I thank the Senators present for their best wishes in my new role as Minister of State with responsibility for employment and small businesses. I listened to all the contributions today and the Senators raised issues which I will take on board. These are important issues and some were dealt with by the Minister, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, on 16 June.
I do not have an update for Senator Davitt on the Imperial Tobacco manufacturing facility but we are making inquiries at the moment. If I can do so, I will update the House before the end of my contribution. Obviously, the announcement has just been made. I assure Senators that IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland will do all they can to ensure that replacement jobs are put in place, especially after the visit of the Minister, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, this morning. Furthermore, the Department of Social Protection will assist employees who have lost their jobs.
We have made considerable progress in recent years on job creation. Employment continues to grow strongly. In the year ended March 2016, some 47,600 additional jobs were created in the country. What is important about these jobs is that most of them are full-time. Unemployment is falling. In May 2016, unemployment fell to 7.8% from a high of 15.1% in 2012. Part of the reason is because our competitiveness is improving. Of course the events of this week will change that somewhat especially in respect of exports, and some Senators mentioned that today. Senator Daly mentioned the issue of exports with particular reference to exports to the UK.
In the latest IMD World Competitiveness Center ranking Ireland is ranked seventh, an improvement of nine places from last year. However, as many Senators have pointed out this afternoon, there are challenges ahead. Obviously, the more we get the unemployment figure down, the more difficult it is to take those people out of unemployment.
We need to ensure that all our urban and rural communities are benefiting. That point was highlighted by many Senators today. We need to know that communities are improving as a result of the overall economic performance. The development of vibrant and competitive regions is the key priority for the Government. That is why the Action Plan for Jobs includes eight regions specifically selected. IDA Ireland is targeting a minimum increase of 30% to 40% in the number of investments in each of these regions.
Senator Landy and Senator Grace O'Sullivan highlighted the south east and the problems there. I am conscious of that matter and I assure Senators that the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, the Minister, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, and myself, along with the development agencies, will focus on ensuring that region is prioritised in the time ahead because we cannot have an imbalance. We must ensure every region is getting jobs to realise balanced regional development. I am very conscious of that and it is something we have spoken about in the Department.
It is important to ensure an adequate supply of first-class property solutions to attract investment to the country. Up to €100 million is being made available to Enterprise Ireland to fund three regional competitive calls. Two of these funding calls have already been launched while a third broader competitive regional call is being rolled out on a phased basis. We are continuing to work with stakeholders to implement the regional action plans for jobs. That is something we are constantly doing. Of course, the Action Plan for Jobs is important for the entire country. It is not simply a question of having a strategy. It is in place and there is full transparency because it is led by Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach. Every quarter, the Secretaries General meet to outline the progress being made in all the regions. There is real action in this area.
We will continue to work with stakeholders to implement the Action Plan for Jobs. A key priority of this Government is to get people back to work. Most Senators have mentioned that this afternoon. The Action Plan for Jobs complements the Government's pathways to work strategy. The strategy set out actions to be taken in support of all those who are currently unemployed. Its main aim is to help the unemployed to access the labour market and new opportunities. The Intreo offices throughout the country are playing an important role in that area.
I want to visit the Intreo offices to see how they work in conjunction with the various other agencies and Departments.
The Department and its agencies work primarily to support enterprises to create jobs. We also work across Government to combat and reduce unemployment. The Department oversees the enterprise agencies protocol, which ensures Government offices at local and regional level work together to maximise live register recruitment into enterprise agency client companies. We will continue to work across Government to ensure all of those who want a job are equipped with the skills to get one. This is extremely important and is probably more important now as employment figures fall, which is why we want to focus on it and on the quality of employment.
Almost four out of every five part-time workers work part-time by choice, which is an interesting statistic. Women are more likely to work part-time than men. In the first quarter of 2016, almost 70% of part-time workers were women. This point was raised by a number of Senators, including Senator Higgins. The Low Pay Commission is examining why so many women are on the minimum wage but it will not have a report on it until late October. Its report on the minimum wage will be made in the third week of July. It is also examining sub-minimum wage workers. It has been given extra responsibilities to examine this and it is important to have these statistics. Senator Higgins also mentioned other areas. I might not have the answers here today but we will try to get back to the Senator on this, if she does not mind. While the number of part-time workers increased by 3.7% in the year to the end of March 2016, the number of underemployed part-time workers fell by 13.7%. Part-time underemployment among women fell by 15.1% and it is important to see this trend continue. This is something of which we and the agencies are all very conscious.
Ireland has a comprehensive suite of employment rights legislation and some Senators spoke about this. The Minister, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, made reference to it in her contribution. We strongly protect those who want to work on a part-time or temporary basis. In the area of zero and low-hour contracts, as the Minister, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, mentioned in her opening statement, the Government is working on the University of Limerick study carried out by Dr. O'Sullivan at the Kemmy Business School. I and the officials have been dealing with it every day. We want to introduce legislation on this. This is an independent report, so we take on board what it says but, at the same time, the Department must be very conscious of a balance to ensure we sustain jobs while protecting employees. We must get a balance between these. It is important to sustain these jobs while, at the same time, protect low-paid employees. We are working on this and I hope that in the next Dáil session, we will have progress and legislation in this area. We want to work with all of the political parties on this.
It was essential that stakeholders were given an opportunity to consider and respond to the report and a number of submissions from employees and employers were received. Employees were looking at it one way and employers another but we must get the balance in the middle. The large number of submissions received through the public consultation on the study require careful consideration by the Department and will inform the policy response to be considered by the Government. I assure the House this will be done and we will not just sit on it. We will work on it. It is an important area and something we must get right. It is my responsibility and I will work with the officials on it.
As the Minister of State with responsibility for small businesses, I am very much aware of the challenges they face. This has been highlighted today by many of the Senators. Small businesses are the backbone of our economy and they are extremely important. Foreign direct investment is also extremely important. In the regions, foreign direct investment goes to the hubs but the SMEs are very important. This is where the Action Plan for Jobs and the local enterprise offices, LEOs, come in. They have also been referred to by many Senators this afternoon. Through the Action Plan for Jobs, we have made significant progress since 2012 to make it easier for SMEs to do business in Ireland.
Some Senators referred to finance, including Senator Nash who was my predecessor in the job, and I congratulate him on the work he did during his time at the Department. He did great work there and he will contribute very well in the Seanad, particularly on jobs, employment and labour affairs.
The actions we have taken include the disruptive reform to bring more than 300 Government transactions with businesses online by 2017. This will significantly ease the administrative burden on 185,000 businesses, particularly on small businesses and start-ups. We have funded the Enterprise Ireland regional competitive calls to support job creation and entrepreneurialism, innovation and exports. We are reviewing all enterprise research, development and innovation supports to ensure these supports meet the needs of small and early stage firms as well as the needs of larger, established firms.
We are developing a medium-term strategy for the LEOs, which were mentioned by a number of Senators, including Senators Burke and Mulherin. They play a very important role because there is one in every county with two in some. Since the restructuring has been done, they have been very effective. Last year, they created more than 3,500 jobs. As has been pointed out today, they are a one-stop-shop. They have advice for people starting off a business. They also have advice on finance and microfinance works extremely well. Only last week, microfinance interest rates reduced and they reduced more for those working through the LEOs. Microfinance is available for start-up companies through loans of between €2,000 and €25,000.
One of my first jobs as Minister of State was to visit Bloom to see the small firms which have received funding through microfinance and work through the LEOs. These are small companies, particularly in the food area and in rural areas, whether a family chocolate firm or somebody making jams. I was amazed at all the companies at Bloom which availed of the funding. As has been rightly pointed out, these jobs are very important. As Senator Burke stated, ten jobs in a rural area is better than perhaps several hundred in a large urban area. The LEOs have an important role to play and we will examine them and look at what is happening. It is something that is always under review.
One of my first tasks as Minister of State will be to visit the LEOs. I will try to visit as many counties as I can and work with LEOs and local authorities and see what has been happening in the work done by the LEOs, particularly for start-ups and other businesses. A Senator mentioned failed businesses with Enterprise Ireland and this is something that must be examined. I commend the work done by Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and the Department on the creation of jobs in recent years. Some Senators spoke in praise of these agencies. The LEOs are important and we must work very closely with them. This is something I will do as Minister of State.
We will deliver the balance of the original €800 million of funding in the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, to the SME market by end of 2016, subject to demand and sourcing additional funding to support the lending activities of the SBCI into the future. Senator Nash mentioned this. We will also ensure that financial management capability training is available in all local enterprise areas. It is important to ensure we have these training facilities. We will also deliver a range of measures to improve resource efficiency, for example, energy and waste, which is one of the most effective ways for businesses to cut costs. In the challenging environment we have at present, businesses must cut costs, particularly if they are trying to grow.
Many Senators mentioned what happened last week, with the UK about to leave the EU.
In respect of what happened last week with the UK vote to leave the EU, it will be, as has been said, a negotiated withdrawal that is expected to take place over at least two years, so the message from us is that it is business as usual at the moment. Obviously, there will always be volatility, particularly in respect of sterling, but we hope this volatility will level off in the coming months. It is something we must monitor very closely. I know the Minister for Finance is working closely with the Central Bank in this regard. Businesses can continue to trade as normal and people can continue to travel as normal between Ireland and the UK, including Northern Ireland. It is important to point out that the UK has not actually left the EU. Until it formally withdraws from the Union, the UK remains a full member with all its existing rights and obligations.
The Government has adopted an initial contingency framework to map out the key issues that will be most important to Ireland in the coming weeks and months. From an enterprise and jobs perspective, the priority issues identified include British-Irish relations, Northern Ireland, trade, investment, North-South Border impacts, competitiveness and macroeconomic issues, research-innovation funding and energy. Obviously, the Department has carried out risk analysis in this area as well. We will deal with issues in a constructive way as they emerge and recede in the course of negotiations, and we will continue to engage with business and representative organisations as appropriate. I know Enterprise Ireland has spoken to many of its clients in this area, especially those who export to the UK, in respect of looking at how they do business in the UK and possibly diversifying it and looking at leaner ways of doing business. It is also important to ensure these businesses have adequate finance in place.
We have a strong, competitive and open economy. Our ongoing economic recovery is testament to our resilience. We will continue to implement policies that prioritise economic stability, growth and job creation. The main priority to support job creation is ensuring the availability of the required skills and talent base to meet the needs of a growing economy. We will continue to drive export-led growth through co-ordinated efforts to enhance and promote our world-class export base, grow Irish companies, increase entrepreneurial activity, and further develop and embed foreign direct investment here. We will ensure there will be more Enterprise Ireland trade missions to Europe, particularly markets with which we are familiar like Germany and France, as well as new markets.
Access to finance remains critical to business. Perhaps there are problems in my constituency. I know Senator Conway would be aware of that as well. Many companies need finance upfront if they are to buy goods or raw materials but many do not have that ready cash. We will continue to address the availability of credit for firms from microfinance to credit guarantees and from seed and venture capital to development capital. We will also progress actions to maintain and improve competitiveness, increase innovation, stimulate the domestic economy, and increase labour market participation.
As the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation mentioned on the previous day, our Department has commenced work on the 2017 action plan for jobs. The primary objective of the 2017 plan will be to secure the gains already made and keep us on track to deliver sustainable full employment. A very strong economy with full quality employment across all regions, which is very important, and that provides better public services for the people is within our grasp. It is obviously a bit more difficult after what happened last week but it is something we can achieve if we make the right choices. I think the Government has been doing that and has steadied the ship since the Brexit vote.
I think I was asked by Senator Daly for an update on job losses. Which Senator was it?