open economy and it is, to a large extent, dependent on what happens overseas. Much of what occurs is outside our control. While we have systems and regulations in place in respect of domestic matters, we have no control over what is happening in the United States, which seems to be the source of all the problems that have been experienced to date. I hope someone will, following the presidential election next month, take control of the US and that there will be light at the end of the tunnel, hopefully by spring of next year.

I welcome this opportunity to set out the important part played by the vocational training opportunities scheme, VTOS, and the institutes of technology in the delivery of skills and training to Ireland's workforce. The VTOS programme is funded by the Government and delivered locally by VECs. It plays an important role, recognises that some people need a second chance at education and training and provides courses of up to two years' duration for unemployed people.

The scheme has proved to be extremely successful. VTOS progression statistics for 2007 show that where a course was of two years' duration, approximately 72% of participants who completed the programme in that year had progressed to either employment or further education and training. Just over 28% returned to either the live register or their original status. People aged 21 or over and in receipt of jobseekers benefit or assistance, the one-parent family payment, disability allowance, disability benefit, invalidity pension etc., for at least six months are eligible for VTOS. Those signing for credits who satisfy these conditions and the dependant spouses of eligible persons may also avail of the programme.

Persons on unemployment assistance or benefit receive a payment from the VEC in lieu of their welfare payment, equivalent to the maximum rate of unemployment benefit. It is important to set out details of the scheme because it often goes unnoticed by those in most need. Many Members who meet people at their constituency offices are often somewhat surprised that they are not aware of the programme. In the remaining cases, persons attending full-time retain their welfare payment. That is an important aspect and I hope it will continue to be the case. In order to attract long-term unemployed people, a bonus of €31.80 per week is payable to participants who have been in receipt of an eligible social welfare payment for at least one year immediately prior to starting VTOS.

The scheme has proved to be a great success in opening up learning and progression opportunities for people who have been marginalised by unemployment. Progression will be more difficult for many of these individuals in light of the changed economic circumstances in which we find ourselves. Those who are highly skilled and who may lose their jobs will obviously take up positions that might otherwise have been used for progression purposes. We will be obliged to work harder in order to ensure that further positions become available.

The investment in ancillary supports is reflected in the increased non-pay expenditure, up from €34 million in 2002 to €45 million in 2007. Overall expenditure on VTOS, including the pay of teaching staff, participant allowances and other non-pay costs was just under €70 million last year. That is a considerable investment and it has gone unnoticed as the debate on the motion has progressed.

Institutes of technology programmes have traditionally been developed with strong industry input and the institutes continue to engage with their graduates' employers to ensure that the relevance of their programmes is maintained. This is critical because institutes offer higher education programmes of shorter duration than would be typical of those offered in universities and the curricula have a practical orientation designed to be responsive to the needs of local industries and smaller business interests.

The institutes of technology are developing a project which aims to bring about the creation of a flexible learning network. The proposal, which addresses lifelong learning and upskilling needs, involves partnerships between all 13 institutes and the DIT. Reference is often made to the notion of joined-up thinking, whether it be on the part of the Government or among particular groups or elements of industry that operate in broadly similar areas. It is extremely important that such thinking be to the fore in the partnership to which I refer. In keeping with current Government and market needs, it is essential that there be a commitment to mainstreaming supported flexible learning within and among the institutes as an innovative and complementary mode of delivery. This flexible learning system aims to expand the number of people in the workforce engaged in education and development through increased access to and participation in higher education using flexible learning methods. It is intended to develop, pilot and expand programmes and modules that will assist in supporting lifelong learning, increase opportunities to engage in lifelong learning for members of the workforce and expand the overall participation rates in such learning.

Annual returns to the HEA suggest that the overall number of vacant places in universities and colleges is decreasing and that, in a number of cases, CAO points requirements have also dropped. An increasing number of students are now opting to enrol on higher level programmes, such those at level 8 of the national qualifications framework.

When one considers the overall picture, it is clear the Government has a strong involvement in the developments taking place in this area.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I thank my constituency colleague, Deputy Penrose, for tabling the original motion.

It has been a worrying and sad feature of constituency clinics during the past six months that one has been visited by sensible men and women who have either lost their jobs or are about to lose them. I never fail to be struck by the poignancy of what they have to say, particularly due to the fact that for some years one was not approached by people in this position because everyone had a job. If one called to a house in the past, four or five of the people living there would be in employment. That was heartening and exciting because I have always been of the view that if one has a job, one has the key to so much else in life. A job gives one confidence, which is a major factor in one's life, and a belief in oneself.

Apart from losing their jobs, many people's morale has plummeted. One will hear individuals asking where, in light of their current age, they might obtain employment. One searches and does one's best to try to find them a suitable position. If an ordinary but well-paid job with the local authority is advertised, one's heart goes out to the many people who compete and would be suitable for it. This is where the work of FÁS must come into play. I have great time for FÁS, although I know there are reviews and investigations going on currently. Despite this, I have found FÁS to be a strong organisation. Its main emphasis is on the customers, the people it wants to see in further training, community employment or moving into a job. This has always been the work of FÁS. Before we throw out the baby with the bath water, I hope emphasis will be placed on the fine work FÁS has done and continues to do. This does not take into account the way FÁS has changed our environment through the fine landscape work in which it has been involved throughout the country.

Our communities have been equally fortunate with the work of the county enterprise boards. We are very lucky in this regard in County Westmeath and I am sure Deputy Penrose would bear that out. Westmeath has an excellent enterprise board with two wonderful women in the positions of chairperson and CEO. Both of them are strong people with the good of the county at heart and they work productively on behalf of small businesses.

In recent years people commented on the number of cranes to be seen on our skyline and saw them as a sign of work and progress, which they were. However, I would prefer to see productive small businesses employing between five and 12 people. These small businesses should be encouraged to stay in business. It takes very little to enable a small company stay in business, but it also takes very little to tip it the other way so that it fades away. Whatever methods possible, administrative or financial, must be used to encourage these small businesses to remain in business so they can employ one or two extra people. This would be far better than depending on cranes to boost employment. Cranes disappear quickly. When the job is done the operators pack their traps and leave. They may do good work, but they leave once it is done.

I hope county enterprise boards will be invigorated and will continue to get Government funding to enable them to continue their work. Whatever the result of the investigations into FÁS, I hope FÁS will remain what it has been, the backbone for training and job opportunities for many people.

I wish to share time with Deputies Mary Upton, Joe Costello, Kathleen Lynch, Jan O'Sullivan and Joanna Tuffy.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am sorry the Minister for Social and Family Affairs has left the Chamber because I wanted to raise an issue with regard to the measures she proposes to reduce the processing time for dealing with the applications for assistance from those who have been unfortunate enough to lose their jobs and who are currently on waiting lists. Newbridge, which is the area office for Athy and Baltinglass, currently has a waiting list of 2,000 with a delay of eight weeks for processing. While I welcome the Minister's statement, I hope she will take a look at the situation in that area. It is unacceptable that with the current state of our economy and the problems people have with mortgage payments etc. that people have to wait for that period of time. Some people have lost their jobs and some, such as the Tegral workers in Athy, are on short time, but they all need to have their applications for assistance processed. I hope the Minister applies what she said in her statement to the Newbridge office to ensure the waiting time is reduced.

Yesterday we acknowledged the wonderful political contribution of Séamus Brennan to this House and to politics in general. I remember one occasion he was in the House dealing with one of the major cutbacks introduced by a former Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Mary Coughlan, when she extended the time period to qualify for the back to education allowance to 15 months. After debate on the issue the late Mr. Brennan reduced the period to 12 months. It is now time to review the situation again and ensure we return to the right position. This allowance is acknowledged as a major contribution for those who want to get back to education and who have the will to do so, despite having to wait nine months to get an allowance. We should look now and in our debate on the coming budget at the possibility of reducing the waiting period to nine months.

I believe that if we are to make progress in these difficult times, we must depend on the small and the great rather than expect major industrial development from overseas. In that regard, it is a major disappointment that our local authorities are being deprived of grants to assist in works to help senior citizens, for example, bathrooms. When we consider this in respect of the recession in the building trade, we can see a ready made opportunity for the Government to provide employment to many of those who have lost jobs in the construction industry. The Government should examine all the applications for home improvement works for senior citizens in this regard. My colleague, Deputy Ciarán Lynch, had a list today of all the local authorities that had made applications for further funding in that area, almost every local authority in the country. If the Government was willing to take action in this regard and provide funding, we would instantly see an increase in employment throughout the country and at the same time address one of our major problems, namely, the loss of jobs in the construction industry.

My colleague also raised the issue of county enterprise boards. It is amazing that every county enterprise board ran out of funding after five months. With regard to enterprise and industry, it is the county enterprise boards that will be the backbone of any improvement in our situation, yet there is no funding available for them. We have been told the boards have funding for training, but there is no seed funding to generate jobs for the people they train. It is mind-boggling that funds are available to train people, but once trained they must wait until next year for funding to help any new business get off the ground.

I have heard another colleague, Senator Alan Kelly, comment on numerous occasions that no Department has a programme to follow up in this area or help move small and medium enterprises on to the next phase. I hope the Minister will look at the positive aspects of putting funding in place for county enterprise boards and of ensuring grant aid is provided for the next stage of development for medium and small enterprises.

Following last week's Government intervention on behalf of the banks, it is time to ask whether the Government will now show the same determination to bail out the Irish families who are about to lose their homes. The need for this intervention was highlighted last night. I re-emphasise the need for this intervention to save victims of the banks' greed, now that unemployment has hit these families.

The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment spoke last night about the value of community employment schemes. While these were valuable schemes, they were short term and the plan was that people would return to full employment. Even in the best of times, that did not happen. Now, there is even less opportunity for many of these people to return to full employment. I raise this matter in the context of information provided to me by one of my constituents. She is a separated mother of four who was given a mortgage of €150,000 while she was on a CE scheme. What was that mortgage provider thinking of? He is now waiting, vulture-like, at the door of the court to repossess her house. The ones who suffer most are those who were force-fed mortgages by banks and mortgage providers in the good times. Where was the Financial Regulator when this woman was gifted a mortgage that she could not possibly repay?

I draw Members' attention to the plight of the hidden victims of the downturn. When a factory closes and a large number of jobs are lost, the event rightly gets banner headlines, but when two or three are lost in the local shop or launderette, we do not hear about it because it never reaches the newspapers. The people affected are also unemployed and still have to pay their mortgages, put bread on the table and look after their children. The sense of isolation can be overwhelming for them because they do not even have the support of their colleagues when jobs are lost here or there.

Yesterday a school principal in my constituency highlighted for me the number of parents who were asking to have payments deferred for basic school items. The parents concerned cannot afford to pay because they have lost their jobs. I estimate that an additional 1,100 people have become unemployed in Dublin South-Central since September in comparison with the same period in 2007. The MABS reports being inundated with calls. As I am not aware of any factory closures which would account for such a large number of job losses, I believe they are being eroded here and there. However, the victims suffer in the same way as those laid off with 200 others and are equally entitled to be looked after. The services have to reach out to them because they cannot rely on having somebody to support their cause. They need to be helped in restoring their dignity and finding fresh full-time employment.

The need for upskilling and retraining on foot of job losses in the construction has been highlighted by my colleagues. Two proposals made in the Labour Party motion regarding the construction industry and the schools programme are worth rehearsing. A number of schools in my constituency have been waiting seven years or more for extensions. Inchicore primary school, Loreto primary school, Crumlin, the sports hall in Loreto College, Crumlin, and Our Lady's secondary school, Templeogue, are all waiting to commence their building projects. This gap could be effectively filled by reintroducing a schools building programme.

The insulation programme which my party has proposed could also offer value. In the Dublin area Energy Action provides a high quality service. Similar services are offered throughout the country. It is time they were mainstreamed because they are dependent on funding from a variety of agencies.

Since 1997 Fianna Fáil led Governments were happy to take credit for the Celtic tiger and its effects on the economy and employment. It could be argued that the Government's bail-out of the banks was merely a case of returning the favour to the builders and their bankers. It is time the Government acted in support of the Labour Party's proposals to get people back to work, prevent long-term unemployment, stimulate the economy and provide significant social and environmental gains.

I thank Deputy Penrose for tabling this important motion on unemployment and I am pleased to have the opportunity of addressing it.

The financial crisis at home and abroad dominates the headlines, while the economic recession worsens. The Government put €400 billion of taxpayer's money, or twice our annual GDP, on the line to bail out the banks and in so doing was applauded by the professional commentators for its brilliant and daring approach. However, bank shares continue to spiral downwards and the credit crunch continues unabated because the banks have over extended with the construction industry, which is on the rocks, to the point where they have no national or international creditworthiness.

Greed, big executive bonuses and dividends and a sleeping regulatory watchdog have done the banking system. The Government should shut down the expensive €50 million plus quango that is the Office of the Financial Regulator, follow the example of the United Kingdom by taking advantage of the repressed financial market to take equity in the banks it is bailing out and establish an independent regulatory watchdog which would report directly to it to ensure proper financial regulation. The prospect of a State third banking force, which the Labour Party advocated in the early 1990s, now seems a good idea. It is hard to understand why the Government allowed the State-owned ACC Bank to be privatised in the 1990s and sold to Rabo Bank which is now an endangered species.

These, however, are mere matters of money. The real crisis and tragedy involves the 80,000 men and women who have lost their jobs in the past 12 months and the 300 who lose their jobs daily. Job losses will continue to hit for a considerable period to come. The ESRI predicts that another 100,000 will lose their jobs in 2009. That is an appalling vista. The Government was quick to respond to the financial turmoil with a bail-out last week and a budget next week but it has no employment policies or support strategies for the redundant workers who are the immediate victims of the recession.

Threshold, the organisation for the homeless, told us yesterday that the number of illegal evictions trebled in the past 12 months because tenants who became unemployed could not make the rental payments to their landlords. It called for the establishment of a short-term emergency fund to tide tenants over through the rainy days ahead and save the State money in the longer term. On Monday, the first day of the new law term, applications for the repossession of homes and properties were the talking point of the courts. The number seeking State support in meeting mortgage repayments has risen by 60% in the past 12 months and the Money Advice and Budgeting Service has experienced a 50% increase in the number of vulnerable people accessing its services. This is the human tragedy that occurs when the unbridled market has its way and the Financial Regulator and the Central Bank go to sleep on the job.

It is not the MABS or the Department of Social and Family Affairs which should be called upon to assist with loan repayments but the credit institutions which were prepared to break every rule in the book by granting excessive mortgages in the first place and turning home ownership into property portfolios. The Government should compel them to restructure these mortgages over whatever period of time is necessary and tailor them to suit the current economic circumstances of the mortgage holder. Under no circumstances should any bank or building society be allowed to foreclose on a family home. The Government should give that guarantee to families. No longer should the financial institutions be, as Walt Whitman wrote, willing to loan an umbrella on a sunny day and take it back when the rain starts to fall.

Men and women who are losing their jobs must not be consigned to long-term unemployment, as happened in previous decades. The Government must provide opportunities for them to engage in meaningful activities. They must be offered the opportunity to return to education immediately through a revamped voluntary training opportunities scheme and back to education allowances. They must also be offered opportunities to retrain and reskill immediately. They need access to community employment schemes, jobs initiative schemes and local employment services. The workers who produced the Celtic tiger should not become the first victims of the recession. While efforts are being made to rebuild the economy, those who have lost their place in the workforce through no fault of their own must not be left on the scrap heap. They must be facilitated in every way to return to the workforce at the earliest possible moment. That should be the Government's immediate priority.

I was struck by two headlines in this week's newspapers. The first concerned a banker whose organisation was one of the six banks in negotiations with the Government on its historic guarantee. He bought 1 million shares for what he described as unknown reasons. These shares increased in value but nothing was done about it. On the same day another headline stated the number brought before the courts by the very banks which had sought to repossess their houses had increased to a level we had not seen in years. Although these headlines contrast starkly with each other, they are the reality. A banker whom the Government decided to bail out using our money was able to use this information to buy something which he knew would increase in value and nothing happens.

He lost money.

People who have lost their jobs are about to lose their homes to the banks which they bailed out as taxpayers. This Government is doing nothing about it. These are the same people who were forced into working under C2s, although those of us who thought it was a bad idea not to pay tax when one was working told them not to do it and that in the long term it would not be good for them. They now face a three-month waiting period to see whether they will receive unemployment assistance. It will be assistance because they do not have any contributions.

Unemployment in Cork is 12%, which is double the national average. At the same time, we have one of the biggest brownfield sites in the country waiting for development. However, this Government has dragged its heels on providing the infrastructure necessary for that to happen. The unemployment figures continue to increase in Cork city and county. In Cork county, we have the highest number of pupils in classes of 27 or more in the country. In the county with the highest class sizes and highest unemployment figures, we have a junior Minister responsible for employment and we have the Minister for Education and Science, and still nothing is going to happen.

This Government intends to bask in the glory of saving the banks. That is it. It was the only positive action that was taken by this Government and its members will bask in the glory of that until it all comes tumbling down around them. People who are unemployed will quickly realise their money is to be used to shore up institutions that have done nothing for this economy and have only lined their own pockets. I was sick of throwing letters into the fire offering my children loans of €20,000 and more. They could have got them. What the banks were doing was obscene. People in this country do not only have mortgages to pay now that they are unemployed. They also have car loans. The repossessions have already started. They have credit card debts. We are more indebted than any other nation in Europe. Yet the only thing the Government can think to do is to bail out the banks.

We will wait and see the details of the bail-out next week. Will there be any payback to the taxpayer? Will we demand of the banks the type of sympathy we have shown to them when it comes to people who cannot pay their mortgages? One householder owed €11,000. I hear there are bankers in this country who earn that in a day. They are so anxious to get their money that they are prepared to make people homeless in the process. We are losing 300 jobs a day. This Government is so fond of telling us about history, but that will be its legacy. The people out there who find themselves unemployed tonight demand better and demand to know what this Government is going to do about it.

When driving in through Dublin this morning past James's Street and Thomas Street, I saw a long queue on the footpath. I wondered what the queue was, but I later found it was the queue for the unemployment exchange. There were at least 50 people in the queue at 9.30 a.m. When I got in here I rang my secretary in Limerick, and without my telling her what I had seen, she told me that this morning at around the same time she was on Parnell Street and saw a queue that was coming around the corner from the labour exchange in Dominick Street and down a long alleyway as far as Parnell Street. There were at least 100 people in the queue, if not more. I have no doubt these queues are reproduced around the country because we know that the number of unemployed is rapidly increasing. We are back to the days of long dole queues.

This Government has got to do something about it. Its members cannot sit idly by and preen themselves proudly about what they have done for the banks. These are real, individual people with real families and real lives. Somebody should sit down and talk to every single one of them, instead of sitting behind a hatch and asking them their RSI numbers and maybe, if they are lucky, handing them out a few bob to keep them going. Somebody should be talking to them about who they are, what they want, where they were working and where they might work again. We cannot allow this to happen. We need to match up the people who are unemployed with the work that needs to be done. That is precisely what the Labour Party is proposing in terms of schemes for school buildings, for improving houses and so on.

Last weekend I met a young apprentice plumber who had only three months left in a four-year apprenticeship when he was let go. He had tried every other plumbing firm in the area and he could not get a job. Those apprenticeships need to be picked up. If there are no employers with whom these young people can finish their apprenticeships the State must do it. There are jobs to be done. I was in Limerick Senior College, a PLC college, this week. Water was dripping in through the roof, but the summer works scheme is gone, and with it any chance of getting it fixed. There is a school in Kilfinane, County Limerick, which has been mentioned in the House many times, in which the children must cross the yard to go to the toilet, but it is not on the list of the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, this year.

We need to match the people being made unemployed with the work that needs to be done, and we need the Government to do this quickly because those people will become long-term unemployed if nobody talks to them or takes an interest in their individual cases before they lose hope. I urge the Minister to be proactive in this regard. We are making specific concrete proposals, but the Government needs to come forward with proposals as well. The Government members are the people who have the power to make something happen for these real people with real lives.

There are more than 3,000 people in my constituency working in Dell, but they do not know what will be happening in the future. We will be raising this matter later on the Adjournment. People in Shannon Airport, Dublin Airport and Cork Airport working for Aer Lingus do not know what is to happen to their jobs. Many other people, including those in small firms as mentioned by my colleagues, do not know what will happen. We need a practical, proactive response. I am not talking about FÁS putting on a few courses that people may or may not find out about and which may or may not be suitable for them. We need to focus on individuals and their needs, whether it be a FÁS course, a higher education course or a job somewhere they can fit into. I am particularly concerned about construction workers. I know many construction workers who spend their evenings online looking for jobs in the Middle East and Australia. This should not be happening in a country that was so rich up to so recently.

I urge the Government to do something practical about this. In the area of health, there are physiotherapists qualifying this year from universities in Ireland who have already gone abroad because there are no jobs for them. At the same time there are elderly people sitting at home who need physiotherapists and who are thinking they will have to go into an institution because they cannot move around in their own homes. Their home help hours have been cut and they cannot get extensions, downstairs toilets or whatever they need to be able to stay at home, as mentioned by my colleague Deputy Ciarán Lynch earlier. The Government needs to start matching the needs of the people with those of the economy, and it must do it quickly.

One part of our motion is a proposal for a substantial programme of investment in skills and retraining, including the use of vacant places in universities and colleges. I specifically want to talk about vacant places, namely, college places that are unfilled after the list of qualified applicants to the CAO for a particular course has been exhausted. I printed out the available place course list for 2008 from the CAO website this evening. As of today there are more than 100 courses advertised as having vacant places by the CAO. There is no transparency as to exactly how many places are available. I tried to get that information from the CAO by telephone recently but it could only tell me the number of courses. When I asked the question of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, he replied that higher education institutions do not routinely provide information to his Department or the HEA on vacant places. Those places are paid for by the taxpayer. The equipment is paid for and the teachers are employed. Those course places remain unfilled and are going to waste. There is no transparency about that and there should be.

Not only are those courses unfilled, but also the subjects they include are degree courses in universities and institutes of technology throughout the country. I understand hundreds of those course places remain unfilled each year in subjects such as information technology, electronic and computer engineering, fishery management, environmental and natural resource management, business courses, law courses, etc. While the Government refers to its objective to create a knowledge-based economy and to do something about job creation to address unemployment, it is allowing this to happen and all that unfulfilled potential to go to waste.

The Labour Party is proposing that the utmost be done by the Government and its agencies to ensure those places are filled, particularly by people who are unemployed. For example, a major sector is construction. Former construction workers would have the opportunity to study for degrees in engineering, etc. They could go on in the future and contribute to the knowledge-based economy and probably earn more in a more secure job than they had in construction. If we do that, we need to ensure they are not to be like school leavers who are supported by their parents at home for four years. We need to ensure people are offered these courses in a flexible way, taking into account that they might have families and other commitments. We need to provide necessary financial supports to ensure they take up those places, which would be worth it in the long run.

There is no promotion of those vacant places. I am only aware of them because I used to work in the area of admissions and registrations in a third level college. Last night, a bricklayer who has been unemployed for a year came to my clinic to ask about an issue related to his trade union. I brought these courses to his attention. He had never heard of them and was interested. As his wife was also unemployed, I told him that if he took up the course he would get to keep his social welfare payments, would almost certainly qualify for a grant and would be able to get a qualification at the end. That type of information is not provided to people. There is no promotion of it and there is no urgency by the Government to do something about the issue.

The agencies, including FÁS, the VECs, the various Departments and in particular the colleges, need to come together on this issue. The colleges need to be made to do something about this matter. The Government is allowing taxpayers' money to be wasted when we could be using these places to educate and upskill people to allow them contribute to the economy. We also have vacant capacity in our second level schools and community colleges. The same issue would also apply to post-leaving certificate courses. We should use those unfilled places to educate our unemployed people.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. While the motion makes some proposals, it is also interspersed with some negative ideas. Obviously the situation of rising unemployment in which we find ourselves is of concern. Reference was made to people queuing outside social welfare offices. We do not want to go back to the days when people were in long-term unemployment in some cases for many years with many people emigrating. We must acknowledge that Ireland is now in a different time. In the 1980s there were large numbers of people on long-term unemployment with no prospect of any opportunities in the labour market. In addition, large numbers of people were emigrating who did not have the skill sets to find employment abroad and often found themselves in very menial jobs. We are in a different Ireland now.

We acknowledge that challenges exist, including the global credit crisis. It does not reflect well on the Labour Party to flippantly throw aside the bailout of the banks. Reference to this was made in a roundabout way. We had a huge increase in construction in recent times not only because of the demand for houses due to changing demographics and the major increase in the working population, but also access to cheap credit. That was a fundamental factor in the housing boom. People had access to cheap credit and there was a demand for houses. I never saw Deputy Kathleen Lynch with her placard outside any building site in the country protesting that they should not be working there because it was owned by some landowner or speculator. These were people who borrowed money and provided housing units and many job opportunities. Dismissing these people as if every person——

They made multi-millions on the back of it.

It goes to show how flippant the Labour Party Deputies can be at times. Many people put their homes on the line, borrowed money, bought sites and provided apartments and houses, and considerable employment.

(Interruptions).

While I do not want to get argumentative——

The Minister of State is doing well.

——on this matter, it is important to point out that many of these people are ordinary carpenters, masons and chippies who made some money, bought a site and developed it.

The Minister of State should not talk such rubbish.

I am quite sure that Deputy Stagg is now referring to those people, which is somewhat flippant. The bailout is not a €400 million guarantee as if the money was handed over. It was done to create stability and provide liquidity so that banks could operate in an economy where credit is available to people who want to invest in their small businesses, for house extensions or the purchase of a new house or car. That is the purpose of the bailout. It is not designed to bail out any wealthy bankers. It is about creating an environment in which people can go about normal enterprise, which means occasionally visiting a bank to borrow money and subsequently repaying it. That is the purpose of banking.

The banks have stopped lending.

We want to ensure that we have a healthy banking system.

The Minister of State does not know what is going on out there.

It proves one thing. If the Labour Party were in Government we would still be talking about this issue, the banks would have gone to the wall and the economy would be suffering greatly because they would not have been able to make a decision.

We would not have created the mess in the first place.

We would not be in hock to the speculators and builders.

Allow the Minister of State to speak without interruption.

We would not be inside any tent either.

Carry on now. We want to leave those tents.

Fianna Fáil just closed the tent in time.

The Labour Party referred to what the Government is not doing. I wish to talk about the serious issue of redundant apprentices. It is a major challenge for everybody concerned to try to ensure that those who have almost finished their apprenticeship courses can complete them. We are looking at that issue.

The Government is only looking at it. It is doing nothing.

A much-maligned — by other Deputies — organisation, FÁS, has looked at this issue actively——

What does the Minister of State mean by "looking at"?

If the Deputy wants me to outline the proposals I will.

The Minister of State only has a few seconds remaining and should keep going.

I only have five minutes and would like to go through that in particular.

We do not know what the Minister of State is saying. What does he mean by "looking at"?

In one particular area we have reduced the course to ensure they can go onto their next off-work placement, back into the institutes, back into their apprenticeships and can train themselves up. In the meantime, FÁS has also expanded the whole area of insulation of houses, installation of solar panels and those schemes——

The Government cut the grant.

——where there are potential job opportunities in the changing environment. While the Labour Party suggests nothing is being done, in that area alone——

The Minister of State's time has expired.

I wish it was expired.

I also wish I had more time. I would have liked to have outlined many of the policies we are bringing forward. There were some issues in the motion that were reasonably positive until the Labour Party Deputies came up with the usual negative tactics that unfortunately come from those benches too often. By the way Deputy Kathleen Lynch should not throw the letters in the fire; she should recycle them.

I wish to share time with Deputy Gilmore.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The Government's response to the growing unemployment problem has been complacent and in many ways clueless. Since the Government was returned to power an extra 86,000 people are now signing on the live register. The steady stream of job losses has touched every corner of the country and every sector of employment. The number of people signing on has doubled, or almost doubled, in a number of different places around the country, such as Castleblayney, Portarlington, Portlaoise and Macroom. In large centres of population such as Cork city, the live register is up by 4,500 and by 2,500 in Waterford city, 3,000 in Limerick city, nearly 2,000 in Clondalkin and 1,800 in Blanchardstown and Mulhuddart, to name but a few. It is against that type of background that the Labour Party has brought this motion to the House.

For all that is stark about the present situation, there is plenty of action the Government could and should take to turn the situation around, and that is what I want to address. The Government needs to take a three-pronged approach to the growing problem of unemployment. First, it needs to ensure the income of every unemployed person provides him or her with security and adequate protection against poverty and indebtedness. Second, it must immediately identify and provide for the training and education needs of all who have joined the live register. Third, it needs to focus on creating new job opportunities so people can return to work as soon as possible. It is critical that the Government focuses on ensuring that those who are losing their jobs do not become the long-term unemployed of the future. As regards income, the Government must first come to terms with the realities of being unemployed. It is not the same as it was in the 1980s. If someone becomes unemployed today, he or she is much more likely to be struggling with mortgage repayments, credit card debt and higher purchase agreements and to incur arrears in rental and utility bills. Recent statistics from MABS show there has been a 50% increase in the average level of debt among its clients since last year, and of course the number of clients is up by a third. That means the Government must prioritise income adequacy in next week's budget and safeguard welfare payments. In particular, the rules on mortgage interest supplement must be relaxed to reflect the realities of people living with high mortgages when they lose their employment.

The second course of action must focus on education and training. As a first step we need to obtain far greater information as regards the education and training needs of those on the live register. There is a dearth of up to date information on education qualifications, skills deficits, language competency, nationality and so on. For some on the live register, upskilling may mean completing a basic English or literacy course. For others, such as construction workers, it could mean complete reskilling for a different area of employment or other types of work within a particular sector. The Government should be instructing FÁS to gear up to meet the increased demand for its services and it needs to produce a much speedier response. In addition, FÁS must examine the level of spare capacity that may exist in universities, as Deputy Tuffy has said, and in the institutes of technology and determine how those places might be matched to the needs of the unemployed.

Government should increase the number of places on community employment and jobs initiative schemes, and it should relax the eligibility criteria for those schemes to make certain that new people joining the live register have the opportunity to ensure quickly they remain active and gain alternative work experience. It should develop detailed information packs also for the new unemployed on issues as regards redundancy, training, education and welfare supports, because there is a real gap. More than anything, there is a need to overhaul the rules on the back to education and the back to work enterprise allowances. It makes no sense whatsoever that someone has to wait 12 months to become eligible for a back to education allowance or up to two years for the back to work enterprise allowance. Recent changes in relation to entitlement for people who have received statutory redundancy, while welcome, are not enough as thousands have had to sign on in recent times without receiving statutory redundancy payments at all. It should be possible for an unemployed person to avail of these schemes if he or she has not been able to find alternative employment within, say, a three month period. It serves no one's interest to wait until we have a serious long-term unemployment problem before these types of departmental supports become available.

The third strand of Government action must revolve around the creation of employment opportunities. The Government could put many of the jobless construction workers back to work, for example, by restarting and expanding the schools building programme and by investing in a national insulation programme. There is a crying need, especially among older residents, for homes to be upgraded in respect of insulation. It would be a win-win situation for all if the Government embarked on such a programme.

The Government also needs to strengthen early warning systems for imminent job losses and put together a crack team of business, finance and human resource experts to assist small and medium companies to downsize instead of going out of business altogether. We need to look at ways family friendly measures might reduce the numbers of unemployed while also facilitating young parents. Finally, there must be guaranteed access to local employment services for all of those who find themselves on the live register. The Government has lost too much time talking about soft landings. The hard truth is that we have a serious unemployment problem again on our hands and it is time the Government faced up to that.

I thank all Members who contributed to the debate on this Labour Party motion, and I compliment my colleague, Deputy Willie Penrose, for tabling the motion.

We have been talking here over the last couple of weeks about serious problems in the economy, and more recently the banking crisis. However, there is a jobs crisis in this country that has been going on for months and no significant action by Government has been taken to deal with it. If anyone wants to see the extent to which the Government is in denial about the scale of the unemployment problem facing the country, all he or she has to do is read the pathetic amendment to the Labour Party motion tabled by the Tánaiste and listen to her pathetic contribution yesterday and that of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs and the Minister of State, Deputy Billy Kelleher, this evening. None of them could put forward a single significant new idea or initiative to deal with the unemployment crisis. As far as the Government is concerned, it is business as usual. To add insult to injury, for the 80,000 who have lost their jobs in the past year, the Tánaiste is asking the Dáil in her amendment to "commend the Government" for its stewardship of the economy and the employment market to date.

The statistics are shocking. The live register has increased by nearly 80,000 over the past 12 months, an increase of almost 50%. The live register unemployment rate has jumped from 4.6% to 6.3% in less than 12 months. The ESRI's commentary on the labour market is revealing. The deterioration in the early part of this year was particularly remarkable and the ESRI is now predicting that employment will be 3% lower in 2009 than in 2007. Unemployment is expected to rise to 8% in 2009 and evidence is starting to come through of the labour force falling as participation falls. The problem is widespread across the country. A brief glance down the numbers of those signing on in each local office is deeply worrying — an extra 4,000 in Donegal, 4,300 in Galway, 3,000 in Waterford, and this is just a random sample.

This is a cause of real hardship and distress for people, those who have mortgages, loans and all types of other commitments who are facing really hard times and choices. If a job is lost, will a child have to be taken out of playschool to save the money? Does one or other partner have to leave and look for work abroad? What happens the house? It cannot be sold, and even if it could, who would pay the negative equity?

The Government is preparing a hairshirt budget, but is ignoring the underlying cause of the problem, which is the real economy. The cause of the problem in the public finances is the recession in the real economy, not the other way around. Getting people back to work will bring in tax revenues and save on social welfare payments. Just look at that great work or fiction, the 2008 budget: a single person on €35,000, not far off the average industrial wage, pays €303 in PRSI, €700 in levies and €1,510 in tax, if he or she is working. If he or she loses a job the State has to pay about €10,500 in job seeker's allowance, before any other form of housing assistance or benefit. The net gain to the State of every job created at that wage level is at least €13,500 or, looking at it the other way around, the total cost to the Exchequer of the 80,000 jobs lost in the past year is approximately €1 billion. Creating a job at €45,000 results in a saving of more than €20,000 for a single person and that does not include savings for qualified adults, housing related payments or VAT on money spent from wages.

The lesson is simple. A strategy is needed to get people back to work and it is clear that the Government has no coherent or determined strategy to deal with the issue. It has spent months focused on the public finances but there is no jobs strategy. It must be a matter of deep disquiet that at the time we most need FÁS to gear up to deal with the crisis, the organisation is mired in internal audit difficulties. This matter is too serious to wait for months while FÁS sorts itself out. A major skills programme is needed now to address the needs of those losing their jobs.

The expert group on future skills needs concluded there is a need to upskill at least 500,000 people over the next decade and now is the time to start. Many of the people losing jobs in construction have limited formal qualifications and they may have highly sector-specific skills. Now is the time to address their needs and those of many others losing their jobs, including professionals, such as engineers, architects and lawyers. A major co-ordinated programme which makes use of all available capacity in training and educational facilities is required. It must bring together agencies and Departments, with strong political leadership. If hard decisions have to be taken, that must be done. The Government can also take targeted initiatives that will have an impact on employment.

The Labour Party has called for some time for the acceleration of the schools building programme that would utilise the skills of people losing their jobs in the construction industry. Sometimes when we raise this, we are asked where we will generate the money required. These projects could save the State money because they could proceed using a different approach to financing. When I was in Cork South-West with my colleague, Senator Michael McCarthy, last Friday, I visited Gaelscoil Chloch na gCoillte in Clonakilty. It is a fine school serving 240 students who are all accommodated in prefab buildings in the school yard. The school administrators have a site and they appointed project engineers in anticipation of approval of their project, but then the money was pulled. The school principal and the board of management understand fully that the money is not available from the Department of Education and Science. However, they have suggested to the Department that if they were allowed to take out a mortgage, they could build the school and the repayments on the mortgage would be less than the rent paid by the Department for the prefabs.

This is institutionalised madness.

There is a similar situation in my constituency.

It is happening all over the country.

The local VEC plans to build a new senior college in Blackrock but funding has been pulled by the Department of Education and Science. The VEC has concluded an arrangement with Dún Laoghaoire-Rathdown County Council for funding of the scheme. All that is needed is the approval of the Department. If the Government could see its way to invest the same confidence in the principal and the board of management of the school in Clonakilty that it has invested in overpaid bank executives, some of the schools building programme could proceed without additional cost to the taxpayer, thereby providing schools that are needed and employment for construction workers while addressing the educational and skills needs required long term to move the economy forward.

The problem is the Government is too short-sighted in what it is doing about employment. This is a major issue because it is the people end of what is happening to the economy and it is a matter of deep regret that the Government is not taking it with more seriousness and urgency.

Amendment put.
The Dáil divided: Tá, 75; Níl, 66.

  • Ahern, Dermot.
  • Ahern, Michael.
  • Andrews, Barry.
  • Andrews, Chris.
  • Ardagh, Seán.
  • Aylward, Bobby.
  • Behan, Joe.
  • Blaney, Niall.
  • Brady, Áine.
  • Brady, Cyprian.
  • Brady, Johnny.
  • Browne, John.
  • Byrne, Thomas.
  • Calleary, Dara.
  • Carey, Pat.
  • Collins, Niall.
  • Conlon, Margaret.
  • Cregan, John.
  • Cuffe, Ciarán.
  • Cullen, Martin.
  • Curran, John.
  • Devins, Jimmy.
  • Dooley, Timmy.
  • Fahey, Frank.
  • Finneran, Michael.
  • Fitzpatrick, Michael.
  • Fleming, Seán.
  • Flynn, Beverley.
  • Gallagher, Pat The Cope.
  • Gogarty, Paul.
  • Gormley, John.
  • Grealish, Noel.
  • Hanafin, Mary.
  • Harney, Mary.
  • Haughey, Seán.
  • Hoctor, Máire.
  • Kelleher, Billy.
  • Kelly, Peter.
  • Kenneally, Brendan.
  • Kennedy, Michael.
  • Kirk, Seamus.
  • Kitt, Michael P.
  • Kitt, Tom.
  • Lenihan, Brian.
  • Mansergh, Martin.
  • McDaid, James.
  • McEllistrim, Thomas.
  • McGrath, Finian.
  • McGrath, Mattie.
  • McGrath, Michael.
  • Moloney, John.
  • Moynihan, Michael.
  • Mulcahy, Michael.
  • Nolan, M. J.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
  • O’Brien, Darragh.
  • O’Connor, Charlie.
  • O’Flynn, Noel.
  • O’Hanlon, Rory.
  • O’Keeffe, Batt.
  • O’Keeffe, Edward.
  • O’Rourke, Mary.
  • O’Sullivan, Christy.
  • Power, Peter.
  • Power, Seán.
  • Roche, Dick.
  • Ryan, Eamon.
  • Sargent, Trevor.
  • Scanlon, Eamon.
  • Smith, Brendan.
  • Treacy, Noel.
  • Wallace, Mary.
  • White, Mary Alexandra.
  • Woods, Michael.

Níl

  • Allen, Bernard.
  • Bannon, James.
  • Barrett, Seán.
  • Breen, Pat.
  • Broughan, Thomas P.
  • Bruton, Richard.
  • Burke, Ulick.
  • Burton, Joan.
  • Byrne, Catherine.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Clune, Deirdre.
  • Connaughton, Paul.
  • Coonan, Noel J.
  • Costello, Joe.
  • Coveney, Simon.
  • Crawford, Seymour.
  • Creighton, Lucinda.
  • D’Arcy, Michael.
  • Deasy, John.
  • Deenihan, Jimmy.
  • Doyle, Andrew.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • English, Damien.
  • Enright, Olwyn.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Ferris, Martin.
  • Flanagan, Charles.
  • Gilmore, Eamon.
  • Hayes, Tom.
  • Higgins, Michael D.
  • Hogan, Phil.
  • Howlin, Brendan.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Kenny, Enda.
  • Lynch, Ciarán.
  • Lynch, Kathleen.
  • McCormack, Pádraic.
  • McEntee, Shane.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • McManus, Liz.
  • Mitchell, Olivia.
  • Naughten, Denis.
  • Neville, Dan.
  • Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • O’Donnell, Kieran.
  • O’Dowd, Fergus.
  • O’Keeffe, Jim.
  • O’Mahony, John.
  • O’Sullivan, Jan.
  • Penrose, Willie.
  • Perry, John.
  • Quinn, Ruairí.
  • Rabbitte, Pat.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Sheahan, Tom.
  • Sheehan, P. J.
  • Sherlock, Seán.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Timmins, Billy.
  • Tuffy, Joanna.
  • Upton, Mary.
  • Varadkar, Leo.
  • Wall, Jack.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Pat Carey and John Cregan; Níl, Deputies Paul Kehoe and Emmet Stagg.
Amendment declared carried.
Amendment No. 2 not moved.
Question put: "That the motion, as amended, be agreed to."
The Dáil divided: Tá, 75; Níl, 67.

  • Ahern, Dermot.
  • Ahern, Michael.
  • Andrews, Barry.
  • Andrews, Chris.
  • Ardagh, Seán.
  • Aylward, Bobby.
  • Behan, Joe.
  • Blaney, Niall.
  • Brady, Áine.
  • Brady, Cyprian.
  • Brady, Johnny.
  • Browne, John.
  • Byrne, Thomas.
  • Calleary, Dara.
  • Carey, Pat.
  • Collins, Niall.
  • Conlon, Margaret.
  • Cregan, John.
  • Cuffe, Ciarán.
  • Cullen, Martin.
  • Curran, John.
  • Devins, Jimmy.
  • Dooley, Timmy.
  • Fahey, Frank.
  • Finneran, Michael.
  • Fitzpatrick, Michael.
  • Fleming, Seán.
  • Flynn, Beverley.
  • Gallagher, Pat The Cope.
  • Gogarty, Paul.
  • Gormley, John.
  • Grealish, Noel.
  • Hanafin, Mary.
  • Harney, Mary.
  • Haughey, Seán.
  • Hoctor, Máire.
  • Kelleher, Billy.
  • Kelly, Peter.
  • Kenneally, Brendan.
  • Kennedy, Michael.
  • Kirk, Seamus.
  • Kitt, Michael P.
  • Kitt, Tom.
  • Lenihan, Brian.
  • McDaid, James.
  • McEllistrim, Thomas.
  • McGrath, Finian.
  • McGrath, Mattie.
  • McGrath, Michael.
  • Mansergh, Martin.
  • Moloney, John.
  • Moynihan, Michael.
  • Mulcahy, Michael.
  • Nolan, M. J.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
  • O’Brien, Darragh.
  • O’Connor, Charlie.
  • O’Flynn, Noel.
  • O’Hanlon, Rory.
  • O’Keeffe, Batt.
  • O’Keeffe, Edward.
  • O’Rourke, Mary.
  • O’Sullivan, Christy.
  • Power, Peter.
  • Power, Seán.
  • Roche, Dick.
  • Ryan, Eamon.
  • Sargent, Trevor.
  • Scanlon, Eamon.
  • Smith, Brendan.
  • Treacy, Noel.
  • Wallace, Mary.
  • White, Mary Alexandra.
  • Woods, Michael.

Níl

  • Allen, Bernard.
  • Bannon, James.
  • Barrett, Seán.
  • Breen, Pat.
  • Broughan, Thomas P.
  • Bruton, Richard.
  • Burton, Joan.
  • Byrne, Catherine.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Clune, Deirdre.
  • Connaughton, Paul.
  • Coonan, Noel J.
  • Costello, Joe.
  • Coveney, Simon.
  • Crawford, Seymour.
  • Creighton, Lucinda.
  • D’Arcy, Michael.
  • Deasy, John.
  • Deenihan, Jimmy.
  • Doyle, Andrew.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • English, Damien.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Ferris, Martin.
  • Flanagan, Charles.
  • Flanagan, Terence.
  • Gilmore, Eamon.
  • Hayes, Brian.
  • Hayes, Tom.
  • Higgins, Michael D.
  • Hogan, Phil.
  • Howlin, Brendan.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Kenny, Enda.
  • Lynch, Ciarán.
  • Lynch, Kathleen.
  • McCormack, Pádraic.
  • McEntee, Shane.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • McHugh, Joe.
  • McManus, Liz.
  • Mitchell, Olivia.
  • Naughten, Denis.
  • Neville, Dan.
  • Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • O’Donnell, Kieran.
  • O’Dowd, Fergus.
  • O’Keeffe, Jim.
  • O’Mahony, John.
  • O’Sullivan, Jan.
  • Penrose, Willie.
  • Perry, John.
  • Quinn, Ruairí.
  • Rabbitte, Pat.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Sheahan, Tom.
  • Sheehan, P. J.
  • Sherlock, Seán.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Timmins, Billy.
  • Tuffy, Joanna.
  • Upton, Mary.
  • Varadkar, Leo.
  • Wall, Jack.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Pat Carey and John Cregan; Níl, Deputies Emmet Stagg and Paul Kehoe.
Question declared carried.