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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 30 Jun 2016

Vol. 246 No. 9

Delivering Sustainable Full Employment: Statements (Resumed)

I welcome the Minister of State and wish him well in his portfolio. It is no doubt a very challenging one but also a very exciting one to be involved in. Once we have jobs, we can provide services. I welcome and commend the future targets and ambitions set out in the programme for a partnership Government. A commitment is made to reduce the unemployment rate to 6% and to increase the number at work by 200,000 by 2020, 135,000 of those people will be outside Dublin. It is particularly important to specify that jobs will be created outside of Dublin. There has been a lot of frustration in many parts of the country because growth was predominantly in the large urban centres. There are figures showing that the areas outside the big urban centres are coming along. When recovery happens, it is expected to take place in the big urban centres first. The job now is to shunt that out and make sure every area receives appropriate investment, growth and support and that we work on the opportunities and unique selling points of all the different regions around the country.

In the west and County Mayo where I am from, we were hit particularly hard by the collapse of the construction industry. That has not gone away, even though we have had economic recovery, some of which we can see on the ground. I am mindful of the figures which show that at the time of the collapse, one in four men was working in construction in the west compared to one in five in the rest of the country. Many people working in construction may also have had small subsistence farms and needed off-farm income to support families. Much of the west is still reeling from the construction industry collapse and needs help and support. If we do not push out development, investment and jobs everywhere, we will exacerbate the problems with housing, shortage of schools and public services in the big urban centres. It will only get worse. One thing we can say in many of these rural areas in the west is that we can offer a great standard of living and quality of life but people cannot live on fresh air. That is why we have emigration. The challenge in reducing the unemployment rate to 6% by 2020 will be to make sure it is equally reflected in the regions.

I welcome the action plan for jobs for the west region and all the regional action plans. Based on the good work of the national action plan for jobs, it gives us hope that there is a formula to produce those results in job creation and investment. If I was to suggest one important measure for growing small businesses, it would be continued support for the local enterprise offices. If one wants to see results on the ground, the local enterprise offices are closest to the people interested in job creation and who want to grow their businesses on a smaller scale. They can deliver on the Government objective if they are properly funded and supported. They work in conjunction with Enterprise Ireland. We have an excellent local enterprise office in Mayo and similar offices around the country are doing good work. One issue I am aware of, which I ask the Minister of State to look at in the context of the forthcoming budget, is the funding of local enterprise offices. If we do not support them, we are not looking after start-up, small businesses with between one and ten employees. That is when Enterprise Ireland kicks in. They need to be supported because they will, hopefully, lead to further jobs and growth. When someone comes forward with a business proposition, they have business plans and a sustainable proposition and are well vetted. In my area, strides are being made in the food industry and in light engineering and manufacturing. There is definitely scope for more growth if the correct support is given.

Mayo local enterprise office's subvention budget from Enterprise Ireland under measure one is €215,000 for the year. I was quite shocked to hear that. It is money to support jobs and capital investment in micro-industry but it has already been spent and people are already looking for more money. Surely that cannot be the case but it seems it is. The local enterprise office has €200,000 for training. It would seem that the way in which funding is given out does not reflect levels of demand or local economic activity.

Where there is a demand there does not seem to be a provision that they are automatically going to get more money or make a business case for more. I understand that there is a historical process whereby funding is apportioned and it is only slightly weighted for bigger counties. I believe this situation seriously needs to be addressed, especially with regard to the shortfall in their funding. Their money is spent and we have not even hit the half-year market, although we are very close to it.

I would like to see more support for jobs. On the ground I can already see the jobs that have been supported, and more that can come, but they cannot do it without that funding. It does not mean anything to the ordinary small business that money is being given to Enterprise Ireland and to IDA Ireland. This is a very real way to see benefits on the ground and to fulfil our ambition - and the Minister's ambition - to achieve more economic activity and growth in the region. I ask the Minister of State to take this up and I would appreciate if he could get in contact with me about that particular concern.

I invite Senator Grace O'Sullivan to speak for the Civil Engagement group.

A week is a long time in politics, and events over the past few days have certainly proven that old saying. Only one week ago I was considering the new optimism in the air. There was much talk in the media - and indeed in this neck of the woods - of the so-called turnabout in the economy, the abundance of jobs already created, jobs soon to be created and even so-called sustainable jobs. Folk in certain political quarters were giving themselves lots of pats on the back and there was something of an air of celebration creeping about. I do not wish to be the bearer of bad tidings but, fellow Senators, it is high time we took a reality check. With the most obvious impacts of Brexit and the resulting shockwaves across the international money markets, it has become a little more obvious that we cannot be complacent about our own apparent economic recovery.

Only two weeks ago the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, visited this Chamber. I mean no disrespect to the Minister when I say that her visit was a little bit like the annual school visits from the local mayor that I experienced as a child. In her address to the House the Minister spoke of the Government's goal of achieving sustainable full employment. She said:

This Government's goal is to achieve sustainable full employment. We want all people to have the opportunity to enjoy rewarding work. We want to ensure that all people can participate and contribute their full potential to the economy and society.

This is all very laudable. The Minister went on:

The Low Pay Commission will make its next recommendations on the national minimum wage for 2017 in July. Its recommendations must be evidence based. We want a minimum wage that is both fair and sustainable. We want to assist as many low-paid workers as is reasonably practicable without creating significant adverse consequences for employment or competitiveness.

I repeat the Minister's words: "We want to assist as many low-paid workers as is reasonably practicable without creating significant adverse consequences for employment or competitiveness." In other words, the Government might do something for those who need it most but only if it does not cost anything for those who have the most. Does it take a commission to tell us that people living under the current circumstances of the economy cannot survive on the minimum wage? The cost of living is going up and extra charges are creeping in left, right and centre, with the latest fiasco being the bin charges controversy - yet another mismanaged shambles. I wonder about the use of the word "sustainable". It must be asked whether the word, and the concept of it, is open to interpretation? It clearly is - and a very loose interpretation. If the concept of sustainable work was applied according to my understanding, we would be living in a society where employment is moving in a very different direction. As far as I am concerned, a sustainable job is one that would actually sustain a person and a family. A sustainable job is one in which social, environmental and economic needs are addressed and met. A sustainable workforce is one in which people are employed in jobs that not only pay a wage but have their psychological and economic well-being included in the package. A sustainable job is one in which the needs of the employee and his or her family come first. These are pretty basic tenets of sustainability. However, I do not hear much reference to these concepts being bandied about along with the new favourite catchphrase, "sustainable jobs". The sad reality for so many people in this country is that the idea of a sustainable job, or indeed any job, is beyond them.

Consider my home town of Waterford. A recent damning report prepared by two lecturers at Waterford Institute of technology, Dr. Ray Griffin and Dr. Cormac O'Keeffe, shows that Waterford and the south east are at an economic crisis point. Unemployment in the region continues to rise after 25 years of government neglect. Unemployment in the south east is one and a half times higher than the national average, with a stark figure of 1,200 fewer people in employment than six months ago. This is in the wake of the high-profile Action Plan for Jobs, which was launched by the Government last year.

We live in a country in which, increasingly, politics is at a disconnect from the citizens of the land. It is a land where the aspirations, whitewashing and rose-tinted pictures painted by our silver-tongued elected representatives bear no resemblance to the reality faced by so many in this country as they try to cope with the challenge of battling through the slog that is daily survival - the day-to-day and hour-to-hour struggle that is just getting by. We need to bring politics and some sense of real hope back into people's lives. It is our job to represent the citizens of this country. That is our job, folks, so let us get on with it, roll up our sleeves and get it done.

The 30 seconds was meant to be one minute, so I will only need 30 seconds of the remaining time available to our group.

I did not receive any indication of time sharing.

Would it be possible? It literally is just one minute and it is a question.

Acting Chairman (Senator John O'Mahony:)

The time slot has run out. The the Senator will be able to speak when the group's turn comes around again.

I welcome my good friend and colleague the Minister of State, Deputy Breen, and congratulate him on his portfolio. I wish him the very best of success for the future.

Full employment is the goal that the country must aspire to. Full employment can be defined as a situation in which all those willing and able to work are in employment. In 2006, at the height of the Celtic tiger, Ireland had full employment, with the unemployment rate standing at just 4.3%, according to CSO figures. However, at the same time, the construction industry - to which I know Senator Mulherin has already referred - accounted for approximately 20% of GDP, along with being a significant source of employment. We are now aware that the construction industry in Ireland was overextended. Following the economic crisis of 2008-2009 and the sharp rise in unemployment, particularly among construction workers, we know that this level of unemployment was unsustainable. Yes, progress has been made, but the May 2016 figure of 169,700 is far too high. Overall competitiveness must be maintained in the global economy if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Within the overall statistics are a number of problems which, I am glad to say, the Government's Action Plan for Jobs has recognised and prioritised, backed by the OECD. It plans to create 200,000 jobs by 2020. This will reduce the overall unemployment rate to 6%. The proposal to create 135,000 of these jobs outside Dublin is of paramount importance if the regions are to develop and prosper. Also, the encouragement of 70,000 of our diaspora to return home is to be commended. Male unemployment, especially amongst the over 50s, is a serious problem. As a result of the recession, a large number of people who had worked for many years found themselves without a job and with limited prospects of finding another. They want to work and we must invest in skills and training required to encourage them to come back into the workforce.

High rates of taxation have a detrimental effect on job creation. The success of the Irish economy and the large-scale expansion of employment in the 1990s were due to a reorientation of government policy that lowered general taxation in order to promote jobs and investment. I welcome the commitment in the programme for a partnership Government to a continued reduction in the USC in consultation with the Oireachtas. Reducing excessive tax rates for middle earners is important in order to promote full and sustainable employment.

As of May 2016, the unemployment rate for males aged 20 to 74 stood at 9.2% and it was 6.2% for women. I am also concerned about the high level of youth unemployment rate of 15% in May 2016, which continues to be above the national average. The aim must be to create an environment where worthwhile employment is available to the many young people leaving the education system. Otherwise the very considerable investment in their education will either benefit another country or languish and dwindle away as the unemployed can so easily become unemployable. It is incumbent on the Government and the relevant Government Departments to put considerable resources into tackling the scourge that is youth unemployment. This also applies to the long-term unemployed, which is a European-wide problem. It leads to social exclusion and the creation of poverty traps. In the words of Professor Hugh Frazer from Maynooth University, "It adds up to an erosion of human and social capital over time." The creation of jobs throughout all regions is vital in addressing this problem, as well as tackling the pockets which exist in many urban areas. I look forward to the day when all our citizens who wish to remain at home will be able to find well-paid, sustainable employment and many who have been forced to emigrate can return and bring with them valuable experience and skills they have acquired. I know that the Minister of State is totally committed to tackling and solving this major problem area which has caused so much suffering and hardship.

I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Breen, on his appointment. I know that he will do an exceptional job and will be extremely committed to advancing the agenda of full employment for Ireland and its citizens, not just full employment but fair employment as well, as articulated by my colleague, Senator Gavan, and others.

If we pursue the correct policies we will and can have full employment in this country by 2018. That is my ambition and it is the ambition of the Labour Party. I take great personal pride and satisfaction in the role that I played, as super junior Minister in the last phase of the last Government, in setting out a policy agenda to move unemployment below 8% for the first time since the economic crash. When the last Government took office the number of unemployed was heading towards 500,000 and there was a stench of fear and hopelessness across the country. Those who had lost jobs were not aware and did not know when they might secure a job again and those who had jobs were fearful that their jobs might be lost within a day or a week. We are now on track to have about 2 million people at work very shortly and that is a record for this State. Things are now very different compared with the horrendous mess that the previous Administration inherited in 2011.

I make no apologies for being entirely obsessive about the dignity of work and the idea that working people should have their dignity in the workplace guaranteed, protected and secured. Job growth in every economic sector is growing at a decent pace. We will continue to see an uplift in areas where the pace of recover has not been as strong as might have been the case in other sectors. Construction is a good example. While the construction rates of recovery are decent there is more to be done. With the €4 billion housing package, initiated by the last Government and the uplift in private housing construction, which is so necessary for society, we can get more construction workers back to work. It is a sector of society that was badly damaged by the nature and extent of the economic crash.

The lessons that we have learned from the economic crash need to always be at the forefront of our considerations of economic policy and our approach to job creation. That is why I think it is crucial that the philosophy and the approach that we adopted, vis-à-vis An Action Plan for Jobs, is retained and remains at the core of the Minister of State's work, his Minister's work and that of the entire Government. The action plan has a cross-departmental agenda and the system and approach have been proven to work. We should never again see our employment profile excessively dependent on one or two sectors at the expense of other sectors. We should not take the view that it will be "all right on the night" for society provided the coffers are full and Exchequer revenues continue to grow. We should be concerned about the mix in our economy and ensure that proper policies in terms of structure in the economy should be pursued.

Neither should our trajectory towards full employment be characterised by the notion that a job at any price will do. That is not right and it is not something we should support. Our recovery needs to be wage-led. We have to create an economic and jobs model that ensures protection in the workplace and provides for improvements in pay, hours, terms and conditions.

By 2018, we should have sustainable full employment in this country and, importantly, it should be employment that will sustain households. As my colleague, Senator Gavan, articulated earlier, too many people here go to bed on a Sunday night not knowing what amount of hours they will have to work in that given week and whether they will have a job that will enable them to simply make ends meet. That is an unacceptable scenario in this day and age. That is why we need to end the abuse of if-and-when contracts. I look forward to seeing the Minister's proposals emerging shortly. I can reassure the House that the Labour Party will not be found wanting in terms of filling the existing vacuum because those who have if-and-when contracts can no longer afford to wait for a solution.

Working people caught up in the half light of if-and-when contracts cannot afford to wait for a solution, neither can their families nor society. We should aim to provide decent work and not a job at any price. There is no dignity in workers being permanently dependent on the family income supplement to top up their wages. Work should always pay. That is why we established the Low Pay Commission last year and increased the national minimum wage. In July, I hope to see decent increases and further increases in the national minimum wage when the Low Pay Commission issues its second statutory report on the rate of the national minimum wage for 2017.

Ireland must move towards providing a living wage. Good employers pay decent wages. Despite the protestations of some ideologues on the opposite end of the political spectrum, there is a clear business case to be made for a firm paying its staff a living wage quite apart from the social considerations.

In order to back businesses, the risk takers who employ the vast bulk of Irish workers need to have a functioning banking system and alternative finance opportunities if we are to reach our goal of full employment. I am pleased to see that the amended credit guarantee scheme is operating, that there have been improvements in Microfinance Ireland and that the facilities available from the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland are working well to support the SME sector. As the Minister of State will know, the availability of credit is the lifeblood of the economy. We must always be conscious of the fact that 90% of Irish jobs are in the SME sector.

I agree that sustainable full employment also means rewarding hard work. That is why I strongly believe that the Government should continue to ensure there is an equalisation of the tax system for the self-employed. They are the ones who take the risks, develop their ideas and employ people in good decent jobs across the country.

In conclusion, I agree with Senator Mulherin that we need to properly resource local enterprise offices, LEOs. I am proud of the role that I played in helping the local enterprise office idea to evolve and bed down over the past couple of years. LEOs are a one-stop-shop, a first-stop-shop and a signposting service for not just new SMEs but also existing companies that want to grow and expand. Clearly, the relationship between the local enterprise office and Enterprise Ireland is extremely important. We must ensure, particularly with the very uncertain international economic situation in which we find ourselves, that Enterprise Ireland is properly resourced so that small companies are properly resourced and advised in ways to access foreign markets and supply Irish goods, products and services. There is a big job of work for Enterprise Ireland to do and it is only too capable of doing so in terms of helping Irish companies diversify into other markets, given the uncertainties in the UK for obvious reasons at the moment.

I can give one minute of my time to Senator Higgins if she wishes, with the permission of the House.

I thank the Senator.

I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Breen, on his elevation to Minister of State in this portfolio. I have no doubt he will do a great job on jobs because he has first-hand knowledge of what is required from his work as a Deputy and as Chair of the committee in the last Dáil dealing with the development of the western region and the Shannon area. I have no doubt that he is pretty au fait with what is required to bring jobs to the regions and Ireland and, as previous speakers have said, to bring full employment to the country by 2019 or whenever.

A number of important points have been raised by a number of Senators today and on the last occasion we had this debate. It is an important debate, especially given what has happened in the UK. We should be more proactive than we are and use this as an opportunity to bring more international companies and jobs to the country. We should use whatever means possible to do that.

Senator Mulherin raised an important question on local employment offices. Those offices are looking after the development, nurturing and fostering of jobs in SMEs with up to ten employees. These SMEs are the lifeblood of rural areas in particular. It takes enormous effort on the part of an employer to create ten jobs and it is much more difficult for a small employer to create ten jobs than it is for a large employer to create 500 jobs. This is well known to the vast majority of Members. There are so many obstacles in a small employer's way. Small employers have to get over so many hurdles and also face the challenge of a huge pay bill every Friday. There should be a bigger focus on delivering jobs, particularly in rural areas.

Given the current Government situation, which may be in place for the foreseeable future, responsible and autonomous regional development has to come into play. The Government and Parliament should examine the possibility of regionalising government and deploying more resources to the regions. The Western Development Commission plays a very important role in our region and similar commissions could be rolled out in other areas such as the Munster and Leinster regions. Such commissions should be strengthened and given more autonomy. Every week small businesses have to endure VAT, PAYE, PRSI, insurance costs, rates, water charges, development charges, bank fees and the cost of safety reports as well as the fees of accountants and lawyers. This is a huge task for the small business person.

IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland are to be congratulated for the job they are doing internationally. However, I would be much happier if Enterprise Ireland had a higher failure rate. I do not mean that I wish for companies to fail, but a higher failure rate would mean more companies on the verge are getting into the system. The rules are too stringent and off-putting to an awful lot of companies that are on the verge and trying to get their businesses across the line. Will the Minister of State carry out a survey of all the companies that avail of Enterprise Ireland funding as well as those that do not avail of such funding and those that were not successful when applying for funding?

The system is too cumbersome. People tell us that they would much prefer to go it alone without the hassle of Enterprise Ireland. Enterprise Ireland is a great brand and gives recognition all over the world. It is involved in so many companies and opens up so many opportunities. However, given the paperwork and hassle involved, the vast majority of people find it off-putting. Given the situation with the UK, we should relax some of the rules. Some of the people who are not getting in but are on the verge should be getting in. The difference between success and failure can be very small and some of the finest businesses have failed, be it for whatever reason. Perhaps it was for want of funding or support. Some of the greatest ideas did not get across the line because of being bogged down in paperwork or not getting the support needed at the time. The Minister of State should carry out a survey of this area and examine the feedback. He should go to those people and see what are the problems. I have no doubt he has spoken to many of those people over his time in the western and Shannon regions.

I will give the last of my time to Senator Higgins.

I am very grateful to Senator Burke and thank the Minister of State for joining us. I will be brief. There are three issues I wish to highlight and I would really appreciate the thoughts of the Minister of State and I would love to engage further with him on them.

There are many tens of thousands of qualified adults in Ireland, predominantly women, who do not feature on the live register or in unemployment figures, although they are underemployed. In many cases, they are in jobless households. Will the Minister of State address how he plans to encourage and provide voluntary access to back-to-education, training or job supports and activation schemes to these qualified adults? In many cases these people are not just distant from the jobs market but, having little rights in it, have become distant from the social protection system too. I urge the Minister of State to work closely with his counterpart in the Department of Social Protection to address the question of how we recognise, for example, care credits and ensure that the many tens of thousands of women who fall out of the system maintain their access to jobs, training and employment opportunities.

Care should be a quality area of employment. It is potentially one of the largest and highest density employment areas with a high ratio of staff. It should be an area of quality employment but, unfortunately, it is not. The sector needs to be developed and deepened. It is unfortunate that many child care workers and early years education workers employed by the State will now enter a period of three months of unemployment as the early childhood care and education, ECCE, schemes end because they are still nine-month schemes. In terms of sustainability, surely this should be a year-round area and an area with a strong progressing path.

The low pay-----

I lost my line but I will just say that, in terms of the Low Pay Commission, I welcome and will be scrutinising the commitment and looking to the commission to address the gender pay gap and in-work poverty. I remind the Minister of State that the IMF, in research over 30 years in 170 countries, has shown that GDP rises when the income of the bottom 20% in society is increased. This is not a concession to those looking for higher wages in the lowest bracket. It is an investment in our GDP and our society.

Senator Higgins, we have run out of time.

I would ask that the minimum wage be included in procurement rules also.

I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate him on his recent appointment. This morning I attended the National Life Sciences and Engineering Expo in Mullingar with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor. I welcome her commitment in her address this morning to that and all the regions in the future. When she left the expo, she visited the one unit in Mullingar Business Park. This is a prime example of how that region, along with all the other regions, has been neglected. I hope this will change. We have not had IDA Ireland visits.

On the positive side of Brexit, there will be great chances for further foreign direct investment. I hope, however, that those companies will be brought outside the M50 when they are being shown the facilities available in Ireland.

It is vital that jobs are created in the regions as well as in the capital and urban areas.

As Senator Grace O'Sullivan said, a week is a long time in politics. This debate began prior to the Brexit referendum and we have to have a different outlook now on this topic. "Sustainable" is the key word in light of Brexit. At the expo this morning, I spoke to the chief executive of a medium-sized manufacturing company who signed a contract to manufacture components for a British company a couple of months ago. The overall deal was done in sterling. He is committed but the sum agreed has reduced by at least 10% in euro. This is one example of the issues that will arise for export companies which are providing employment. That employer had intended increasing his workforce with a view to this and other projects. He certainly will not now be increasing it and there is a possibility that he may reduce it if this continues. The emphasis now must be on sustaining what we have. If we do not take our eye off the ball but continue with the project, we will hopefully deliver full employment by 2018.

Exporters have a problem with Brexit. I worked for the past 20 odd years in a manufacturing company which supplies to the agricultural industry. We employ 15 people. A 10% reduction in farmers' incomes is a 10% reduction in spend and that reduction in spending with us would result in the loss of three of our employees, or 20% of our workforce. Those are the facts. I do not want to paint a very dark picture but those are strong possibilities for our agri-industry and exports to the UK if and when the Brexit is negotiated. While I do not want to ring alarm bells, the emphasis needs to be on the sustainability of the jobs already created. We do not want to lose that focus by trying to achieve figures for job creation.

Many have spoken about the dignity of work. We all know a certain number of people who work for their sanity and dignity, not for money. It costs these individuals to work and, from a financial standpoint, they would probably be better off not working. There are many mitigating circumstances in this regard, particularly in rural Ireland. I spoke to a young man recently who was delighted to have got a job but in order to attend work and fulfil his duties, he had to buy a car. His first five weeks' wages would have to be spent on insuring the car before he spent a cent on rent or food. The circumstances are similar for people with young children because it costs them more to pay a childminder than to stay at home. Being in employment looks good on paper but is it working for people? The mitigating circumstances to which I refer need to be addressed. There is a domino effect and something which happens in the most obscure circumstances can result in someone here losing a job. Each Department and Minister needs to keep an eye on the ball, particularly in light of Brexit. The ultimate loss could be jobs. I hope it will not be, when we have a plan and are on guard.

When jobs are created for their own sake, people lose their secondary benefits because of the threshold between what they can and cannot earn. They can lose a medical card, rent allowance and family income supplement, FIS. The thresholds are too marginal and often it does not pay for people to go back to work unless they are prepared to take the chance and go back for the sake of their dignity.

Much of what I planned to say has already been said. A major problem within the SME sector is that when an exporter comes under pressure and the business fails, the owner is not entitled to any support or social welfare. This matter must be addressed. Those in the SME sector are the people who are taking the risks and creating the jobs. It was a pleasure to see them display their wares this morning in Mullingar. The man who told me the story and who is going to lose a sizeable figure is still positive and upbeat. It is that attitude that has created jobs and that will ensure they are sustained. However, the people to whom I refer need support.

I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate him on his elevation to such a high and important office. I will not go back over things already said but I am interested in two items. One is the regional action plans. The regional action plan for the south east was launched earlier this year or late last year. It committed to job targets for the south east. Senator Grace O’Sullivan referred to Waterford. I live in the south east and we are not seeing the effect on the ground. I have the figures from the local enterprise offices, LEOs, which support the jobs. The south-east area had the highest number of LEO-supported jobs but we are not seeing jobs brought forward by private industry, entrepreneurs, etc., despite all the great work that has been done. Waterford is the nearest city to where I live. I worked there for 13 years and know it very well. The Viking triangle is a fantastic addition to the city but we are not seeing jobs on the ground there. The economy is practically being run by the Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, and University Hospital Waterford, which are the mainstays of employment in the city.

The same is true of south Tipperary, where, apart from several big pharmaceutical plants in Clonmel, there are no jobs for people. Is it the intention of this Government to continue to pursue the original action plans or does it intend to tweak them in the context of Brexit and its implications for exports? I have nothing but praise for the LEOs across the country because they do fantastic work. Are they getting to the core of supporting other industry or finding other people? I served on the first enterprise board in the country, which was set up in 1991 in Tipperary, for approximately ten years. It was one of the most rewarding things I ever did because it assisted the small SME in getting off the ground with, at that time, £5,000 per job. Many of those businesses have been successful through to today. That grant support was taken away and while I understand the financial reasons for taking it away, do we need to consider something of that nature to get jobs into rural areas? The city is thriving. Anybody who stays there will see that building is taking place across the city. However, the regions and small towns are not experiencing the same growth. Unless we see growth in jobs coming into rural Ireland, young people will leave and come to the cities and the rush to the east coast will continue.

My second concern relates to the living wage. Senator Nash did a tremendous amount of work on this and we brought it to the position where the report is imminent. We want to see it implemented. I ask the Minister of State to see that it is implemented and that a living wage is put in place. There is always an argument with the employers' representatives but I have spoken to employers and they can see the sense of it. We provide FIS from the State coffers but if we pay people a proper wage and if this proves sustainable for both small and big industry, we will provide a greater tax base for the State.

There is actually a win-win situation for everyone. We will have the arguments from employer representatives against this idea, and we have witnessed these already. However, ultimately, it seems absolutely crazy to me as a layperson that someone is in a job but because he or she is not being paid enough by his or her employer, the State is subsidising him or her, even though he or she is in a job. There has to be some sort of bottom line, some rate that people can actually live on. That is the purpose of the commission set up by Senator Nash. We all know of this anecdotally. We have the commission report and once we scope the report, I call on Minister of State to act on it. I am keen for the Minister of State to respond to these two issues in his summary.

I welcome our MEP, Ms Lynn Boylan, who has joined us today. I reiterate what Senator Gavan said. His comments are important because sustainability is not a word we will be using if we allow the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement to come in to this country. I know our MEPs in Europe, certainly those in the group Ms Boylan is in, have bought fiercely against it. They have been in the vanguard. Most Senators are aware of TTIP and I hope the majority are against it. It will destroy our society, our workers, trade unions and any idea of standing up and fighting to hold on to what we have, never mind progressing to what we need. It amounts to privatising profits and socialising losses. It will absolutely destroy what we have. We have seen this in Mexico and other areas of America as well, where these agreements have the power to supersede any rights that already exist in countries such as ours. We have fought too long and hard to let this go. Everything the Minister of State does in the area of sustainability has to be done with an eye on TTIP and its sneaky progression into legislation here, although I hope that does not materialise.

I ask the Acting Chairman if we can suspend Standing Orders. There is breaking news. The Minister of State has probably heard about the loss of 90 jobs in Mullingar. It would be a significant blow to our economy. I know the Minister is there today, but can the Minister of State brief us on the job losses at the tobacco factory in Mullingar?

I cannot suspend Standing Orders but we can put in a Standing Order 30 request tomorrow, if that is okay. That may be helpful.

I echo the comments of Senator Higgins on women in the workforce and in particular the issue of child care, which disproportionately affects female employees. It is an issue close to my heart, being the mother of a young child. It disproportionately affects females, although I know many males are involved with child care provision in families as well. However, it often falls on the females to decide whether to continue in employment or give it up entirely to take care of the family. This results in underemployment of women in later years and it means that women tend to drop out of the workforce and then find it difficult to re-enter. Their earning potential is permanently affected and this has a knock-on effect for their security later in life. Will the Minister of State indicate whether there are any plans in government to address the astronomical costs of child care in Ireland today?

I support my colleagues from Westmeath on the issue of the Imperial Tobacco manufacturing company in Mullingar. The loss of 90 jobs is an extraordinary number of job losses in any place but it is especially keen in a town the size of Mullingar. I look forward to hearing the comments of the Minister of State on that issue.

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?

Sorry. It is my first day here so the Senator will forgive me for that.

No problem, it is just that it is my town. The Minister of State knows it himself.

I would be the same myself. I will be honest about it. A total of 87 jobs will be lost at Imperial Tobacco. As I said at the beginning, every support from the agencies will be made available to address this situation. Our thoughts are with the workers and their families. Losing one's job is not a nice thing to happen to anybody, especially in the difficult environment we have at the moment. I assure the Senator that all the machinery of the State, including the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and the Department of Social Protection, will be available to assist those workers and ensure alternative employment can be found for those who lose their jobs. This is something the Minister, the Minister of State with responsibility for training and skills and I will do.

I thank all the Senators for this very good debate. I listened to everybody and took notes on their contributions. It is good to see a lively, vibrant Seanad and to hear Senators speak on this subject. I look forward to working closely with them as Minister of State with responsibility for employment and small business.

I thank the Minister of State for that. The matter is of great concern and I will be talking to him later on.

I know we are breaking protocol but, on the record of the House, I welcome the Minister of State to the House and congratulate him on his appointment. I think it will great for the mid-west to have a Minister with responsibility for jobs at this time.

And the south east.

The mid-west first and foremost.