The former Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte's upgrading of broadband infrastructure has seen our country move up the international league table for high-speed connectivity, with all the attendant benefits for business, investment and jobs. Right now, high-speed broadband is being installed in all secondary schools, with plans in place for new investment across 1,100 towns and villages in rural areas.
The former Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn's passion for reform was an outstanding example of a ministerial career in various Governments. He took FÁS and transformed it into a new service for training and further education that will help many jobseekers get back into work. I wish him well in his retirement from politics. He will be missed.
The former Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, introduced some of the biggest reforms of Government during his tenure that will have lasting benefits long into the future. I refer to such issues as local government reform, the effective banning of corporate donations, new building regulations, a new water service and dealing with ground water pollution from septic tanks and climate change. His record of implementing difficult, but necessary, change will stand to him as EU Commissioner, and I wish him well in his new role.
The former Minister, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan's tenure began what will be a successful decade of commemorations marking Ireland's path to independence. He made major progress on the inherited and long-ignored issues of protection of the environment, including the national bogs. Here, he negotiated with considerable sensitivity the plan to fulfil our environmental responsibilities while offering good solutions to landowners and turf cutters.
I look forward to working closely with him in his important new role in connecting with the extensive Irish diaspora throughout the word. I congratulate the new members who are proposed for appointment as Ministers. This is a great day for them and their families and I look forward to working with each of them as we build on the progress made by Government over the past three years.
When this Government came to office rescuing Ireland's economy and restoring its reputation were our top priorities. We were a Government of national recovery and, through our carefully-assembled plan, we have achieved this. Crucially, our reputation as a safe bet for inward investment has been restored. Last December, thanks to the hard work and considerable sacrifice of the people, a sacrifice that at times they must have thought would never end, we exited the EU-IMF bailout. The clean exit of the bailout, without requiring a precautionary credit line or a second bailout, as predicted by many, has improved Ireland's standing and has allowed us to raise new funds so that we can safeguard the public services that our people depend upon in their lives on a day-to-day basis. With new policies to encourage job creation throughout the economy and with competitiveness high on our agenda we have seen encouraging progress in our stated aim, that is, to get our country working again. Last year alone saw 61,000 new jobs. That is not only over 1,000 jobs a week for men and women all over the country it is the highest employment growth rate in Europe. Through our ambitious but necessary reforms of the social welfare system, led by the Tánaiste, we are ensuring that we help the long-term unemployed back into work, where our hardworking and dignified men and women want to be.
For sure in these difficult years for our country we have not got everything right - in the circumstances I believe that no Government could - but over the three years we made the difficult but necessary decisions because we were determined that with this Government it would be people and country first and that we would, at last, get our country moving again in the right direction.
Since we exited the EU-IMF bailout, I am pleased to say that the economy has continued to recover strongly. Vital though this is and was, I emphasise that economic recovery was never the end in itself. Economic recovery is about creating the kind of environment where enterprise and jobs can thrive, where we can provide people with the kind of public services they deserve, where they can put a decent roof over their heads and where we can give people confidence and security in their lives so that they can see from day to day that the great sacrifices they have made for the recovery will have been all worthwhile.
I am pleased to say that some people are beginning to experience this already. For them at last confidence is creeping in, life has improved and when I meet them I can see the relief and new hope in their faces and attitude. However, many more people are not yet experiencing the upturn. They have yet to see and measure the benefits of the recovery in their lives. I assure the people that their efforts and sacrifices to date will neither be taken for granted nor squandered by this Government. The resources we have at hand will be used to promote ever more job creation. It is by returning our country to full employment that we can best reach our goal of making Ireland the best small country in the world in which to do business, raise a family and grow old with dignity and respect.
As we enter this new phase of recovery let me pay tribute to the workers of Ireland. Despite waves of economic instability they got out and got to work, and, because they did, they got us and the country back on track. Today, we owe our workers our recovery. On every trade mission I have the privilege to attend on and at every meeting with foreign investors, I hear the lavish praise for the skill, commitment and dedication of our workers. Today, I say to them, particularly to the middle-income and low earners, that I know it has been galling and tough and I know that at times the anxiety has been very difficult. The Government has already removed 330,000 earners from the universal social charge. The introduction of that charge by a previous Government brought the top rate of tax to 52% for individuals and families on average incomes. This is neither right or tolerable for them nor sustainable for the country. The Government wants to make work pay for Ireland's families. Now especially we want to make their lives that bit better and easier.
The objective of Government should always be to create the conditions and supports to allow families to thrive, prosper and reach their full potential. A plan to make work pay will be a major part of our priorities for the remainder of this Government. Fairness and job creation go hand in hand. Everyone should have the opportunity to work and live their lives at home. The changes at Cabinet today reflect the best team to take that recovery forward. There is still so much to do and all of it is so urgent. The new Ministers will bring a new approach and energy to job creation and to ensuring that the recovery, for which people sacrificed so much, reaches every family in Ireland.
In the remaining months of this Government there will be a relentless focus on restoring our domestic economy so that we have rapid job growth on the scale needed to return our country to full employment. In addition to the Action Plan for Jobs we will target specific sectors of the economy for particular attention. Agrifood possesses great potential for Ireland. The agrifood sector is one of the biggest and best domestic industries. With the right supports, we estimate 25,000 new jobs can be created in this sector in the next seven years. The construction sector is another part of the domestic economy that has a critical role to play in our recovery and in creating new jobs. Right now, this sector is too small for the needs of our growing economy. We need high-quality business space to attract in new investment. The negative impact of the lack of housing supply in the capital is un-missable and unacceptable. To bring construction back to a sustainable position we have a clear plan to create 60,000 new jobs. One sector that has shown encouraging signs of growth since the Government introduced new measures within 100 days of entering office is tourism. Last year's The Gathering was a major success. This week the Government published a new tourism strategy to add 50,000 new jobs over the next decade. This year has also seen a shake-up in how local government will support local businesses. Now there are 31 new local enterprise offices nationwide to provide advice and support to people starting businesses at local level. To further help Irish retailers win new business this year the Government is targeting 1,000 outlets to start trading online by way of a new voucher scheme. By helping small Irish businesses trade online we expect 3,200 new jobs to be created in this area over the next two years. As the economy begins to recover we must value, protect and nurture our hard-won competitiveness gains. Creating a competitive business environment to support an increase in exports is essential to ensure Ireland achieves growth and, crucially, gets more of our people back to work.
These are just some examples of the hard work and the agenda that lies ahead. Each Minister will outline how he or she, in their portfolio, will promote jobs and better support our working families. In addition, shortly the Government will publish a statement of priorities for the remainder of our term of office. As we return to better or more normal times this document will outline how we intend to give a hand to working families and low and middle-income workers. We intend to ensure that recovery is deeply felt in every city, town and village throughout the country. It is true that Ireland has been through the wars. There is not a family in any part of the country that has not been affected. However, my message today is that we are already in recovery, things are beginning to get better and we intend now to ensure that they get better for every person. We know that the people are impatient to see and feel this recovery in their lives. They are impatient to see and feel the change for which they have made such sacrifices and the Government is every bit as impatient as they are.
I have a strong belief for our country. I have a great sense of faith in our people. In the time I have been privileged to be Taoiseach I have travelled all over the country. I have spoken to all manner of people and listened to their stories, sometimes of great loss or anxiety. I have learned that despite this, belief, fragile as it is, exists deep in our people. We can say we have learned from the difficult past only if we make sure not to repeat it. With the actions and decisions that the Government has taken, as bitter and unwelcome as many of them have been, I believe we will not repeat that past.
Rather, there is both the will and the possibility now to move forward, rebuild, renew and recreate. There is a chance for change - a welcome and overdue change. We are not just gritting our teeth and keeping the head down and surviving, but also hoping we can get to live our lives in the way people would expect. In government we will give every help, opportunity and support to make that happen. It is both our intention and our duty to do so.