Estimates for Public Services 2003.

Vote 34 - Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Revised).

We have a time limit for this matter of 11.15 a.m., and I would appreciate members' co-operation in that regard. Is that agreed? Agreed.

We are starting on insurance at 1 p.m. today for Dáil Members, so we wish to convene at 12.40 p.m. to meet our consultants, who have briefing papers for us. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Tánaiste and her officials. This is the first, one hopes, of several years' Estimates to be considered by this committee and the Minister. I propose that, after the Minister's opening remarks, the Fine Gael, Labour Party and Technical Group spokespersons make their opening statements. The Minister will then have an opportunity to respond, after which we will take questions on individual subheads. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I now ask the Minister to make her opening remarks.

I thank the committee for giving me the opportunity to address it regarding my Department's Estimates for 2003.

The total net Estimate is €1.086654 million, a reduction of €20,507 on last year's provisional outturn. The brief already circulated to the committee itemises the 2003 Estimate amounts to be approved and also shows the corresponding outturn for 2002. Irish economic performance continues to depend to a large degree on the overall global economic climate, which remained weak in 2002. Economic growth across the EU accelerated just 1.1% in 2002, marginally ahead of the 0.9% expansion across the euro area. Growth for the United States quickened to 2.4% in the year, although conditions weakened in the second half of last year.

More recent evidence confirms that the slowdown apparent in the second half of 2002 has continued into the first quarter of 2003. While the European Central Bank continues to be responsive to unfolding global economic and political events by loosening monetary policy further, the euro has continued to make strong gains on global foreign exchange markets in the first half of 2003, making life difficult for Irish exporters.

Economic conditions remained relatively robust in Ireland throughout 2002. Although activities slowed somewhat from the performance of previous years in line with deteriorating global economic conditions, real consumer spending growth in Ireland slowed to 1.2% year-on-year across the final quarter of 2002 with overall private consumption gains for 2002 coming in at 2.6%, around half the rate for 2001. Lower interest rates have helped cushion some of the fall in consumer purchases. Over 2002, the average rate of inflation came in at 4.6%, the third year in succession of price rises running at more than twice EU average inflation. The high cost of insurance is a major contributory factor to price increases and this is an area which I am currently addressing. I will return to the subject in due course.

Labour market conditions remained tight across 2002, despite the deterioration in global economic conditions. Unemployment eased slightly in the final quarter to 4.5% despite difficult economic conditions. Employment growth quickened to 1% year-on-year in the final three months of the year, although this fell behind the 1.5% annual rise in the labour force. Notified redundancies for 2002 increased by 26.9% on the figure for 2001. However, redundancies for the period January to May 2003 were down 12% in the same period for last year.

The economic progress made by many Irish firms over recent years has placed them in a solid position to shield themselves from unfolding events and risks. In particular, great strides have been made to improve domestic productivity, tackle cost pressures, invest in firm-level skills and education and, finally, to encourage innovation and new product development through increased research and development. These have resulted in many Irish firms being able to place themselves at a higher level of the value chain compared to major competitors. The Government remains committed to encouraging policies that will assist firms in continuing these positive and proactive pro-competitive initiatives and thus sustaining and improving our overall competitive position. Manufacturing and services will also then be in as strong a position as possible to reap the maximum benefits from the inevitable global economic recovery. Historically low interest rates and indications of a return to very low levels of annual inflation will give further impetus to Irish competitiveness.

The WTO continues to provide a stable and consistent framework for the regulation of world trade. Ireland has participated in the Doha development agenda of the WTO as a member of the EU. Our priority has been the continuation of the process of trade liberalisation in a fair and balanced way. Central to our approach is a commitment to respond positively in the negotiations to the concerns of the developing countries. This is important in terms of access to world markets for the exports of those countries and supports for their full participation in the operation of the WTO.

On services, the EU is concerned to get greater market access and to open up trade and services to foreign providers. The development of a skilled, high-value services sector is now a central feature of Irish economic policy.

On a point of order, we have the Minister's script which is rather detailed and worth reading. However, is it the most productive use of our time for this to be read into the record now? Most of us would like to have a chance to deal with the Estimate by way of questions and answers. Perhaps if the Minister would give an overview and précis of her script, we could take it as read. If the Minister wishes to read it, I have no difficulty with that.

I support that. We know the Minister's views from other fora on these major issues. Questions and answers on the figures would be more useful.

I am more than happy to do that. I have done it every other year. Deputy Hogan might be aware of that. However, I was told that that was not quite in order. I would be more than happy to take the script as read and I am pleased with the intervention of Deputy Howlin.

I am in the hands of the members. I appreciate all the hard work and endeavour of the Minister and her officials to present this document. However, if colleagues wish to fast track to leave time——

An overview from the Minister would be sufficient.

What the Minister is reading to us at the moment is very informative. Many new members on the committee would appreciate that.

Thank you, Chairman. I take it that everybody has read the script. I will therefore give the committee an overview of the main priorities as I see them for the Irish economy to go forward.

For the benefit of people like myself who are new, could the Minister deal with the issues under the main headings which I find very useful?

The headings that are in the script?

Yes, for the newer members.

I will not repeat what I have already read, and I have probably said enough about the WTO.

The majority of our committee are new members. We have two or three very experienced members.

This is my sixth year here and I have always taken scripts as read, but I was advised that that was not in order. Members have the script. Is the Deputy talking about taking the script under the various headings?

Let us take science and technology.

The Minister to continue.

To put science and technology in perspective, if we want to remain competitive in Ireland, clearly we are not going to return to being a low-cost, low-wage economy, so we have to compete on a different plain at a different level. That means we have to be much more innovative and invest fairly heavily in research and development. A number of years ago, as a result of a technology foresight exercise carried out on behalf of the Government, it was recommended that if we wanted to continue to compete, if we wanted a 2015 vision of where the economy should be, we have to make investments in basic research. Two areas were identified, ICT and biotechnology. We have committed ourselves in the national development plan to spend nearly €700 million on basic research in those two areas. We have established a foundation. The legislation to put it on a statutory basis is currently before the Oireachtas. Essentially we have attracted to Ireland at the moment about 100 different research teams who are carrying out basic research in a number of our universities. Funding on the research side is allocated on the basis of international peer group review, in other words, the best people in the world. It is highly competitive.

The Irish Government is giving among the biggest grants being given by any government in the world for basic research. In addition to that, Enterprise Ireland, as can be seen from the Estimate, has substantially increased its spend on research and development. An analysis of Irish companies in recent years has shown that relatively few of them invest in research and development and, while we are good at making other people's products or acting as sub-suppliers to the multinational sector, we will not be able to succeed unless we are constantly innovating. A large proportion of the support that we give to our companies now in order to expand and develop is towards developing the capability and capacity of their research and development.

Forfás has the function of advising and co-ordinating policies for the different State agencies and advising the Minister regarding industrial policy generally. It has produced a number of reports. It has worked on the export skills group examining future skills needs in this economy. It recently reported on Irish inflation and does much work with the National Competitiveness Council which reports to the Taoiseach on the factors that affect Irish competitiveness across a broad range of areas, including energy, transport, waste treatment and so on.

On the foreign direct investment side, we still perform extremely well. Clearly we are not getting the scale of projects that we got in recent years, but we are still doing remarkably well. Since the start of this year we have been announcing, on average, one project a week. Sean Dorgan of the IDA made the point last week, when the annual report of the IDA was published, that he is very optimistic about this year and the pipeline does look very good. Basically, we are extremely attractive for higher value-added activity. We compete aggressively against Singapore, Puerto Rica and so on. The biggest bio-pharmaceutical facility being built in the world today, a €2 billion investment, is being built by Wyatt in Ireland. These are among the areas where we are seeking to encourage further activity into the Irish economy because bio-technology and bio-pharmaceutical activity are essential for the future.

In the national development plan, the IDA was asked to ensure that half of all the new greenfield jobs would be in the Objective One region, that is the Border, the midlands and the west. Although we have been making great strides to achieve that objective, there are serious infrastructural issues that affect investment in the less developed regions of the country. They include transport, broadband and factors of that kind which make attracting investment far more difficult. Many of the projects that are interested in coming to Ireland still want to locate in either the greater Dublin area, Cork and, to a lesser extent, Waterford and Limerick. In so far as the BMW region is very attractive, Galway city and the surrounding area tend to be the most attractive. However, in recent times Longford, Sligo, Tullamore and a number of other centres in the BMW region have been attractive for investment.

I have dealt with Enterprise Ireland. By way of comment, our second largest export market after the UK is now the United States and that is a considerable change for us. The indigenous sector, particularly the technology sector, is very focused on the US market.

Irish unemployment is still very low at 4.6% and we had employment growth over the past 12 months of about 1.3%. However, we cannot become complacent. We have achieved full employment after enormous efforts by successive Governments regarding labour market strategies and lowering taxes. We have moved from a labour market shortage to a surplus and back again to a labour market shortage. Approximately 40,000 people work in the Irish economy on work permits and it is estimated that 40,000 to 50,000 people are here from other European countries who obviously do not require work permits.

In keeping with the fall in long-term unemployment, a budget of nearly €370 million was allocated to FÁS employment programmes and these included community employment, the jobs initiative and the social economy programmes. There was a time when we had one community employment place for every six long-term unemployed people. We have more people today on community employment than we have long-term unemployed people. However, a huge issue that arises regarding community employment, which is not quite a labour market issue, is that a whole host of services on the ground are now being exclusively provided by community employment. In the past many of those jobs were done by voluntary effort but changing lifestyles and work patterns make that more difficult. There are major issues we need to confront as a society in terms of how we provide services on the ground in many communities, both urban and rural.

My Department took over responsibility for training people with disabilities in 1998, and it is appropriate that the training of somebody with a disability should be mainstreamed and not seen as a health-related issue. Although disabled people have health difficulties from time to time, their track record in employment is fantastic. They have lower levels of absenteeism and greater commitment. When they succeed in getting jobs, employers find them very motivated, supportive employees. That is why we have to continue with their efforts. We are doing reasonably well in some respects in the training of people with disabilities for jobs in the labour market.

The national training fund was established a number of years ago to earmark a percentage of employers' PRSI for training initiatives, and it is working extremely well. Total expenditure from the fund in 2002 was €204.6 million and in 2003 it will be about €239.7 million. A total of 0.7% of reckonable earnings of employees in classes A and H fund that, and this represents approximately 75% of all insurable employees.

On the question of industrial relations, the other day I had the opportunity to publish the annual report of the Labour Relations Commission and I was pleased to see that although the volume of business is up 36% on the previous year, we have had the lowest level of days lost from industrial strikes since 1970. A total of 81% of the industrial disputes referred to the conciliation service are resolved positively, which is a very good record. I have to say, however, that there is a tendency for the labour relations machinery of the State to be often used as a place of first rather than last resort. Disputes should be resolved at local level and the State machinery, which has enormous expertise and a supportive role to play, should only be called in as a last resort.

I dealt earlier with the issue of work permits. On insurance and a number of issues not covered in the script, as I have said previously, insurance is my number one political priority. We have published the heads of the Bill for the PIAB, the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. If Deputies, particularly spokespersons, have views on that I would like to hear them before we finalise the Bill because it would help to get better legislation. We could then have a more effective debate in the Oireachtas when the full Bill is published in the autumn and hopefully taken through the Oireachtas by the end of this year.

In advance of the legislation, however, we have established the PIAB on an interim basis, chaired by Dorothea Dowling, which is doing an enormous amount of work. It is currently recruiting the independent medical expertise. It will also shortly be looking for a chief executive. It has had numerous discussions with various bodies, particularly the Data Protection Commissioner regarding the exchange of information because it is envisaged that it will be able to have access to the Revenue and social welfare details of individuals so that people will be compensated on the basis of actual earnings and not fictitious earnings, which is often the case in this situation. It is also involved with the Courts Service in drawing up a book of quantum, which will be the first time we will have a book of quantum in Ireland.

Essentially, the PIAB is a paper-based way of settling claims where liability is not an issue. It takes six times longer in Ireland for a genuine claimant to get what he or she is entitled to under our model than it does in the United Kingdom. That is very unfair on genuine claimants. In addition, 40% of the cost of delivering claims is accounted for by legal and other fees. The PIAB will be paper-based. People will not be given resources for lawyers. There will be no advocacy role, therefore, nobody will be presenting anywhere. It will operate from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and on Saturdays. It will have an extensive information service available to inform people and help them complete application forms. It will have its own actuarial staff so instead of the insurance company and the claimant each having to recruit a great deal of expertise, it will have all the expertise in-house. Essentially, it is about getting the money to the genuine claimant as quickly as possible. It will be mandatory for all cases which have not gone to trial to first go to the PIAB.

The PIAB is not a panacea for all ills. It will simply work as part of a solution with all the other pieces, in particular the measures being brought in by the Minister for Transport on road safety issues and those of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on the swearing of affidavits. If any part of the affidavit is false or exaggerated, the whole claim falls. There are also the issues of the streamlining of court procedures, the introduction of a mediation service and so on. I am aware insurance is a major issue for Deputies and one which is also affecting the competitiveness of this economy.

As regards regulation, Irish inflation still runs at over twice the EU eurozone rate. That is leading to pressures on wages. It is making Ireland very expensive for our own citizens and for those who visit our country. It has huge effects on the overall performance of the Irish economy and that is why the Government, together with the social partners, has established a working group to examine all matters that affect Irish inflation.

Basically, everything is under review. If we can, by regulation, remove artificial barriers that can drive down the cost of products in Ireland, we have an obligation to do that in the interests of consumers. We cannot be constantly focused on producers. We have to be focused on the needs of consumers across a whole host of price headings. Food prices in Ireland, for example, have risen by twice the eurozone average over the past five years, yet farm gate prices are declining fairly rapidly. One has to ask why that is the case. If there are artificial barriers they should be examined with an open mind with a view to Government looking at some of those issues.

The challenge for us as we go forward is to upscale and retrain our workers, particularly those working in basic manufacturing, for the new jobs that are being created in this economy and to work with our companies to move up the value chain so they can compete successfully in the international marketplace. A.T. Kearney said recently of the Irish economy that we are the most globalised economy in the world and, therefore, we are more susceptible than any other economy to what happens in international markets. We are big importers and big exporters.

Last week, the rate of inflation reduced substantially to 3.7%. Much of that is as a result of what happened in exchange rate policy over the past few weeks. What happens in international marketplaces has a huge impact on this economy and there are some aspects over which we have no control. However, in so far as we can control our own destiny in training, education, innovation and in the issues that affect competitiveness like insurance, the challenge is to address many of the issues with the hope of maintaining the competitiveness of this economy and the full level of unemployment we have at 4.6%. The German rate is 11%. The eurozone rate is 9%. For us to have one of the lowest rates is extraordinary because for 21 of the 30 years between 1960 and 1990, we had the highest level of unemployment in the European Union. Today, we have one of the lowest levels of unemployment and we know how that came about. It was painful and we want to ensure that we do not return to the days when we are up at the higher end of the league rather than at the bottom of the league.

Thank you very much, Minister, for your very informative opening remarks. This afternoon we are embarking on public hearings regarding insurance, public liability, employers' liability and complementing Dorothea Dowling's report on motor insurance. I will have the clerk circulate the Minister's address to the committee before we begin our deliberations on the insurance industry at 1 o'clock.

The Minister was correct in saying the current economic climate is different from the financial situation on the last occasion she introduced an Estimate in committee. The level of consumption and consumer demand has diminished and slowed considerably, our competitiveness has deteriorated and our costs have substantially increased. Many people, particularly those engaged in small businesses, would be in worse trouble, and pressure on business generally would be much more serious, were it not for the record low interest rates, for which we must be very grateful to the European Central Bank. The level of increase in costs - a number of which the Minister touched on, particularly insurance - experienced in recent times, is a constant worry to business, employment and employees. The cost of insurance has been an issue for a considerable number of years. Given what the Minister said, I hope the Personal Injuries Assessment Board will make a meaningful contribution to ensuring there will be a lowering of costs, the benefits of which will accrue, in the first instance, to the insurance companies and, ultimately, to the policy holder.

I am concerned that the perceived reduction in costs on foot of awards in the courts are not being passed on in the form of reduced premia. A number of road safety initiatives have been taken. There is a clear willingness by citizens to comply with the new regulations on road safety, particularly the penalty points system. Following the operation of the system for seven or eight months, together with the waving of the big stick in the form of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board and the legal profession, I am surprised that more headway has not been made by the insurance companies to pass on the benefits to the consumer, in particular, liability insurance cover. We cannot understate the urgent need to implement the measures outlined in the action plan and by the MIAB. The MIAB covered some of the aspects that will accrue in respect of liability problems and in securing cover in the first instance at a reasonable level of premia. As the Chairman said, we will discuss that in more detail in coming weeks; I merely want to mention that in the context of the Estimate.

As regards costs generally, the Minister mentioned that food prices here have been twice the European average for the past ten years or so and she indicated that she is reviewing the groceries order. Perhaps she would indicate her view on the groceries order. Has she changed her mind since the last review? When will she conclude her review in order that there will be some certainty on this matter? The Taoiseach said there is no review of it, but the Minister said there is a review. I will take the Minister's word that there is a review.

It has been shown time and again in various reports on inflation and in Forfás reports that there have been considerable increases in the non-traded services, in terms of professional and consultancy fees, in the cost base of our economy. What progress has the Minister made regarding reports from the Competition Authority, or what action is proposed to deal with lowering the level of costs accruing to the consumer right across the board in consultancy and non-traded services costs?

The Minister gave figures regarding the number of work permits, many of which are repeat applications. The issue of work permits has the potential to be abused. Work permit applicants from the non-EU area should have the opportunity to work as soon as possible. The hold up in the Reception and Integration Agency is unacceptable and applicants could be working on a temporary basis while their applications are being processed. This matter should be handled by giving applicants a work permit on a temporary basis while their applications are being processed. Officials should know of their whereabouts once they have come through the initial process. A review of the work permits regime is urgently required in order to make it more flexible to allow people from outside the EU to work as soon as possible.

The Minister announced jobs in various parts of the country, particularly in the Dublin area in recent years. I tabled a number of parliamentary questions on this matter. It is noticeable that there is a considerable lead-in time for the number of jobs she announced would be created two or three years ago as against the number of jobs actually created. A number of high profile job announcements were made as far back as three years ago. The number of jobs created is about one third of the number announced in many cases. I am aware that companies that invest in this jurisdiction will not get grant assistance unless they meet commitments, targets and undertakings they have given to the State agencies. However, in the interests of the high quality employment about which the Minister spoke that is an essential part of our industrial policy requirements, if such companies are getting considerable assistance in various forms from the State agencies, they should be required to give a commitment to ensure the jobs promised are created.

There has been a failure to deliver jobs to the regions. The IDA has made a good deal of noise about devolving as much employment as possible to the regions, but I have not seen that happen in the southeast region. A small number of jobs were created in the southeast about three years ago, but having regard to what is required in the south-east relative to other parts of the country, if any job announcements are made they seem to be concentrated in the Waterford city area and in the other major cities. That seems to be the pattern around the country. Various locations have been hard hit by unemployment. I would like the IDA and the State agencies to engage in more activity to direct potential investors to areas in the regions that are more in need. I am disappointed that traditional industries in the textile sector are coming under enormous pressure. We will see more pressures on traditional industries such as in the case of Pearses of Wexford and the recent loss of jobs by Comerama textile workers in Castlecomer. The Minister is more than aware of the pressure she is under to resolve the dispute at Comerama. I ask her to reconsider this issue which has caused angst among the workers of Comerama to see what can be done on an ex gratia basis to resolve the dispute between the union and herself. If something could be done to compromise on that issue, it would be welcomed by the workers involved and by the area generally.

I welcome the establishment of Science Foundation Ireland. I am aware that money was taken from the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and elsewhere to secure the necessary funds to establish the foundation on a sound financial footing. Science Foundation Ireland is the way of the future and it is important that it should be a success. All parties in the House were more than keen to ensure that the legislation to establish it passed through the Houses as quickly as possible. I am aware that the SFI is being formally launched today.

I do not agree with what is in the Minister's script about what is happening at the coalface of communities regarding cuts in community employment schemes. My colleagues in Fianna Fáil have said they are not happy about this. I read in a newspaper recently that they are to have a conversation with the Minister about it. They are feeling the heat on the ground.

The Deputy is representing the Fine Gael Party.

I am, but I also read what is reported in the newspapers about Fianna Fáil. I referred to that in case the Minister might not have heard word of it.

I am keeping the Deputy on the right track.

This is a sensitive issue and the Chairman has reflected that. However, there are people in his party who are concerned about this and they are indicating to the media that they are completely opposed to what the Minister is trying to do in terms of reducing to 20,000 the numbers participating in community employment schemes at the end of this year. In the course of her contribution, the Minister made a mild reference to the fact that this is causing some difficulties. It is causing more trouble than that, however, because commitments were given to mainstream activities for the disabled which were to be funded by the Department of Health and Children but that is not happening. Similarly, mainstreaming was to occur in the education system but it is being implemented in a patchy manner. Community groups, sports halls and environmental works have all been affected in every community. People feel strongly about this and they are seeking a review. Areas could be reviewed to make up the funding to keep this essential scheme going. We do not have the same level of volunteerism that we had in the past, for the reasons the Minister outlined. She should ensure that the social and community employment schemes, as well as community groups, continue to be viable by re-examining that matter in the 2004 Estimates.

I know you will be as generous to me, Chairman, as you have been to the Minister and the Fine Gael spokesperson.

I welcome the Minister. On a procedural point, I know she is capable of presenting ideas to the committee. We should try to structure more frequent visits from her, rather than simply presenting formal Estimates. An exchange of ideas would be a useful part of making the Dáil and its committees more relevant. I am proposing that idea because I know the Minister would be happy to do that. In the ten minutes available, I want to address my comments to the Estimates, going through the subheads on which I want to make a number of points. The Department's remit is wide-ranging and while we could have a long philosophical discussion, I do not intend to embark upon one now.

I received what purported to be a briefing document from the Department, which was the actual Estimate minus the most useful part - the percentage increase from last year. It would be useful to have that information in a proper briefing.

Deputy Hogan is right in saying that many small businesses are currently under pressure. I have attended two meetings in my own constituency - at least one of which was also attended by my Fianna Fáil constituency colleague, Deputy Tony Dempsey - where over 150 small businesses were represented. They employ from ten to 100 people and are under enormous pressure on a variety of fronts. The pressures include increased waste charges and rates, because local government is under pressure. In addition, the cost of insurance is probably the biggest single issue and I will deal with it separately. As the Minister has indicated, some positive things are happening in that regard. The general economic climate and competitiveness is putting the squeeze on people. We must respond to these matters because there is a certain complacency which says that all is well but that is barely the case. A bubble can burst with consequences that none of us, from any political perspective, will be able to control, unless we deal with the individual pressure points now. However, they do not all come within the ambit of the Minister's Department.

I want to examine the effect that individual cuts will have on supporting small enterprises. I strongly welcome the establishment of Science Foundation Ireland and I have had the privilege of meeting the foundation's chief executive and his team members. The Labour Party wholeheartedly supports this important initiative and will help to fast-track the legislation to make sure it is put on a statutory basis as quickly as possible. I realise that money had to be obtained for that foundation but why was the IDA's building grant reduced by 87%? Is the Minister suggesting that there are sufficient IDA buildings? The model for locally-funded buildings has not proved to be a success everywhere and it means that projects are delayed when local business groupings come together. It should not be an impediment to situate local industry where it is needed.

I also wish to discuss the labour force development programme. It is clear that we have low-level unemployment but it is worrying, as the Minister has indicated, that last year redundancy notifications were up 27%. Many of those have not yet come on stream but we are all aware of where they are about to come on stream. More worrying even than the big layoffs that cause local and national headlines, is the downgrading of staff in a number of established businesses that are letting go small numbers, which do not make it into media reports. We need to have schemes available to support such people, yet FÁS training and integration supports are down by 38%. FÁS employment programmes are down by 10%.These reductions represent substantial sums of money. In percentage terms, 10% of a little is not much but when one looks at the subhead involving a cut of 38% in a budget of €190 million, the reduction is very significant. Similarly, a 10% cut of €400 million amounts to €40 million, which is bitingly significant.

The CE schemes were an extremely important support mechanism at a variety of levels. The Minister has a purist view of this. Her view is that there were labour support mechanisms and that when the economy requires all available personnel, the real economy - to use that false term - can take up all slack. Therefore, CE schemes have no usefulness. They were originally called social employment schemes and they had an important social dimension. Most Members of the House met representatives of the Irish Wheelchair Association who were outside Leinster House during the week. They were not there for the good of their health but because, in real terms, the supports they need to maintain any quality of life are being removed. It is unacceptable that supports which impact enormously on their quality of life are removed simply on a labour force basis until and unless an alternative is put in place. It is no good saying, "Live horse, get grass." An alternative has to be in place because people have to live. They are entitled to have their quality of life improved rather than disimproved. At the conclusion of this debate I want to be able to say something positive to the representatives of the Irish Wheelchair Association. Their concerns are replicated across the country by independent living groups who are in touch with us and want to know what we are doing about this matter.

Just before attending the committee today, I received a telephone call from a number of groups, including the Baldoyle forum, the Coolock development company and some other Dublin northside partnership groups. Yesterday, they all received a letter saying that a list of named individuals were to be let go; anybody with over five years' employment on a jobs initiative programme would no longer be employed. The clock started ticking from 13 June last week, and they will be notified that no funding will be available for them from 26 September. We are talking about nine individuals in the Baldoyle forum and similar numbers in many other northside groups. They want to know why this is happening out of the blue because many of the listed people have not even been on such programmes for five years. Those projects will be eviscerated in three months' time. The people concerned have received a standard letter stating that this is what they have to do, given the requirement of FÁS to make ongoing reductions in numbers. There are no alternatives for these individuals, many of whom will end up back on the dole. Despite notions to the contrary, there are no high support programmes available as supervisors have discovered. The Minister should take personal control of this situation. The notion that we are going to cut CE schemes by 20% - one in five to go - has a real consequence in the quality of people's lives. These people had dignity in providing real value to communities through their work. That dignity has been robbed from some people. The work remains undone and, in some cases, as I have instanced in the case of the Irish Wheelchair Association, it is vital work which is not being replaced. These are extremely important issues which are having an enormous effect on vulnerable and sometimes marginalised people in our community and which fall within the remit of the Minister. As a wealthy economy and wealthy country, we are required to do better.

I wish to ask a general question about something which again is not entirely within the remit of the Minister. Over the years when we had high unemployment, we piloted a number of useful jobs initiatives - development and local community support mechanisms. They seem to be bitty and all over the place and many of them seem to be concentrated in the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Is the Minister, Deputy Harney, given any role because she has an important role to play in this regard? Has she given any consideration to the co-ordination of local development, that is, bringing things together in a structured way so people know what each group is doing and there is no duplication and overlap? Perhaps she will use this opportunity to give us an overview of where she sees the future of local development, partnerships, job support initiatives generally, CE schemes and, specifically, those people being adversely affected by decisions.

The Estimate for health and safety has increased by 4% which is, I suppose, on a par with inflation. There were serious pressures from the trade union movement regarding the requirement to improve our safety record, particularly in the construction industry. I know legislation is being brought forward, for which I am pushing, but the response is to increase the number of site inspections. We cannot do that if we stand still in terms of funding. Does the Minister regard the number of inspectors working in the Health and Safety Authority as sufficient or can we do better?

I was going to say something about inflation but I am conscious of the time and it is not really relevant to the Estimate. I will, however, say that we are blessed that the inflation rate is down simply because of the appreciation of the euro against the US dollar and the impact that has on fuel prices in this economy. We would have a real problem otherwise but there is no guarantee it will remain that way.

I wish to ask about the monitoring and auditing of the accountancy sector. When will the Companies (Auditing and Accounting) Bill be enacted? When will the Irish Auditing and Accounting Supervisory Authority, IAASA, be put in place?

My final comment is on training for people with disabilities. One of the main problems in the past when this programme was funded by the EU and was largely run by the Department of Health and Children - I know something about it from my days there - was that the concept of training was finite. One is supposed to be trained to do something. In reality, designated training workshops are actually employment centres for people with disabilities. That is their work, it should be regarded as mainstream and should not be funded under a training scheme as if people with a severe intellectual disability will graduate into mainstream employment. It is within the remit of the Minister to deal with proper jobs for these people, to recognise the work they do as work and to move from the training module, notion or concept and all that goes with that, to an employment module or concept, given the dignity and security attached to it.

I welcome the Minister and thank her for coming to the committee to discuss her Department's Estimate for 2003. There are a few issues I wish to address before I come to the specifics of the Estimate.

I wish to refer to the 2002 IDA annual report to which the Minister already referred. That report showed a reduction of 9.6% in the total number employed in IDA supported companies in the western region in 2002 as compared to 2001. The figure for the mid-west region was a reduction of 13.6%. That is movement, but it is in the wrong direction. Some time ago, the Government made much of the fact that the IDA was charged with the responsibility to locate 50% of greenfield jobs in the Objective One region. The IDA report admitted it had not achieved that target. Mr. Dorgan issued a separate statement and effectively said that it was not possible to achieve that target. Will the Minister specifically address that failure and outline how her Department will address it?

Mr. Dorgan also clearly identified the reason the 50% target was not being, and cannot be, met. The reason is the persistent issue of infrastructure, particularly the infrastructural deficit in the Objective One region. He said that achieving progress in infrastructure and services is essential over the next three years as at the end of 2006, Ireland will have less discretion in giving regional grants under EU state aid policy and regions will then depend largely on the quality of such services locally to be attractive to investors. That is a serious statement for people in the Objective One region which is light years behind the rest of the country. I am concerned that no effort is being made to address that problem.

The most effective way to address this infrastructural deficit is by vigorously pursuing the terms of the national spatial strategy. Mr. Dorgan pinpointed that when he said the enthusiastic and focused implementation of the national spatial strategy is an imperative to achieve balanced regional economic development. Will the Minister give specifics on her Department's efforts to place a foundation under the national spatial strategy?

In regard to our desire to be seen as a caring country, the Minister's Department is quickly smashing that halo in its treatment of community employment workers, particularly workers employed by voluntary bodies such as the Irish Wheelchair Association which has been mentioned and in which there are 417 community employment places. That figure will have dropped by 194 by next December. Effectively, that means many resource centres will have to close. That is the bottom line but I do not believe the Department appreciates the seriousness of the matter. That has come after the Government promised to mainstream jobs held by community employment people in the health services. That mainstreaming commitment was never honoured and now the idea of looking after the most vulnerable is going out the window. I urge the Minister to use whatever resources she has in her Department to rectify that situation.

I am sure we would all like to know how the Department found money for the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey. I am sure we would all live easier lives if the Minister would confirm that the next time there is a crisis in Government cohesion, she will be able to come up with the resources to rescue the situation. Will the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment outline how, in times of scarce economic resources, €12 million could be found lurking in the corner? Would it not have been possible for her to redistribute that money within her own Department among the programmes which need additional funding or would she say that all the other programmes within her Department had been oversubscribed and did not need that money?

On the issue of insurance, previously the Minister informed the committee that a joint study was being carried out by her Department in conjunction with the Competition Authority. At that time, she indicated that it would be a year, at least, before we would receive that report, but it seems that there were many issues arising regarding insurance accepted by everybody as problem areas. Would it not be possible to proceed to rectify those problem areas without having to wait for the full publication of the glossary report before any movement can occur? I say that in the context of the difficulties the cost of insurance causes to everybody of which the Minister is fully aware. It seems to me that we could make a little progress without waiting to put everything in place.

I want to be associated with Deputy Howlin's comments on two issues. First, I would be delighted to see the Minister attend the committee frequently because it would give her and backbenchers like me a chance to hear each others views and collectively we might have something worthwhile to say. I also want to be associated with Deputy Howlin's comments on the community employment scheme, and particularly on the issue of the Irish Wheelchair Association. I hope the services of the association will continue.

Deputy Hogan mentioned the BMW region and of course the Minister will be aware that Wexford fulfils all the depressing criteria of disadvantage that went with Objective One status, but we were not contiguous to the main areas and consequently we were not included. In the allocation of industry it is important to remember places like Wexford, which suffer disadvantage without the status.

I want to make a few quick points about insurance. I congratulate the Minister on the tremendous work she has been doing to improve the area of insurance. As Deputy Howlin stated, it is the one area which can cripple industry in the short-term and is probably on its way to doing so. If the Minister had not had the courage to take it on, it probably would have been crippled by now. Is it possible to introduce amending legislation to shift responsibility to the individual? For example, while on a recent visit to Spain I noted that there are holes all over the street into which people must fall, but I do not think the individual enjoys the same advantage as our law seems to confer on people who fall, willingly or unwillingly, in Ireland. That is something which needs to be addressed.

When subversive organisations posed a threat to the State in recent history, we introduced the Special Criminal Court. Is it possible to adopt the same solution in the case of insurance so that one need not go to the High Court for small claims? It must be possible to set up a special court of some sort.

Is it possible to introduce the theory section of the driving test into the second level curriculum, particularly in transition year? It could be introduced anyhow so that youngsters become aware of road safety. If the driving test itself cannot be so introduced, certainly the theory section could be. The three measures to which I referred would help to reduce insurance costs.

On inflation and competition, when the Competition Authority came before the committee I asked its representative to explain to a new Deputy how the price of a half dozen eggs, for example, increases by 400% from the time they leave the farm gate to the time they are bought by the consumer. He did not know why this was so. The Department of Agriculture and Food was also before the committee and its officials did not know the answer either. Without excessive interference in the marketplace, can anything be done to introduce competitiveness, particularly in the area of farm produce?

The other area of concern is banking. The costs of changing the provisions of a bank loan are prohibitive. It must be possible to attach the details of one's birth certificate to a bank loan so that if one wants to change the provisions, the birth certificate reduces all these huge legal charges. When interest rates change one cannot avail of competition if one is locked into a bank loan for ten years. We have seen that AIB, for example, is not reducing its rates by 0.5% while other banks are, but one cannot change from AIB because of the legal issues involved. The position would be different if one were required to produce a birth certificate or a passport on taking out a loan.

Those are the main areas of concern to me. I congratulate the Minister on increasing redundancy payments. She deserves the congratulations of all of us on that. As this is the only forum in which a backbencher has any say, the more often I would see her here, the more I would like it.

I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and compliment her on the good work she is doing, especially with the new redundancy package. There has been much mention of the BMW area. In that regard I wish only to emphasise that she try to make sure that more industries come into that area because that is what is supposed to happen.

I compliment IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland. The fact that unemployment has fallen to 4.6% is a great achievement for both of these agencies and every agency involved. We must give credit where it is due. The only issue I wish to raise about IDA Ireland is that there may be small investors of Irish origin in foreign countries, especially in the United States, who might like to start small businesses in Ireland. I am told that IDA Ireland is pursuing the bigger fish. Perhaps it is more economical to do so but we would have no difficulty with two or three small investors coming into areas like my own, rather than one big investor. Perhaps the Minister should look at this side of the issue.

The issue of insurance has been discussed at length. We on the committee offer the Minister every support in ensuring that the price of insurance reduces at all levels.

There was much mention of CE schemes. The cap on the CE schemes, rather than the cutbacks, is the biggest problem, especially for people with disabilities. There should be no cap for those over 50. It is difficult for a person in a wheelchair to adapt to a new assistant after three years when one is dropped from the CE scheme in favour of another who is untrained. We should look at this, especially to make sure there would be no cap for those over 50.

There is much factory space available due to closures and there is a danger that it could fall into the wrong hands. Is there any way that the Department can acquire these factories, which are in perfect condition but may fall into the wrong hands? IDA Ireland and other agencies have spent a great deal of money building these factories in years gone by and it would be a pity if they were not available in the future when the opportunity arises for employment in those areas.

I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to the committee. I would go along with what Deputy Howlin said about the exchange of ideas. The committee is ideal for that type of interaction and it is not hamstrung by the fact that what the Minister says is not necessarily expected to translate into legislation the next day. The committee system is a great development.

Without going into any great detail, I want to deal with the notion of community employment. I must admit that I look at it from a different point of view. Somebody asked me recently were there more people in wheelchairs nowadays or from where are they coming. The questioner was quite right in that a number of years ago we did not see people who were physically disabled on the streets and we are beginning to see it now. The reason for this is that they have help in getting out of their homes. If we reduce the number of people on these schemes, they will go back into their homes and simply not be able to participate in normal society. If the Minister reduces the number of people on community employment schemes, who will provide the service? We do not have the voluntary ethos we used to have because we have discouraged it down through the years. We have encouraged people to enter mainstream employment and to be more productive. This prevents people from doing two hours of voluntary service at night in their community centres. I have certainly encouraged it because I keep telling women that work is good for one and that they should be active in their communities and, if possible, paid for their expertise, in whatever field.

The difficulty with the decline in volunteerism is that the services provided to people who need additional help in order to participate are being removed. This worries me greatly. It must be very difficult and off-putting for a person with a disability to allow a different special needs assistant into his or her life, in an intimate way, after having become acquainted with that assistant's predecessor over a period of three years. I would not like this and that is why I welcomed the notion of mainstreaming, ring-fencing and bringing service providers in under the headings of health or education. At least this creates a pool and means that people who may not have the necessary qualifications or the correct letters after their names have the expertise. This was a very good idea and it is unfortunate that it is not being implemented in full. This is why people with disabilities are feeling very vulnerable and are becoming very worried. Something needs to be done about this and we need to ascertain how people with a disability can participate in the normal activities of everyday life if they need additional help.

The Minister mentioned that food prices in Ireland have risen by twice the eurozone average over the past five years. Why do products cost a certain amount at the farm gate and increase in price - not in value - by 400% in some instances by the time they reach the consumer's table? One can wring one's hands and ask how this happens, but it is obvious that this increase in cost occurs between the farm gate and the table. We will have to address this. As someone who shops every week - I am sure most members present do so as well, if they were to admit it - I realise that most people are on a fixed income, apart from people who receive dividends half way through the year or who can decide the value of their salaries. National pay agreements decide the value of the increases people on fixed incomes receive every year. When I do my shopping every week, no matter where I do it, there is a continuous stream of price increases. This will ultimately affect people's health because if they have only a certain sum of money although prices continue to rise, they will buy food of a poorer quality because they will not be able to afford food of a higher quality. It is imperative that we intervene at a very early stage.

I welcome the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and her team. While there is a tendency to talk down the economy and the country at present, I do not do so. One of the great problems we face is that we seem to have lost a great deal of pride. I accept that there are problems and that we are an island nation, but I also know that we are doing quite well compared to other countries. That is not to say that there should be complacency. We all remember a time, not too long ago, when there were queues of people on the streets waiting for employment benefits. It is great to see how this has changed.

Many of the problems that do exist have been touched upon. The high cost of insurance is creating enormous problems and a corollary of this is that many small firms and businesses are operating without insurance. I am glad that this issue is being tackled.

The circumstances of those in receipt of disability benefits and those in wheelchairs must be examined very seriously and with great sympathy because the decline of the community employment schemes and of volunteerism is causing a major problem. Volunteerism is no longer evident and many clubs are totally dependent on community employment schemes. Nowadays people are used to being paid for everything they do and the great volunteers that ran certain organisations are not with us any longer. I ask the Minister to examine the disability sector in particular.

I have approached the IDA on four occasions with proposals for little businesses, enterprises or projects in my small town of Cappoquin, which has 1,000 people, but it made no land available to me because I was told it should be used only for manufacturing purposes. I am not apportioning blame and know that there were reasons for this rule when it was introduced but it should be re-examined, particularly in respect of the regions far from Dublin. I wish the Minister well with the work she is doing.

Most issues have been covered but I want to emphasise the issue of the community employment schemes. Everybody accepts that these schemes are of tremendous benefit to the participants and their communities, yet, despite enormous efforts by most members of the Opposition, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment has refused to increase the numbers involved in them. However, this time last year, when I suggested in the House that we should set up a social employment scheme for those over 55, people with disabilities and lone parents, the Minister stated that she would have discussions with the relevant Minister on establishing a scheme that would, at least, alleviate the problem the cutback in the community employment schemes was causing for communities trying to develop projects. I asked very specifically when this scheme would be developed and the Minister stated that this information would be in the Estimates. Is this the case?

The IDA's recent announcement that it is finding it extremely difficult to attract industry into the BMW region is extremely worrying for people in that region, but it is more worrying for those outside that region who are experiencing the same level of disadvantage that is evident within it. When the country was originally divided into regions according to their levels of disadvantage, there was a fair commitment by the then Government that certain areas in the southern and eastern area would be identified and that the black spots would be picked out. I refer in particular to the black spot area of Duhallow in north Cork because most statistics show that it is second only to the Inishowen peninsula in terms of disadvantage. If the IDA cannot attract industries into the BMW region with substantial grants, it has no chance of attracting them into areas with similar characteristics in the southern and eastern region. From that point of view, we have to be realistic. If that is the case, Enterprise Ireland will have to seriously consider what it can do for black spots, particularly in the southern and eastern regions of the area. Lest the Minister think otherwise, I am not including Macroom because it has already established that it is capable of getting and sustaining a viable industry from the IDA, which I hope will happen quite quickly again.

All members have had an opportunity to contribute, for which I thank them. Before I call on the Minister to respond, I would like to congratulate all the voluntary organisations throughout the country. I drove from Mullingar to Galway last Monday and I have never seen Ireland looking so beautiful with banners, bunting and a festival mood of welcome for those who are participating in the Special Olympics. I can remember only two other such occasions, the Papal visit in 1979 and An Tostal, for which we have to go back to the 1950s when most members were not even born, and which was an enormous success. The motivation of those people who have got involved in the Special Olympics and who have initiated the biggest voluntary effort the country has seen since the Papal visit, is evident at this point in time and is a good example for the Government to follow by getting behind it and continuing the good work.

I want to be associated with the call here this morning regarding the community employment schemes, particularly those involved in assisting people in wheelchairs. It certainly is a human issue. It is an issue for which a caring Government must take responsibility. The amount of money involved is small compared to the greatness of the return in care, attention and happiness, the most important word in the dictionary.

We have strong representation from the south-east on the committee. I congratulate them on the forceful way in which, on all occasions when Ministers and particularly the Tánaiste attend, they make a case for the area that elects them. We have to be mindful of the BMW area which is represented by only one or two other members along with myself. The next three years will make or break the BMW area. As Deputies for the constituencies of the BMW area we will be continuously reminding the Government of this for the next three years. I make this short contribution as a member rather than as Chairman of the committee. I now call on the Minister to respond.

Thank you very much. I thank all the members of the committee for their contributions. To add to what the Chairman said about voluntary effort, I had the pleasure last night of engaging with the Irish team who are staying in Lucan. It is fantastic to see the excitement of the team and the great enthusiasm with which they approach these games. There has been a huge voluntary effort. However, I have to acknowledge that many of the people I met last night who have taken this week off work and, in some cases, next week, are not available on an ongoing basis to do voluntary activity and we need to acknowledge that fact.

Let me say, by way of introductory response, that I would be more than happy and would very much welcome the opportunity to come before this committee perhaps every term because I like to engage with others. Politics is about ideas and nobody has a monopoly of wisdom in any area, least of all me. When one is in Government one is so busy going from one meeting to the next and from one piece of legislation to the next that perhaps one gets less time to think than when one is in Opposition. It is very good for a Minister who has been six years in office to engage in discussion of ideas with spokespeople of all parties, including Government parties. Perhaps we could facilitate that once a quarter, totally separate from the Estimates. I believe that would be very good for all of us. I find myself engaging in discussion with Deputies Hogan and Howlin regarding some of these matters in the corridors or while waiting to vote in the Dáil. It is more often in those situations that I hear their perspectives than in formalised contributions around specific topics.

Let me say to Deputy Hogan that I have no doubt that there are some people in Fianna Fáil and other parties who think everything that is wrong with the Government is caused by me and Deputy McDowell and that everything that is right is done by Fianna Fáil.

The Minister is punching above her weight.

Equally there are people in the Progressive Democrats who think everything that is right is because of us and everything that is wrong is because of Fianna Fáil. We have to accept that competition works in politics as well. The reality is we work in a coalition environment and I believe we work well. I am more than prepared to take my share of responsibility for what the Government signs on for, whether or not it is unpopular. That is the way Government operates. The Estimates are not agreed by me. They are agreed by the Government and there is always full and robust discussion regarding many matters.

That brings me to the issue of community employment schemes. I have a couple of things to say about community employment. It was, in fact, social employment and was introduced at a time when unemployment was at 17% and there was mass emigration. The Government of the day decided it could not allow these figures to go substantially beyond 200,000. The community employment scheme had a triple effect. First, it helped to keep down the level of unemployment, even though it was so high; second, it provided worthwhile experience and training; and, third, and very important in today's context, it began to supply services on the ground that, in some cases, did not exist or would have petered out because of women, who are the backbone of voluntary activity in many of these areas, going into the workforce.

I am very conscious that although we have achieved full employment and we have good training mechanisms, and to a large extent it is no longer a training scheme, relatively few people now move from community employment into the world of work. It is essentially, although not exclusively, a provider of services on the ground. I take the view that if we could encourage people who are unemployed, for the additional sum they would get by being on CE, to participate in 19 hours' activity a week with an organisation, that would be very good for those individuals and for this country. We need to have a closer relationship between what is happening in CE and the Department of Social and Family Affairs. I and my colleague, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, have been discussing this. It does not make sense, because of budgetary policy, to reduce the numbers in my Department - which is supposed to be about training people for the labour market - in order to meet particular financial criteria, and then have those people surface in another Department. I am sure the bureaucracy involved costs more than the individuals actually get per week. We have to be very radical in that regard.

As regards the wheelchair association, nobody is more aware than I am of the difficulty someone in a wheelchair confronts. My mother is one such person who for the past nine years has been totally confined to a wheelchair. I know how impossible life is for wheelchair victims on their own. The community employment places are ring-fenced. The difficulty arises regarding the individuals. The three or five year rule was introduced for very good reasons, to make space for others to move through. I accept, and Deputy Lynch put it very well, that there is a question of privacy and that if somebody takes one to the bathroom, cooks one's meals, dresses one, all of that, it makes for a very intimate relationship. Therefore, if one builds up a very good relationship for a period of years it is not easy to stop and start again and it is probably not very dignified. We need to look at the issues that surround that. Without saying any more than that at the moment, the places are ring-fenced. If we want to keep the people that are there, we know the consequences of that. It means there will be no new people moving through the system. I am not holding back on mainstreaming. We have mainstreamed education and that gave rise to a lot of political fallout as well.

Deputy Howlin referred to the IDA Vote. Let me clarify something. The Vote is down 80% because there was no money paid to Global Crossing in 2003 for interconnectivity. The building grant for the IDA is down to €3 million from €23 million. The difference is that Global Crossing was paid money for connectivity in 2002 that it has not been paid for 2003. That brings me to the €12.1 million which came to the State via the IDA for an unexpected figure for capacity - money that was owed by Eircom. That was paid recently and that is the sum of money that has been identified to kick-start the measures for the disadvantaged that the Minister for Education and Science has announced. It was a sum not provided for in the Estimates. It was an identifiable sum of money and at a meeting between myself and the Minister for Finance, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education and Science, that sum of money was identified for the autumn of this year.

(Interruptions).

Yes, it was in St. Luke's.

Are there any problems in hearing what the Minister is saying? No.

Deputy Hogan referred to companies which do not honour their commitments. I saw some questions from the Deputy in which there may have been an inference that announcements made in the run-up to the general election were not real or substantial. Is he suggesting that Intel, Hewlett Packard, Abbott or any such companies, in the context of an election in any country, would lend their names to an announcement of jobs or investment, with all the effects of that on their investors, employees and the stock exchange? I believe that is too much to expect.

Elan, in Macroom, was one example.

Elan bought the site for €6 million. I do not believe Elan would pay €6 million for a site it had no intention of developing. All of us know what happened to Elan. Fortunately, the company is recovering and I wish it well. It has been a very successful Irish company, of which we are very proud.

The company made a great contribution to the economy in my constituency.

On the matter of commitments, job announcements are generally over a five-year period. There has been slippage on the targets because the global economy has, literally, been on the floor. For example, Intel called off development of its FAB 24 project but is now back on site for some months past. In times of uncertainty, many people will not go ahead with big investments until the market changes. They do not wish to have a building which cannot be used productively, in terms of sending products into the market.

As regards the Comerama workers, my one regret is that I ever told any group I would see what I could do to sort out a situation. I will never make such a statement again.

The problem is that people recalled the Minister's statement.

I do not tell lies. I have defended very unpopular decisions. I have told thousands of workers they would not be covered by the new redundancy Bill. Incidentally, the intention was that the social partnership agreement would be signed last December, before Christmas. Instead, the talks broke up in disarray and did not resume until the end of January. There was no deal agreed before Christmas regarding increased redundancy payments and that would never have been achieved if it had not been signed off by both sides of the social partnership.

During those talks in January, it was made very clear to the trade union movement that the arrangement could not be retrospective. We had the Attorney General's advice in that regard and there is case law in relation to Nokia. No matter how influential, willing or committed I may be, I cannot overturn constitutional law. Perhaps it might be feasible to make ex gratia payments to some limited extent, but there were far more than the Comerama workers involved in the situation. There were many other companies and individuals concerned, such as Peerless Rugs, another company in Roscrea the name of which I cannot recall immediately, and several other companies where the employees only received statutory redundancy.

Accordingly, there was no question of my being in a position to do something in that regard for one group of workers, much as I would have wished to do so. That still remains the situation. Earlier this week, the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food, Deputy Aylward, asked me if an official from the redundancy section of my Department would meet the trade union representing Comerama workers. As I understand the position from my conversation with Deputy Aylward, although people were made redundant and received redundancy payments, they are now back at work which, of course, is a breach of redundancy law. However, a new issue appears to have arisen and I am more than happy to facilitate those discussions with my departmental officials, whom I have already asked to engage with the union concerned.

I believe there is some misunderstanding regarding the budget of FÁS, which has actually increased by 0.2%. Although the Exchequer contribution is down by €45 million, as Deputy Howlin stated, the contribution from the national training fund has increased.

It has not kept pace with inflation.

I accept that. It is fair comment. As regards bodies such as Science Foundation Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, the IDA and so on, every Minister has to have priorities in the context of a budget allocation by the Cabinet and make choices accordingly. With regard to SFI, there are certainly no votes to be gained in that context in the short, medium or even long-term, perhaps. However, it is the right thing to do in the interests of the economy and I appreciate that it has been well received by Deputies opposite, even if they would wish, as I do, that much more could be done.

With regard to the Objective One status and commitments from the IDA, to which a number of Deputies referred, there are real issues regarding infrastructure. On my recent visit with the IDA to North America, our focus was mainly on medical devices companies, which are doing extremely well in Ireland in a very competitive business. Everywhere we went, we were pushing the BMW region and particular locations within that region where there has been no significant development. Many companies made investments there in the 1970s, including Allergen Pharmaceuticals, Baxter Healthcare and others, which commenced with 100 employees and now has 1,000. I am not so certain they would make those decisions today.

We need to have the infrastructure in place, including broadband, electricity, roads and access - speed is of the essence. The global market is a much speedier place, so to speak, in terms of rapid delivery within very tight deadlines in a situation of extremely keen competition. All prospective investors wish to be located near third level colleges - especially universities - and airports. The number of business people travelling into and out of this country every week is quite extraordinary. In the case of one company I know of in Dublin, 30 executives travel from Milan every Monday to work in the IFSC until the following Thursday, when they return home. That is quite typical of many other cases - that is how international business is now transacted, even with modern technology. Clearly, therefore, we have real issues to address. First, we must see that the potential of our airports is fully developed and exploited. Broadband access is probably even more important than roads, although that may not be entirely evident. It is the key to worldwide communications.

We certainly have to expedite our infrastructural development. Yesterday, we had a very refreshing meeting with Professor Manuel Melis Maynar, president of Metro de Madrid, who made a presentation on the Madrid experience to the Cabinet sub-committee on infrastructure. He is respected as a world expert in the design and construction of metro systems and gave us the benefit of his expertise in that regard. He advised that we should be in a position to complete the Dublin project at a cost of €1.1 billion, rather than the substantially higher figures which have been quoted. He also indicated that construction should be under way within eight months after the Government makes its decision, rather than a period of two and a half years or more in the context of our present approach, including the engagement of consultants and so on. However, we still have much work to do in terms of putting our infrastructure in place.

The auditing and accounting Bill, to which Deputy Howlin referred, will not be enacted before the summer recess. It may be just as well to have a period of reflection as there is a substantial level of interest and there are some amendments from Deputies who have made their views known to me, and also from companies who will be affected by the Bill. A period of reflection over the summer period will give us an opportunity to ensure we get it right.

I agree with the point made by Deputy Howlin regarding training for people with disabilities, in terms of moving more towards an employment model. At a recent conference which I attended in Dublin Castle, organised by the Aisling Foundation, there was a slide presentation on disabled people working in companies in Ireland. It demonstrated a remarkable level of success, including people in senior executive positions. Those who appeared to have been most successful were people who became disabled as a result of sporting or traffic accidents, having already established a track record of experience. Those who experienced most difficulty were those who were born with a disability and grew up as disabled persons, acquiring skills and knowledge but still encountering enormous prejudice.

The work attendance record is substantially better among people with disabilities than able-bodied people - that is an established fact. I have just received the report of a study on vocational training of people with disabilities. We need to focus to a greater extent on training for the world of work, in the sense of the real labour market. However, we must also be realistic. For many reasons support employment will also be a very important feature of the situation with regard to people with disabilities.

Reference was made to special courts and insurance. The PIAB which, of course, is not a court, will provide a paper-based system of dealing with claims in cases where there is no liability at issue. The good news regarding insurance is that the number of claims is down very substantially this year. Some of the awards are also substantially lower, although, in a recent case which came to my notice, a judge accused a claimant of committing perjury but still went on to make an award. I do not quite understand the logic of that situation. I hope there will be changes in the approach at judicial level. Matters to which the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is currently attending will help to drive that agenda. On the motor insurance side, which affects all of us individually, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, is very much aware of many things which need to be done, particularly with regard to motorcycles. I understand that 60% of motorcycle drivers have only provisional licences. There are issues around people getting licences who have no training.

Deputy Dempsey made a very good suggestion which I support. This relates to the concept of having a mortgage or loan passport so that one could move easily from one institution to another. I spend my time telling people to shop around. The reality is that if one wants to move a mortgage from AIB to the Bank of Ireland, it would cost so much that it would probably not be worth it. There are legal fees involved and the State charges stamp duty. It would be a good thing if IFSRA, which has responsibility for the financial services authority in this area, looked at the concept of mortgage or loan passports. The consumer protection director, Ms Mary O'Dea, yesterday attended the Cabinet sub-committee on insurance. She has very radical views in that regard. Perhaps the committee will invite her to attend one of the meetings because she is the statutory champion of consumers.

The Deputy spoke about the Ballinasloe factory. We have gone from the stage where the State acquired buildings to one of encouraging private sector development of many of these buildings. We should maintain that position because we need to put the money into other things. There is still a huge plethora of buildings throughout the country which are owned by the State and for which we can get no takers. Our track record in putting buildings where they are required, and getting takers for them, is not good. Tempting as it might be - the issue arose in Kilkenny recently - we must invest our money elsewhere and encourage private sector development. The kind of business environment modern business needs may be very different from the traditional factory type space we provided in the past.

On inflation, I do not know why there is such a gap between what farmers get and what consumers pay. The Competition Authority is looking at issues to do with retail price maintenance and distribution. That will be a very worthwhile exercise when completed, but it does not all stack up. To be fair, there are insurance costs and wage costs that feed it but that is not the whole story. This is a very expensive country and we pay ourselves a lot more than other countries. The cost of living has risen at an alarming rate, not just in relation to groceries. The only areas where prices have fallen are footwear and clothing. Prices have fallen in these areas in recent years rather than increased, even at a low rate. I welcome this but the consequences for the traditional textile sector are obvious. Some companies, including those in the traditional sector, are doing extremely well through innovative policies such as outsourcing manufacturing and keeping the higher end of the business in Ireland. We will need to see more of that in the future.

I think I have covered all the issues raised. If not, I will be happy to take questions.

The Minister indicated her desire to look after the community employment schemes, particularly in relation to the disabled. Given that this is the Year of the Disabled, and in light of the events taking place in the country of which we are all very proud, it would be very remiss of this committee if we did not reflect unanimously this fact, that the places and rules of the community employment schemes, as they affect disabled participants, remain in place. There should be change to ensure that facilities for the disabled remain in place.

I thank the Tánaiste and her officials for coming here and members for participating in such a meaningful way. I welcome her offer to have discussions during each session. We look forward to working with her and her officials over the next four years. The sub-committee on insurance looks forward to the attendance of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Tánaiste during the inquiry into insurance between now and the end of July. This may assist them and their fellow Ministers in relation to what needs to be done.