Other Questions

Job Losses

Denis Naughten

Question:

6. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation the steps he is taking to secure jobs at the MBNA site in Carrick-on-Shannon, County Leitrim; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48000/14]

At the end of last month MBNA closed its facility in Carrick-on-Shannon and the final 160 staff were laid off. At its height MBNA employed 1,100 people in Carrick-on-Shannon. While it is all well and good to see job creation and job announcements on the east coast, the reality is that parts of my constituency have been decimated by unemployment, particularly in a town such as Carrick-on-Shannon. What is the Minister doing to try to secure an alternative employer for the town?

I share the Deputy's concern about the loss of any job but particularly the loss of a job in a town such as Carrick-on-Shannon in which MBNA had been such a major employer. A series of actions are being implemented by local and national bodies to source an alternative employer and find alternative employment for those impacted on by the MBNA redundancies which, unfortunately, took effect on 28 November. An inter-agency group led by Enterprise Ireland has been formed and its membership includes representatives of all the relevant State players. The group has met on a monthly basis and is providing for the taking of a co-ordinated approach to meeting the needs of the affected staff and ensuring all necessary steps are put in train to pursue an alternative investor. I have kept in regular contact with our agency representatives on the group.

The activities of the group include the following. Details of staff skills and the capabilities of the facility have been collated. IDA Ireland, with MBNA-Bank of America, has produced a marketing pack for potential investors. The global IDA Ireland team continues to market the MBNA facility to a range of potential investors through its network. Enterprise Ireland is marketing the facility to its client base. There has been a small number of preliminary inquiries about the facility, both from foreign-owned and Irish-owned businesses, but it is too early in the process to be specific about their potential.

The work of the inter-agency group will continue and IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland will work to market the MBNA facility to a range of potential investors and to respond to requests for information from potential interested parties.

I bring the Minister back to his comment that there has been a small number of preliminary inquiries about the facility, both from foreign-owned and Irish-owned businesses. He gave me that comment in the House three months ago. What progress has been made in moving forward any of these preliminary inquiries in the past three months?

There are a number both on the Enterprise Ireland side and the IDA Ireland side. These are still active and the leads are still very much alive. Many of them hinge on the key requirement of winning an additional contract. As the Deputy knows, when MBNA withdrew, it did not leave behind a body of work that a new investor could simply take up as its starting point. That is undoubtedly a constraint that needs to be worked through. There have been a number of site visits by the interested parties with which both IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland are continuing to work. I have met representatives of the local authority and the county manager. The Minister of State, Deputy Simon Harris, has also had meetings on opportunities either in the financial services or procurement area. We are actively pursuing every opportunity; it is not a case of there being any loss of attention to it. I keep in regular contact with the team and we will do our very best to find something.

The Minister is correct in saying MBNA did not leave behind a body of work. However, it had a body of work on offer for sale for the two years prior to its announcement that it would close. The inter-agency group was established after MBNA announced it would close the facility in November. Should that group have been established when Bank of America announced it was getting out of the business in Carrick-on-Shannon and looking for a potential buyer? The agencies sat back rather than being proactive and establishing the inter-agency group at that stage when there was a body of work that might have attracted an alternative employer.

That is not accurate. IDA Ireland was very active with Bank of America in the process of seeking a buyer. Clearly, that issue was pursued, both nationally and internationally. As the Deputy knows, they succeeded in finding a buyer for the domestic book but not for the UK book. From the MBNA's point of view, declining volumes of activity and its very substantial site in Chester resulted in it making a decision that we could not overcome. The point about the inter-agency group is that obviously there are new needs in terms of the role of social protection, training and other bodies in that context. There was very active engagement. I engaged frequently with Bank of America during that process as it sought interested buyers for the book. Clearly, there is a very talented workforce with a very high level of experience in terms of compliance in the financial sector. We continue to work really hard to pursue an opportunity.

I thank the Minister for the interest he has taken in the issue and know that IDA Ireland has been pushing the issue internationally. I ask the Minister to take a personal interest in the matter in the coming months. There is a very tight window if we hope to attract an alternative employer. The financial services sector in Dublin is expanding rapidly and there is a squeeze on available staff in the Dublin region. There is, however, a window of opportunity to source an alternative employer to be located in Carrick-on-Shannon. I urge the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Simon Harris, to redouble their efforts and try to source an alternative employer for this location in the near future.

I accept that. One of the avenues we are exploring is to see if there are companies with established businesses that are in an expansion phase and would consider this a suitable location to complement what they are already doing at other locations such as Dublin. We are actively pursuing that issue.

Industrial Development

Mick Wallace

Question:

7. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation when the regional enterprise strategy will be implemented in the south-east region, in particular in County Wexford; the number of jobs it will bring to County Wexford; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48149/14]

I raised a similar question two years ago when the Minister advised that the Government was intensively considering what the agencies could do to promote employment growth in the south east and support business start-ups. Sadly, things have got worse, rather than better. What is the Government's strategy to attract jobs to a place such as Wexford?

While I cannot remember the date, of course, I have established a south-east action plan in the intervening period. As the following reply will indicate, considerable work has gone into that plan.

The aim of An Action Plan for Jobs is to help enterprises to create employment in all regions of the country. If we are to do this successfully, it is important that each region build on its particular strengths and assets to provide an environment that stimulates entrepreneurship and attracts both indigenous and foreign investment.

Under An Action Plan for Jobs 2014, my Department has developed a framework for the preparation of regional enterprise strategies which will be used to produce action oriented plans to support enterprise growth and job creation in the regions, commencing with the midlands. The strategy for the midlands will be launched early in the new year and my intention is to commence the preparation of a strategy for the south-east region immediately after that. The enterprise strategy for the south east will build on the south-east region employment action plan which was developed following the closure of TalkTalk in 2011. It will involve consultation with stakeholders in both the private and public sectors in the region.

The development of regional enterprise strategies is not about setting targets for job creation on a county by county basis; rather, it is about identifying the strengths and opportunities within each region and assisting the regions to deliver on their potential for economic development.

This will be achieved through better co-ordination and collaboration by all actors operating within the region. The south-east forum, which I established to help pursue the implementation of the plan, has been a helpful model to inform our approach.

Since the start of the Action Plan for Jobs process in 2012, employment nationally has increased by approximately 80,000. Employment in the south-east region has increased by 21,300 since the first quarter of 2012 and the unemployment rate has fallen from 20.1% to 13.7%, the largest decrease in all of the regions. While this represents good progress, the unemployment rate for the south east, as well as for some other regions, is still above the national average. That is why we are developing these new regional enterprise strategies.

The Minister quoted figures for the south east but those relating to Wexford itself are dramatically worse. We have a major problem in that we are very dependent on foreign direct investment for any kind of manufacturing jobs. This is because successive Governments have failed to invest in indigenous industry for many years. In the lifetime of the current Administration, Wexford has been the subject of five IDA Ireland-sponsored visits involving potential investors, whereas some 59 visits have been made to Waterford and 710 to Dublin. Obviously, the population of Dublin is eight times that of Wexford but the number of IDA Ireland-sponsored visits from potential investors to the capital has been 140 times greater.

The Minister indicated that rather than considering the position in the context of counties, he is instead looking at the strengths and opportunities that exist in each region. If such strengths and opportunities do not exist in Wexford, is the Government going to do anything with regard to changing the position? Can Wexford be transformed into a place to which foreign direct investors might be interested in locating their business? Our dependence of foreign direct investment is far too great and we do not really seem to be able to tell those making such investment where they should locate their operations. On most occasions, many of these companies do not seem to be prepared to locate at places outside a 45 mile radius of Dublin, Cork or Shannon airports. Is it not time that the Government invested in indigenous industry in order that it would have direct control over where such industry might be located? If it did so, the Government would be able to operate independent of the whim of foreigners.

Absolutely. Only this week the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, announced the competitive start programme, which is designed to support new enterprise in the regions. This programme is one of the vehicles we use. Enterprise is very strong in Wexford. The fact that employment has increased by 21,300 in the past two years is indicative of a very strong performance. Some of this has been as a result of the efforts of IDA Ireland companies. We won significant investments in Wexford from ClearStream Technologies and Danone. On the indigenous side, Eishtec has become a significant player. This company grew phoenix-like from the ashes of TalkTalk, it employs more people than the latter ever did and it has the capacity to grow. There is a strong enterprise culture in the south east, particularly Wexford, and we want to build on this. In that context, it is necessary to examine the position with regard to all the regional assets, including the education and training boards, SOLAS facilities and the institutes of technology, and areas of strength. As the Deputy is aware, the local enterprise offices are engaging directly with local authorities. We are of the view that there is capacity to build on the competitive strengths that exist. In Wexford, these strengths lie in the areas of pharma and food and we need to build upon these. Consequently, there is an onus on Enterprise Ireland to consider its base of companies and to build off the assets that are already in place in Wexford and the wider south-east region.

Figures the Minister previously provided in respect of the years 2012 and 2013 show that 116 new jobs were created in the Wexford area and that 111 were lost. This means there was a net gain of five jobs. Am I missing something? The figures to which I refer were provided by the Minister in reply to a parliamentary question tabled on 23 April 2013 and they relate to 2012. Is he now stating that employment in Wexford has increased by over 20,000 in recent years?

Since the first quarter of 2012. The recovery has been building. During 2011, the decline in employment levels continued. However, 2012 was the first year in which the position stabilised. In 2013 and 2014, there has been a significant increase in employment. CSO statistics indicate that the south east has done the best of all the regions in the intervening period. The south east is performing above the national average but, as the Deputy and others who represent constituencies in the region would acknowledge, it is starting from a much higher unemployment base than the rest of the country. The region is making good progress but we are of the view that the job in respect of it is not complete by any means.

Job Creation

Bernard Durkan

Question:

8. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation the extent to which jobs have been created in each of the past three years to date arising from small and medium enterprise investment; the extent to which the current trend will continue into the foreseeable future; the extent to which he expects investment resulting in job creation to spread evenly across the country in the future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48135/14]

This question relates to the need to encourage investment in small and medium enterprises in order to facilitate job creation. I am seeking to discover the extent to which trends have been established in this regard and emphasise the need to recognise the obvious advantages in spreading the type of investment to which I refer across the country in an even way.

I thank Deputy Durkan for tabling this question. As he will be aware, Enterprise Ireland is the agency under the aegis of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation with responsibility for the development of Irish enterprise - the majority of which can be classified as small and medium sized - thereby deepening Ireland’s footprint in world markets and supporting employment creation in our economy. The agency works with its clients to increase job creation with the aim of increasing national and regional prosperity. For the three years 2011 to 2013 - based on Enterprise Ireland's 2013 employment survey - full-time employment rose from 143,657 in 2011 to 149,718 in 2013. For the three years 2011 to 2013, the position with regard to other, mainly part-time employment, was 24,695 in 2011. This dropped to 24,210 in 2012 and rose again to 26,032 in 2013, a total increase of 1,337. When taken together, total employment in Enterprise Ireland client companies rose from 168,353 in 2011 to 175,750 in 2013. The 2014 results of the agency's employment survey of its client companies are expected to be announced in early 2015. It is expected that these will be positive in nature. Based on the pipeline of projects approved by Enterprise Ireland, the continued strengthening of key export markets and significant improvements in the domestic economy, it is strongly anticipated that the recent trend of jobs growth across Enterprise Ireland's client base will be continued in 2014 and will provide a strong platform for growth in employment in 2015.

Local enterprise offices are significant drivers of local economic growth in every county and region of the country. My Department is leading the development of a regional enterprise development framework, which has recently been agreed and which will involve the development of strategies for regional enterprise covering the entire country. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, referred to this matter earlier in the context of the midlands strategy and that relating to the south east. We will be rolling out various strategies next year across all the regions in order to try to ensure that we strike the type of balance in respect of regional growth which the Deputy wishes to see.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. Will he outline the extent to which he is satisfied that the necessary strategic infrastructure is in place throughout the county to ensure that attempts at job creation, through small and medium enterprises, will not be impeded? Will he also indicate the extent to which he is satisfied about the trends established in this sector, particularly in the past two years, and the degree to which he expects such trends to continue and result in further increases in job creation?

There has been significant infrastructural development throughout the country during the past ten to 15 years or more as a result of the efforts of successive Governments. The various regions are well placed to attract foreign direct investment and ensure that indigenous enterprises can grow. They are also well placed in the context of ensuring that companies can export. In that context, there has been a real resurgence in exports in recent years. I am aware, from my travels throughout the country, of Irish companies fighting for and winning business abroad and increasing employment locally and nationally. The local enterprise offices are a really important element of the infrastructure network. The Minister and I are keeping a close eye on how those offices are performing as they represent a significant investment by the Government. The relationship between them and local authorities is extremely important. The regional enterprise strategies are going to be a significant dynamic for regional employment growth over the coming period. As I said, we will be rolling out the midlands strategy shortly and the south-east strategy and various other strategies will be rolled out across the country over the coming time to ensure we have the balanced economic growth all Members want.

One for everybody in the audience.

To what extent is the small and medium enterprise sector assisted by technology and innovation? The Minister might also comment on the degree to which such enterprises can boost their opportunities and competitiveness through technology and innovation and the extent to which he expects this to be of benefit to them in the future.

This is not directly my area of responsibility. The Minister of State, Deputy English, is the expert on this. However, I am aware that Ireland has in the recent past ranked highest in terms of draw down of innovation vouchers from the European Union. Horizon 2020 is a significant element of that, ensuring that Irish companies continue to invest in research and innovation.

Having led trade missions abroad with Enterprise Ireland I know the Irish SME sector is hugely respected in terms of innovation and technology. Given the know-how that we have developed in this area over a long period and the supports provided for industry by Enterprise Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland and our third level institutions we have a strong platform in our SME sector. We have the know-how and the skills but we need to keep a close eye on this area and ensure that we target technological investment into our SMEs because that gives them an added competitive advantage when competing for business nationally and internationally. I would be very confident that the SME sector in Ireland is very technologically advanced and well positioned to continue to take advantage of European and international opportunities for funding and growth.

Science Foundation Ireland Remit

Denis Naughten

Question:

9. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation the steps he is taking to ensure that Science Foundation Ireland continues to fund basic fundamental scientific research; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48001/14]

The Government housing strategy is to supply 110,000 houses over the next six years. What is the possibility of this being achieved without training of bricklayers in this country? This is the policy now being implemented by Government in relation to its science strategy. Without basic research we cannot have applications. Electricity and the light bulb were not invented by incremental improvements in the candle. What the Government is doing is putting investment into improving the candle rather than coming up with new initiatives.

I know that Deputy Naughten is a scientist and that, if I am not mistaken, he has done seminal work on science in education.

The Minister and I will fundamentally disagree anyway.

I do not accept the premise of the Deputy's question. We are not turning our back on basic research, rather we are insisting that basic research be oriented towards our strengths.

The remit of Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, since its establishment has been to fund oriented basic research in strategic areas concerned with the future development and competitiveness of industry and enterprise in the State. Its remit was extended last year with the enactment of the Industrial Development (Science Foundation Ireland) (Amendment) Act 2013 to enable it to fund applied research while continuing to fund oriented basic research in strategic areas of opportunity for the State. The amended legislation enables Science foundation Ireland to take the outcomes of oriented basic research closer to market.

The Deputy will be aware that the functions of SFI are to develop and extend capability for the carrying out of oriented basic research; to promote attraction to Ireland of world-class researchers and research teams; to provide funding for oriented basic research, as well as applied research; to enter collaborative arrangements with international partners and to provide funding to promote the study of education in and awareness of science. SFI reviews its funding mechanisms on an ongoing basis against international benchmarking in the context of strategic priorities and technological foresight.

We recently funded 12 centres for research that are based on world-class science. The first test is that they are science of the first order and the second test is that they are relevant to areas where Ireland can build competitive strength. In an environment of constrained resources we must ensure that areas of investment have a connection to the areas from which will arise opportunities of commercialising that investment. As I said, oriented basic research is necessary but it must be oriented towards those areas where we can build a competitive edge.

I accept what the Minister is saying and I have no difficulty with the principle of a substantial amount of funding going into that particular avenue. In my view, however, we are now putting all of our eggs in the one basket. A number of years ago the IRFU tried to close down Connacht Rugby on the basis of the west of Ireland not having the required capacity or strengths in relation to rugby. Had it succeeded, we would not have had the performances over the past number of weeks by the Connacht Rugby team. The Government appears to be taking the same attitude in relation to SFI funding. Most developed economies, including Austria which has a population similar to that of Ireland, are spending double the amount of money we are spending in research, with one third of that funding going into basic research of new ideas to develop capacity and strengths within those economies.

I do not accept that all of our eggs are in one basket. There are many other avenues through which funding is provided, including the Irish Research Council, the Department of Education and Skills and Horizon 2020, through which €1.25 billion can be drawn down. Deputy Naughten cited the example of Connacht Rugby. We must look at areas in which Ireland can perform well. We have placed our bets in areas such as data analytics, nanotechnology, advanced materials, marine, food and food for health, all of which are areas that are important to our enterprise base. These are areas of world-class research in which we are breaking new ground but they are also areas that are relevant. Any team that is building must look at how it can build competitive strengths to enable it beat the opposition. That is what Connacht Rugby has done very effectively, as we now know.

We believe we are doing exactly what the Deputy is asking that we do, namely, we are building competitive strengths in areas where Ireland can be world class. The evidence indicates that we have done better than most countries in terms of the ranking we hold in respect of the impact of our investment in research.

I have no problem with support and investment in Ulster, Leinster or Munster rugby but Connacht Rugby cannot be ignored. That is what is happening. We are ignoring basic research. I accept that there is funding available from Europe, which is the usual answer trotted out. What is being done in this area is akin to asking a ten year old child to by-pass second level education and go straight into university. Unless researchers have access to funding in Ireland to enable them build up basic capacity they will not be able to tap into the European funding available. Is it not the case that one of the reasons Ireland is dropping in the university rankings is because we are not publishing scientific papers? Given the manner in which research funding is now tied up with commercial issues the capacity of universities to publish scientific papers is limited.

Will the Minister look again at the abolition of the post of chief scientific adviser? What has been done within the scientific community is akin to appointment of the CEO of the HSE as chief medical officer to the Government. This would not work in the health area and will not work in the science area.

In terms of the impact of our research spending across all of the measures, including spin-outs, licences, publications and so on, we are doing extremely well. In comparison with other countries, we are top in terms of the impact per euro we spend. We are exceeding performance in those areas. Key to all of this at the end of the day is employment. We want to ensure that the impact of our research is the creation of good ideas that result in job creation. That is our mandate. This is not a case of good ideas that will remain in laboratories rather it is good ideas that have an impact and result in the creation of employment throughout the country. This is what is driving our thinking. The 14 priority areas are not narrow. They are striving (a) to be world class in research and (b) to be relevant. This is measured through their ability to attract other partners, be they EU partners or industrial partners, which enable them to have an impact.

I believe Mark Ferguson is doing a fantastic job as chief scientific adviser. He is bringing a wealth of experience from the HEI sector, which he is funding on a regular basis, into the implementation of Government policy across all Departments. He has met with officials of various Departments to identify the problems confronting them and to bring that knowledge back into the science arena, which he is helping to fund. I believe he is building a really good connection.

Consumer Protection

Dara Calleary

Question:

10. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation the way in which consumers will be protected from financial detriment following the purchase of a product or service in view of the survey by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission which highlighted significant losses incurred by consumers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48139/14]

What proposals does the Minister have for the report of the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission on the cost of poor customer service and faulty goods which it puts at €500 million a year? That sum would fund many rugby teams and scientists. More importantly, it is money taken out of people's pockets for bad service. This issue needs to be tackled.

Consumer detriment is a measure of the loss experienced by consumers where they have cause to complain about a product or service. The study referred to by the Deputy examines the number and range of problems across the whole economy, as well as in specific sectors. It is the first time a study of this size and scope has been conducted in Ireland. This is an important benchmark study which will help the new Competition and Consumer Protection Commission to identify the problems affecting consumers and to focus its resources on areas of most importance.

Benchmark figures included in the report show that the majority, about two thirds, of consumers do take action when they have a problem, with a significant number of issues being resolved. The majority of consumers also feel confident and knowledgeable of their consumer rights. Clearly, it is an aim of public policy to improve on the benchmark established for consumer detriment.

The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission is continuing to combat consumer detriment. Examples of its work include the ongoing car clocking investigations, an examination of unfair terms in consumer contracts and direct engagement with business. Its consumer helpline dealt with over 50,000 calls in the past year from consumers who had experienced a problem

This is an important study and will be a benchmark. Clearly, the figures are of concern, with 44% of consumers reporting they had experienced consumer detriment. We need to get that figure down. The cost is estimated at €209 per person surveyed, which comes to €500 million a year. There is a significant target for improved work by the commission to focus on and build a stronger market that defends consumers more effectively.

This is a welcome report, but it is key that the consumer protection side of the commission stand up and use it. When one drills down, everyone can identify with the fact that one in ten consumers who responded to the survey spent more than ten hours trying to solve a problem. Up to 50% of the issues were never actually resolved. I challenge anyone not to identify with the statistic that 16% of respondents had a problem with telephone, Internet or television providers. In second place came financial services, with a figure of only 7%, which I thought would be much higher. Banks are pulling out of communities they once served, restricting remaining services and imposing larger charges for basic services. Nothing has been done, however, to tackle this issue. We have sat back and allowed it to happen, even though the Government is the main shareholder in many of the banks. Is the Minister confident that consumer protection legislation is robust enough to deal with these issues? Is it robust enough to deal with the new way many consumers access services, particularly online and through providers outside the jurisdiction? What plans does he have to examine these issues?

We have a consultation paper on proposed legislation to consolidate and update consumer laws. We have received some responses which we will examine. This will assist us in developing new legislation. We need to continue to focus relevant information on consumers. It is encouraging that 80% of consumers inquire about services or products and shop around. We have, therefore, a more discerning consumer.

Some of the negative aspects lie with the businesses involved. Up to 19% of businesses did nothing at all when contacted, while 46% of the issues raised remained unresolved. There are areas for improvement and the report will be a useful bedrock in this regard. Compliance with the law is one matter, but creating a culture within enterprise that sees quality of service to the consumer as one of the best ways of building loyalty and the retention of consumers is important, too. This research has some salutary lessons as to how businesses are responding to consumer complaints in practice. The report is a valuable benchmark on which we can build.

With the consultation paper, what plans does the Minister have for making legislation more relevant to Internet purchasing, giving consumer rights and protection to those who buy over the Internet who then have problems because, unknown to them at the time they purchased, the provider was based outside the jurisdiction? Is there any work under way at EU level to give EU-wide protection to consumers who purchase online and businesses to provide a better online customer service which often can be poor?

There are two EU directives which have been adopted and will improve the ability of those who buy on the Internet to take a complaint across all 28 member states in a uniform way. That legislation is in train and will be transposed in Ireland. Increasingly, people are migrating to the Internet as a way of trading. This legislation, accordingly, is designed to keep track with this. It will also be a theme in the updating of consumer legislation, bearing in mind the changed environment in which a lot of trade occurs.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.