I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me the opportunity to raise this important matter, namely, that the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment recognise the urgent need to counteract Government neglect of County Longford in the light of increasing numbers on the live register and the loss of economic stability as a result of the announcement of the closure of Connolly Barracks and several industries in the area.
According to the latest live register figures, the number of people signing on in County Longford stands at 3,423. This represents an increase of 1,136, or 49.7%, in 12 months and a rise of 678, or 24.7%, since Deputies Cowen and Coughlan became Taoiseach and Tánaiste, respectively. Following a number of closures in County Longford, the latest body blow to our economic viability is the ill-thought-out closure of Connolly Barracks in Longford town, which has seen the removal of 180 full-time jobs and 160 reservists from the local economy. This is equivalent to the loss of two major industries at a time when Longford is getting less than its fair share of State-assisted jobs.
There is a history of Government neglect in respect of Longford. The then Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, announced in December 2000 that the pharmaceutical giant, Cardinal Health, was to invest £100 million in Longford, in a state-of-the-art manufacturing and technology centre. The project was hailed as one which would transform the industrial make-up of County Longford and the surrounding areas. Construction work on the centre was due to start in early 2002 and it was hoped that it would be operational by 2004 and would create between 1,300 and 1,400 jobs by 2006. By 2004, however, this much heralded boost for County Longford turned out to be just another general election promise.
In recent times we have witnessed not only the closure of the barracks but also the shutting down of the court services in Granard. The courthouse and allied services brought huge economic benefits to the town and surrounding areas. Now funding for the enterprise centre in Granard has been stalled. Kimbal Electronics closed in April with the loss of 66 jobs and, shortly before that, Nexans Ireland shut down with the loss of 162 jobs. Butlers in Longford town has let one third of its staff go and staff at Glennons are on a two-day week. Employees at Fenelons in Longford have been threatened by lay-offs and the Quinn Group is curtailing its operations. In addition, enterprise starter grants have been reduced.
The Longford-Westmeath area has been shamefully disregarded in respect of the gas expansion scheme. Companies operating in Longford have again been left on the hind tit in respect to this important facility. Seven years after it was first promised inclusion under the expansion scheme, Longford is now under consideration for the final phase — phase 3.
It is frightening to think that in one year unemployment in County Longford has risen by 49.7%. Some 24% of that increase occurred in the six months since Deputy Cowen became Taoiseach. This is indicative of the lack of positive action on the part of the Government. Government policy is to blame others for the shocking rise in unemployment in County Longford and other areas throughout the country. Far too many jobs have disappeared as a result of the high cost base. Companies are leaving the country and transferring their operations to more business-friendly locations.
Stealth taxes, high fuel prices, infrastructural deficiencies and a lack of competitiveness are driving up unemployment figures at an alarming rate. We need a high level of intervention and investment by Government and State agencies in order to secure a future for the people of Longford and Westmeath. This country lacks an industrial strategy geared towards low taxes. The Government deserves criticism in respect of inflation and the lack of competitiveness.
The Government must overhaul FÁS and provide a public works scheme for the unemployed. I call on the Minister to restore competitiveness and to support business, in particular small and medium enterprises and other companies in County Longford that are currently experiencing difficulty. It is clear to everyone but the Government that this can be achieved by freezing charges such as rates and development levies; reducing utility costs for electricity, gas, water and telecommunications; investing in infrastructure, in particular broadband, road and rail; cutting back red tape; reversing the hike in VAT; suspending the pay deal, consolidating labour law and abolishing anti-employment provisions such as double pay for Sunday working in the catering sector; and, crucially, wasting no further time in recapitalising the banks so that businesses, large and small, can access credit.