Adjournment Debate

Passport Applications

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for this, my first opportunity to speak on the Adjournment and, indeed, to ask questions of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. I wish the Minister well in his reappointment to his post and look forward to working with him and his departmental officials during the lifetime of this Dáil.

I pay tribute to and thank all those who work in the Passport Office with whom my office has almost daily dealings. It can be a place of frayed nerves and anxiety for the public, usually due to time constraints, deadlines and a fear that a holiday, business trip or sometimes unforeseen need to travel will not happen. That said, the integrity and security of passports should never be compromised to expedite a person's needs. I was informed, prior to becoming a Member of this House, to expect a spike in passport requests. As a newbie, as it were, I certainly can testify to that.

The holiday season may be upon us, but my issue relates to recently announced changes in the passport service by the Department effective from 29 March 2016. These changes relate to the requirement for first-time applicants for passports aged 18 and over and who are resident in Ireland to have public service cards, PSCs, for identification purposes and also the requirement to have PSCs for applications from adults whose passports were issued prior to 2005 and which have since been reported lost, stolen or damaged.

In the past two weeks, my office has been inundated with calls from regular and late or delayed requests for urgent passports, but I am beginning to experience the new PSC requirement as posing an even more difficult problem. I believe the problem will be further exacerbated unless the Passport Office takes a number of proactive steps to highlight further the need for the PSCs in the categories I mentioned.

I will give an example of the anxiety experienced during the past week by an 18 year old schoolgirl looking forward to a school trip abroad. She had applied to the Passport Office in good time and answered all the questions on the official passport application. However, her application was returned to her unprocessed six days before her departure date and she was informed by the Department of Social Welfare that the processing of the public services card would take an average of seven working days. While I understand the delay in processing the public services card due to the photo matching process, this schoolgirl may not be able to travel with her friends on the school trip.

While I am aware of the uniqueness of every passport application form, in that it has a bar code system, what steps has the Minister taken to withdraw all the old application forms from Garda stations, post offices, libraries and the Passport Office? Are the updated forms that highlight the new requirements and change it available in these locations? Citizens are still completing the old forms, unaware of the changes, unless they happen to consult the Passport Office website, and their bona fide applications are being returned with insufficient time to secure the valid passport due to the need for the public service card.

Is there a new passport application form with the new rules on it? Will the Minister consider relaxing the two rules for a specified period in order to enable the public to be better informed about the process? Will he ensure all places where passport application forms are available will conduct proactive advertising campaigns in conjunction with the Passport Office on the needs of the public services card when applying under the two categories I have mentioned? Finally, bearing in mind that 50% of our population have public services cards, equating to 2 million people, and that projections from the Department of Social Protection estimate that an additional 1 million people will apply for the card in the near future, surely there is a job of work for both Departments to give more attention to the need for the card and alleviate all additional stress on those needing passports or other services into the future.

I thank Deputy Breathnach for raising this important issue. The Irish Passport Office, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as its parent Department, are committed to ongoing reform and innovation to enhance and protect the integrity of the Irish passport booklet. Our passport booklet is widely recognised as being one of the most secure in the world. Protecting its reputation and, in the broad sense, protecting Irish citizens, requires ongoing reform to guard against passport fraud and identity theft. This House will be well aware that in today's modern world, criminals are highly mobile and their criminal empires can straddle national borders. There is a duty and an obligation on the State to guard against passport fraud, identity theft and ensure the measures we have in place are appropriate and effective.

Since 29 March 2016, my Department has required all first-time passport applicants who are resident in Ireland and are over 18 years of age to hold a valid public services card. The decision to use the public services card as a key step in establishing the identity of adults applying for a passport for the first time is in line with a Government decision of July 2005 which approved, in principle, the use of the public services card for identity verification by all public bodies. This new requirement also applies to the small number of adult applicants whose last passport was issued before 1 January 2005 and which is reported as lost, stolen or damaged. The measure is an important step in the fight against fraud and identity theft, and in our overall efforts to protect the integrity of the Irish passport. It will ensure the identity of first-time applicants for Irish passports is further verified to a high standard.

The public services card is used increasingly as an efficient and secure means to access Government services, including social welfare services, and for the purposes of free travel. Already more than 1.8 million public services cards are in circulation. This new requirement was announced by my Department on 10 March and received extensive press coverage. Information notices have been posted in the Passport Offices In Dublin and Cork, as well as in Department of Social Protection offices, to advise customers they will be required to present a public services card when applying for a passport. These information notices were also circulated to all Garda stations. My Department's website advises first time applicants of the requirement for this card and answers frequently asked questions.

However, I am conscious that we should avail of any and every opportunity to highlight this new measure and I would be grateful for the assistance of Members of the Oireachtas in this regard. I thank Deputy Breathnach for his initiative in raising the issue in the House. In the coming days I will circulate guidance in respect of passport application procedures and I will include a notice about the passport application and renewal process, including the public services card requirements, that Deputies might display in constituency offices throughout the country. The new requirement to hold a valid public services card dispenses with previous photo identification requirements for passport purposes such as a certified copy of a driving licence or college identification. It also dispenses with the requirement for proof of name.

As I mentioned, there are more than 1.8 million public services cards in circulation, but where a person does not have a public services card and falls into the category of people requiring one for passport purposes, he or she can apply for the card through a secure process of face-to-face registration at the offices of the Department of Social Protection. There, customers will be required to produce relevant documents to complete the public services card registration. An online appointment booking service is available at www.mywelfare.ie. The new measure applies only to first time adult applicants and in cases of passports issued before 1 January 2005 which are lost, stolen or damaged. It does not apply in the case of applications for renewals of passports or to applications for children.

I will take this opportunity to highlight an important message about applying for passports. Turnaround time for passports can vary depending on seasonal and other factors. This year we are experiencing a very significant and sustained rise in the demand for passports. Among the reasons are a projected significant increase in outbound travel from Ireland. This surge is putting major pressure on the Passport Office and we have taken mitigating steps. It is best practice for prospective travellers to check the expiry date on their passports well before booking a trip.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

It is particularly important to keep an eye on the validity for children's passports given that it is shorter than for adults. For first time applications, prospective travellers should allow at least six weeks for the passport to be processed due to the additional security measures pertaining to first time applications. It is essential that passport applications are properly completed and any support documentation replied is included. Of course, we will do all we can to ensure that cases of genuine emergency are dealt with. There is a huge amount of information available on the Passport Office website and on its Twitter account and I would urge the public to consult my Department’s website for information on passports and for travel advice.

Transport Policy

I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Ross, on his appointment. It is great to have two residents of County Wicklow at the Cabinet table. I also congratulate Deputy Andrew Doyle on his appointment as Minister of State. Surely, we will have no problems in Wicklow from now on. I remember the Minister, Deputy Ross, attending Fine Gael meetings in my hotel in Glendalough when he was the chosen one for Fine Gael for Wicklow. It is nice to see that, once again, he has become the anointed one.

The Minister will appreciate my concerns and worries. In his time as a public representative in County Wicklow, transport infrastructure was a live issue, and he will be able to directly relate to this crucial element of Wicklow's development. Who writes the rules of the game? Heretofore, it was said that transport for an area was planned by regional and county planners, considering national spatial factors and other factors, and then the National Transport Authority, NTA, delivered the transport infrastructure. From reading the strategy, it is strongly evident that the NTA believes it is setting the rules on spatial planning for regional and county planning. This is a game changer, and destroys the ability of county and regional authorities to develop in a planned and strategic manner.

The Minister has a track record of tackling unaccountable institutions and I hope he will continue in that vein, now that he has the power of a Cabinet position.

The Minister has referred to the staff in Departments as mandarins. I assure him that, on foot of my interaction with those employed by the National Transport Authority, NTA, and the National Roads Authority, NRA, they no longer see themselves as mandarins, they actually think they are gods.

This document clearly does not serve the requirements for the development of the greater Dublin area. It is more suitable as a Dublin metropolitan strategy. The recently published programme for Government commits to rural development and urban regeneration. We need to fulfil both those needs in County Wicklow. This national transport plan destroys the ability to do so.

Wicklow, as the Minister is aware, has always suffered due to its proximity to Dublin and this has become more evident now as we continue to pile 22,000 people, or 42% of the workforce, on to the N11 and N81 daily, causing major implications for traffic. Wicklow needs to achieve a self-sustaining jobs ratio of 65% to 70% of its working population. This ambition feeds the objectives in the draft Wicklow county development plan, which is consistent with regional planning guidelines, is backed by the local economic and community plan and is supported by the Regional Action Plan for Jobs. Again, this Government has set a target of there being 135,000 jobs outside Dublin by 2020.

The sole purpose of the plan is to address the issue of self-sustaining job ratios but the NTA has no regard for this objective and wishes to escalate the problem more by continuing to drive economic growth into the Dublin metropolitan area at the expense of the Wicklow, Kildare and Meath. The NTA states with respect to lands that are not approximate to the existing committed public transport infrastructure that no significant development should happen on those sites and the distance mentioned is 2 km. The Minister knows the geography of Wicklow very well and I ask him what implications this will have on economic development. All of Wicklow's train stations, with the exception of that in Rathdrum, are located on the coast. There is nothing within a 2 km radius of Bray available without developing the Fassaroe site. The proposed extension of the Luas line has been dropped from this flawed strategy and Greystones, Wicklow town and Arklow will all lose out because of the lack of available land. As for west Wicklow, there is no mention of it in the strategy. It has been completely forgotten.

Another example in this context is that of the film industry. It was identified as a unique industry to Wicklow where Wicklow plays a strong role nationally and has two major studios at Bray and Ashford. After significant evidenced-based research and analysis, the future needs of this industry were identified in the appropriate zoning adjoining the current studio in Ashford, which is proposed in the current draft county development plan.

I must ask the Deputy to conclude.

That is an example of evidenced-based strategic planning that benefits everybody. Who does not want it to happen? The NTA is determined to demolish this plan. One might ask why is that the case? It is to protect the carrying capacity of the N11.

I thank the Deputy.

I just want to add a final comment.

No, the Deputy cannot do so. I must be fair to everybody. I call the Minister to respond.

I thank the Deputy for his kind remarks and congratulations. I am not quite as grateful to him for reminding me of my past, which I have been trying to hide in recent days and for a very long time. I suspect the Fine Gael Party regards it as a chapter in its past of which it is not particularly proud either-----

The Minister is back home.

-----but today we are where we are and we are happy where we are.

Deputy Casey is correct. I find a great deal sympathy with what he said because I am a native of Wicklow. My mother, many of my relations and I still live there. I will address this in a different manner in the future. I will look at it as a native who is very familiar with the problems the Deputy is discussing because of my associations there.

The critical eye with which I have looked upon the agencies to which the Deputy is referring remains but I am certainly not going to say anything rash or foolish in these early days in office. I am simply reading myself in with regard to the NTA and other agencies and what they do and say. I will be meeting representatives from those agencies in the next ten days.

One of the key functions of the NTA, under section 11 of the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008, is to "undertake strategic planning of transport". In carrying out this function, the Transport Strategy for the Greater Dublin Area 2016-2035 was prepared by the NTA in accordance with the relevant legislative provisions, primarily section 12 of the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008. The NTA consulted widely in preparing the transport strategy. As well as consulting all local authorities during the preparation of the strategy, the process also included two public consultation phases, one at the commencement of the preparatory work and a second in respect of the details of the draft strategy.

The purpose of the strategy is to provide a framework for the planning and delivery of transport infrastructure and services in the greater Dublin area over the next two decades. The greater Dublin area covers the four Dublin administrative areas as well as Kildare, Meath and Wicklow. In preparing the strategy the NTA is required to have regard to a number of matters. These include: the national spatial strategy; demographic and transport trends across the greater Dublin area; the national plan for capital investment, Building on Recovery: Infrastructure and Capital Investment 2016-2021; local authorities' development plans; and the regional planning guidelines for the region prior to their replacement with a regional spatial and economic strategy.

Of particular significance are the regional planning guidelines for the region. It is a specific requirement of the legislation that the NTA ensures that the transport strategy is consistent with the regional planning guidelines and subsequently with their replacement - the regional spatial and economic strategy. The NTA does not have statutory responsibility for land use planning in the region. The is the role of the local authorities, the regional assemblies and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government at a national policy level. This is fully recognised and stated in the transport strategy, which also states that the "role of the Strategy is to establish the framework for transport provision necessary to achieve the land use vision set out in the Regional Planning Guidelines".

As required under the legislation, the NTA liaised with the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly during the preparation of the transport strategy. Following consideration of the draft transport strategy by the regional assembly, it provided confirmation that the draft transport strategy was considered with the regional planning guidelines for the greater Dublin area.

Many of the existing planning and transport problems across the greater Dublin area, which have resulted in unsustainable patterns of commuting and increasing congestion, stem from a lack of integration between planning and land use. It is important that a much more integrated approach is developed between these two areas, both now and into the future. Existing legislation seeks to achieve this by requiring, on a statutory basis, consistency between strategic transport planning, in the form of the transport strategy, and regional level land use planning, currently in the form of the regional planning guidelines which will be replaced by a regional spatial and economic strategy.

The Minister's time has elapsed. The balance of his reply will be included in the Official Report.

That is fine.

Additional Information not given on the floor of the House

The transport strategy does not seek to limit jobs development in Wicklow or to reduce the jobs to population ratio envisaged for the county. For the purposes of the transport strategy, the NTA was required to devise a reasonable forecast of both population and employment, and their distributions, that is likely to pertain in the horizon year, 2035. This forms one of the inputs into the strategic transport model, a tool which assesses the impacts of the strategy's proposals. As such, it is part of a transport planning technique, and has no bearing on the spatial planning policies that may be pursued by the regional assembly or a local authority. However, it is worth noting that the inputs to that strategic transport model do envisage that employment levels in County Wicklow will increase by approximately 38% by 2035, when compared with the last census year for which data was available, which was 2011. If employment levels rise above this, the transport strategy can adapt to that through the provision of additional transport services or the earlier development of the infrastructure provisions. In addition, the strategy is subject to reviews and updates every six years and at each review point adjustments can be made to reflect the relevant circumstances at that time.

Job Retention

I thank the Ceann Comhairle, sa chéad dul síos, for allowing Deputy Healy and I to raise this matter on the Adjournment. The risk of job losses in Suir Pharma is a body blow for the workers concerned. The workers in Clonmel have been aware that things are not going well for a number of weeks. I was contacted by them approximately three weeks ago but I could get no engagement from the company. There are 134 jobs at stake and the High Court appointed a liquidator this week. That is a big blow.

This company has been in Clonmel for more than 40 years. It started off in Old Bridge. I salute the entrepreneurs who set it up, the visionaries and the different companies - of which there were many - that owned it over the years. Suir Pharma has had several owners since it came into existence. Last year it was sold to a Slovakian group, Saneca Pharmaceuticals, by Munich restructuring company Mutares for an undisclosed amount. That is the where I believe the kernel of the problem lies. That company is not engaged in pharmaceuticals; it is involved in speculation, as it were, because it is an investment company.

We do not know where or what. The competition authority is toothless and negligent here and I will be bringing forward a Private Members' Bill on that. Companies like this, with a fantastic workforce for over 40 years, cannot treat their workers like this. It is shameful and downright wrong. I salute the pharmaceutical and other industries in Clonmel, which we are fortunate to have. They have provided good employment over the years and good business for Clonmel and Tipperary and County Waterford, but an attack on and plundering of a viable and valuable company by vulture companies and funds is happening. The workers are being treated appallingly and we need stronger legislation to ensure that they cannot just be told on a Monday night having had their wages paid 24 hours early that the company is running for cover, going to the High Court, seeking a winding up and turfing the workers out on the road. The valuable service they have given, their families and their communities deserve better than that. It must not be allowed. I appeal to the Minister to get her departmental agencies, the IDA and Enterprise Ireland, involved to deal with the company. There are still 30 jobs on the site at Clonmel Chemicals which has a planning application in for a new warehouse. There is a viable industry here. We must bring in legislation to stop this ransacking. It has happened in other areas in Tipperary and other parts of the country. Companies are not interested and are treating people and communities appallingly.

The staff at Suir Pharma in Clonmel were treated appallingly by this company. I met some of them at lunchtime on Tuesday and they were shocked at the difficulties which had arisen and the fact that the company had gone to the High Court at 11 o'clock that morning, appointed a provisional liquidator and had that person on the site with his security people before lunchtime. Many of the workers have been with the company since it was founded 43 years ago at the Gashouse Bridge in Clonmel and they have given huge and loyal service. The manner in which they have been treated is appalling. In effect, this was done behind their backs and they now face the loss of their jobs and of being paid only statutory redundancy.

There is a huge problem in relation to the takeover of this company by Sanika less than 12 months ago. I ask the Minister to investigate the situation whereby this purchase of the company appears to be of a predatory nature and with the sole purpose of closing Suir Pharma. I ask the Minister not only to look into that but to tell the House whether the company notified the State agencies as to the difficulties it said were there. If so, when did it do that and what action did the State agencies take? Did the company avail of grants from the State agencies and the Department and, if so, will those grants be repaid? Will the Minister ensure that this type of predatory purchasing by foreign companies will be stopped and that the workers will get reasonable redundancy terms? They are only being offered statutory redundancy and, indeed, it appears the State will have to pay it. The workers are entitled to decent and fair redundancy payments having provided service over the years.

I thank Deputy Mattie McGrath and Deputy Seamus Healy for giving me the opportunity to speak on this matter. I am very conscious of the impact of this on the affected workers at the Suir Pharma plant in Clonmel and on their families as they now face an uncertain future. The Government regrets very much that these jobs will be lost. It will be a significant blow for Clonmel and the surrounding area. Unfortunately for long-standing centres of pharmaceutical production like Clonmel, the wider pharmaceutical industry is undergoing significant upheaval in terms of changing trends and technological developments. There has been a significant incidence of mergers and takeovers which has contributed to surplus capacity internationally. In addition, the advent of bio-pharmaceutical products and a move away from large volume production of some traditional medicine types which are being replaced by lower volume niche products with more specialised applications has led to disruption in the industry.

This contract manufacturing company in Clonmel has gone through several changes of ownership over recent years. Hopes were high for a stable future when the previous German owners sold it to Sanika Pharmaceuticals, a Slovakian based company, last summer. Unfortunately, the new owners have faced significant financial challenges in recent times and decided they cannot continue to support the operations any longer. In all such cases and despite our best efforts, the ultimate decision rests with the company which will make such a strategic decision in the best interests of wider company objectives. Through the IDA, my Department has engaged intensively with the company to seek a plan for a sustainable future. Just last month, my predecessor, Deputy Richard Bruton, discussed the issue with a senior executive of the company. However, the owners maintained they could not keep the operation going.

I have asked the IDA to pursue identifying a new buyer for the plant actively and the agency will work proactively with the liquidator in that regard. The IDA will highlight the attractions of this facility for its existing client companies and potential new investors. It is encouraging that several companies have already visited the facility and we hope further interest will be generated. In addition to the IDA's efforts, I have arranged that Enterprise Ireland will assess whether the facility would be of interest to any of its client companies. I am keen to ensure that the resources of the State are put at the disposal of the employees to ensure that they are easily able to avail of relevant services. I have therefore arranged that the inter-agency group which was established following the Ranbaxy closure in Cashel will now work to assist the Suir Pharma employees regarding entitlements and training opportunities. It will also help them to pursue new employment opportunities.

I appreciate fully that it has been a mixed time for the pharmaceutical sector in south Tipperary. Regrettably, the Ranbaxy plant in Cashel closed some time ago, but we have had notable success with the IDA to deliver a new investor for the former Johnson and Johnson plant in Cashel with the arrival of Amneal. That company is now building up its workforce and hopes to employ approximately 300 staff when full production is reached in due course. That has been a very positive development in the region. It is particularly notable that the medical technology sector has a very strong presence in south Tipperary thanks to the work of the IDA with both Abbot Ireland, which employs more than 1,100 staff, and Boston Scientific, which employs over 800, having a very positive economic impact. The Government is only too well aware of the discrepancy in growth between the major urban areas and the less populated regions. As a result, we launched last year a regional Action Plan for Jobs. The purpose of the initiative is to identify a range of actions aimed at facilitating each region to achieve its economic potential. The Government will pursue job creation initiatives in Cashel and the IDA will continue to seek and attract other investors.

Job Retention

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important matter. I welcome the new Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to the House.

Last Tuesday, the workforce of the Roche plant in Clarecastle received confirmation from representatives of its corporate headquarters that talks with a prospective purchaser that had been ongoing for nearly six months had ended without agreement. The breakdown in the protracted talks leaves an uncertain future for the plant and the 240 people directly employed there as well as the large number of contractors who also work there.

The news was unexpected. All indications from the negotiations were positive and it was widely understood that a deal would be concluded and, in turn, the plant's future and the valuable employment it had provided for more than four decades would be secured. More than two months ago, Roche Ireland signed a letter of intent with the prospective purchasers that tied the two parties into a period of sole negotiation. The two commercial companies also signed confidentiality clauses around the negotiations. Given the ramifications of a failure to close the deal when it seemed done, many questions must be asked. Since they have not been answered by Roche, the company has an obligation to come clean to the workers and explain why the deal failed, but that has not happened. At the very least, Roche must inform the Department and the IDA of why the deal collapsed. This information is critical and its disclosure could be vital in providing a way forward for the plant.

Since the news broke, I have spoken with many workers, their families and people in the community. There is shock and despair. I have spoken at length with Roche's managing director in Clarecastle, I have met the Minister and her Department's officials, and I met the IDA today. It is critical that every effort be made by the IDA, in conjunction with Roche, to identify a new buyer for the plant. It is critical that every resource be available by the Department to help in finding a solution.

A great deal of change has occurred in the pharma sector in recent years and there has been a move away from the traditional method of manufacturing, with a focus on producing lower volumes with higher potencies. This transition has resulted in Roche's decision to divest itself of its interests in four plants in Clarecastle, South Carolina, Spain and Italy.

I call on the Minister to direct the IDA to redouble its efforts and to seek a new buyer for the plant relentlessly. Every option should be explored, including the possibility of reopening negotiations with the contract manufacturer that had been engaging with Roche in recent months. Will the Minister travel to Roche's headquarters in Basel with the IDA to impress upon it the need to re-engage fully in the process of seeking a buyer? If Roche is not 100% behind that process, a buyer will not be found.

The importance of this manufacturing plant to the economy of Ennis, Clarecastle, County Clare and the mid-west region cannot be overstated. It is the largest single employer in the greater Ennis area, contributing €20 million to the local economy in salaries alone. Roche has also been a major supporter of community development and is the main sponsor of Clarecastle GAA, the Clarecastle day care centre and many other clubs and voluntary organisations across the county.

I call on the Minister to do everything in her power to ensure that as many jobs as possible are saved at the plant. I look forward to working with her, her officials, the IDA and all public representatives in County Clare to achieve this goal.

I also congratulate my constituency colleague, Deputy Breen, on his elevation to the role of Minister of State with special responsibility for employment and small business. I look forward to working with him in his new role in trying to resolve this important issue.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. He has contacted me numerous times in recent days. My first thoughts are with the affected workers at the Roche plant in Clarecastle and their families as they face an uncertain future. We regret the job losses that may arise. Yesterday's announcement that negotiations for the transfer of the Clarecastle facility to a global pharma company had ended without agreement was disappointing. The factory has been in operation since 1974, providing substantial levels of employment. The company is proposing a gradual wind-down of the operation. Unfortunately, if no buyer is found for the plant, it will be closed fully in 2019.

The pharmaceutical industry is going through a significant upheaval in terms of changing trends and technological developments. The advent of biopharmaceutical products and the move away from large-volume production of some traditional medicine types, to be replaced by lower-volume niche products for more specialised applications, has led to some over-capacity in the industry. Unfortunately, the factory in question was configured and equipped for large-volume production. The company has made a strategic decision to close it, as well as three similar plants in other countries. In all such cases, the ultimate decision rests with the company, which makes a policy decision in the best interests of its objectives.

Since the original decision on divesting the Clarecastle facility was announced in 2015, and availing of the significant wind-down period, IDA Ireland has worked closely with the company to introduce potential buyers. A strong contender was identified and intensive negotiations took place between it and Roche, but just this week the discussions ended without agreement. Unless a new buyer can be found, the factory will close. IDA Ireland will continue to market the facility's attractions to its client companies and potential new investors. The gradual wind-down period will provide a welcome window in which to redouble efforts to pursue this objective.

Despite some localised job losses in the pharma sector in recent years, it is worth pointing out that the sector has adapted well to a fast-changing landscape. Between 2000 and 2015, employment numbers in agency-supported companies in the pharmaceutical and chemical sector increased by 11.5%. In addition, the profile of the Irish industry has changed significantly, with considerable levels of investment by companies. We now have an impressive footprint in the growing pharamaceutical-biopharmaceutical sector. The IDA has achieved considerable successes in the recent past. These include the former Pfizer factory in Cork, now operated by Hovione; another former Pfizer plant in Dún Laoghaire in my constituency, now operated by Amgen; and a further plant in Ringaskiddy that has been taken over by BioMarin. There have also been successes with companies in Athlone and Tullamore. It is of local interest that the former Dell factory in Limerick city was taken over by the pharma company Regeneron, which has been actively recruiting recently.

The Government is only too well aware of the discrepancy in growth between the capital and the regions. As a result, we have developed the regional action plans for jobs, a development that was driven by my predecessor, the current Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton.

Yesterday and today, I undertook a trade and investment mission to Athlone, Sligo and Limerick that was organised by Enterprise Ireland as part of its global sourcing initiatives. The objective is to maximise sale opportunities for Irish small to medium-sized enterprises, SMEs, with multinational companies based in Ireland. The Government's job creation efforts were illustrated in the latest CSO employment data, which show that unemployment rates have fallen to 8.4%.

I met Deputy Carey and the new Minister of State, Deputy Breen, in the Department on Tuesday and I facilitated a meeting between them and the IDA. I also extended an invitation to Deputies Dooley and Harty. That meeting was held in my Department this afternoon and I understand that the four Deputies and the IDA had a useful and detailed exchange of views. The IDA will redouble its efforts to ensure that another buyer is found.

The Dáil adjourned at 6.40 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 24 May 2016.