The first matter is in the names of Deputies O'Dowd, Breathnach and Adams. The Deputies will have one minute each to make their initial statement and a further minute each to respond to the Minister.
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Nothing is more important than this debate, short as it may be. Drogheda is a fabulous town of 40,000 citizens. Moneymore is one of the finest estates with which I have ever worked. It is a community of people and families who work together and who are fraught and distressed about what has been happening in their community. A small number of people are engaged in this activity. They are evil and have been targeting, in the most evil way, not only members of their own organisation. The fact that ordinary citizens could be killed, bombed, shot or attacked at any time is entirely unacceptable.
I very much welcome the response of the gardaí. They are on the streets. All Garda leave has been cancelled in County Louth. Regrettably, what has been happening has also necessitated the armed reserve police being on the streets to protect and act in aid of the civil power.
What we need is the immediate tackling of these people by the gardaí. I and, I am sure, the Oireachtas and the Minister, will offer them all the support they can possibly get. There is a deficit in the number of police deployed in Drogheda. Drogheda is the same size as the town of Dundalk but while Drogheda has 107 policemen deployed, Dundalk has 159. I accept that the number of policemen deployed is a matter not for the Minister but for the Garda Commissioner. It is not acceptable there is this deficit in policing in Drogheda and it must be urgently addressed.
In recent days the decent people of Drogheda have had their town described as gangland-gripped. That is evident from the seriousness of the need to cancel Garda leave in the Louth division. The escalation of thuggery and crime in Drogheda was foreseen and flagged by me to An Garda Síochána and acknowledged as far back as last June. My concern was based on meeting people who were caught up in incredible fear and intimidation. They were sucked in, some relatively innocently, into the crossfire of these vicious criminals. Many of these young people have never come to the attention of An Garda Síochána before and many more continue to be sucked into the criminal underworld. Some subsequently have had to seek anonymity and emigrate while their families continue to be intimidated by these gangs seeking retribution for the debts which they have cleverly and deliberately made sure to accrue to secure the false loyalty of these young people and the expansion of their criminal activities.
The Minister should be under no illusion that what is happening in Drogheda is not confined to there but is being experienced in all the smaller towns and villages in County Louth and beyond into which these thugs' tentacles have expanded. These will continue to cause grief and expand unless steps are taken.
Incidents of drug-related crime in Dundalk and Drogheda have escalated to an intolerable level. Since first elected, I and other Sinn Féin representatives have worked closely with An Garda Síochána. The victims of these attacks are victims of unscrupulous and dangerous drug pushers who are targeting them for drug debts which are not theirs. In one particular case, one family had €11,000 demanded from it.
I wrote to the Minister, as well as speaking to senior gardaí, about this. In his response, the Minister said that An Garda Síochána was reviewing its drug-related intimidation reporting programme. Will the Minister inform us if that review is complete? Will he accept that additional resources are needed for Garda youth diversionary projects such as the High Voltage and the TEAM Garda youth diversion projects in Dundalk and the Boyne and CABLE youth diversion projects in Drogheda, as well as the family resource network. According to a reply to a parliamentary question, there are currently five community gardaí in Drogheda and six in Dundalk. That figure has not increased since 2013. The position of junior liaison officer in Dundalk is now vacant.
An Garda Síochána deserves our fullest support. Will the Minister support the resourcing of a specialist drugs unit for Louth, which was previously promised by him?
I am aware of the impact that the type of criminal activity that took place in Drogheda last weekend can have on a community. I understand the concerns being expressed by the people of Drogheda and other areas of Louth which have been articulated to me on their behalf by Deputy O’Dowd on several occasions over the past few weeks.
This type of criminal behaviour will not be tolerated. The Garda Commissioner is responsible for the distribution of Garda resources, including personnel among the various Garda divisions. I, as Minister, have no direct role in the matter. However, I am advised that Garda management keeps this distribution of resources under continual review in the context of crime trends and policing priorities to ensure the optimum use is made of these resources in Drogheda, as well as in other parts of Louth and beyond.
On the specific incidents referred to by the Deputies, I am advised that An Garda Síochána is conducting full and detailed investigations into each case. As such it would be inappropriate for me to comment while these investigations are ongoing. However, I have been informed by An Garda Síochána that gardaí have put in place a policing operation to prevent, detect and mitigate against any further escalation of violence. In addition to cancelling all Garda leave in the Louth division for the next two weeks, the operation will entail high-visibility patrols supplemented by personnel from the regional armed support unit, community policing units, district detective and drug units and divisional roads policing unit.
An Garda Síochána has further advised it will continue to make every effort to disrupt the activities of any groups who may be involved in these incidents, to arrest and prosecute offenders and deny access to the road networks for those involved.
On drug-related crime, An Garda Síochána remains resolute in its determination to act against those in society who pose a significant threat to the welfare and well-being of our citizens and the communities they serve. A core focus of the work carried out by An Garda Síochána is aimed at tackling drugs and organised crime. The continued disruption of the supply of all illicit drugs remains a priority for An Garda Síochána and the other State agencies tasked with responsibilities in this regard. Liaison is also ongoing between An Garda Síochána and other relevant stakeholders, including the local authorities, Tusla, the HSE and others.
If anyone has any information about these incidents in Drogheda, they should contact their local or nearest Garda station or through the Garda confidential line, 1800 666111, as soon as possible. Any information, no matter how small, could be of great assistance to the ongoing Garda inquiries and investigations in Drogheda.
I welcome the Minister's response and the commitment he received from the Garda Commissioner that no stone will be left unturned to get these criminals. The fear must be in the bedroom of the criminal, not in that of the ordinary citizens who are having sleepless nights in some parts of Drogheda. This must end. I must point again to the inequality in Garda numbers in two towns of equal size. It is unacceptable that Dundalk has 52 more gardaí than Drogheda. While it is a matter for the Garda Commissioner, it is also a matter for public comment in that we needed more gardaí on the streets of Drogheda before these recent incidents happened.
I welcome the interest the Minister has shown in this matter. There is an open invitation for him to visit Drogheda. It is important the Garda Commissioner visits Drogheda, as he did other parts of the country recently, at an appropriate time such as for a local policing committee meeting.
We are absolutely resolute in Drogheda that there must be more gardaí and that they are fully supported. These criminals must be put behind bars for a long time. If we need to change the law and put tougher penalties on them, we must do that.
I acknowledge the Minister's contribution and the importance and efforts of An Garda Síochána, the joint policing committees, local authorities and other agencies in doing their best with the resources they have to tackle any forms of anti-social behaviour and organised crime. Often their hands are tied due to lack of resources.
I acknowledge Garda numbers have improved in the general district with nine new recruits joining recently. It is evident from my research that what is needed is more experience in the district, however. Manpower is one matter but there is a need for an enhanced Garda fleet and proper community policing. These services are currently depleted and in some cases are non-existent. This gives the opportunity of a free rein for these drug barons. All research has shown that high-visibility community policing engagement is the best deterrent. More uniformed Garda inspectors are needed who would be responsible for the supervision and direction of uniformed gardaí and sergeants to ensure management plans and strategies are properly implemented. However, uniformed inspectors have gone from a strength of six to zero in the past five years in the region. We need more front-line gardaí or, in other words, more boots on the ground.
If this does not change, I have a real concern that there is a generation coming up who already have some involvement in this criminal underworld through their siblings. This is a vicious circle and if the resources are not increased to deal with the insidious criminal drug culture which has grown exponentially in the region, there will be more loss of life. We have 20 year olds who want blood and have no conscience about maiming or killing. At times like Hallowe'en, gardaí only had to deal with bangers and stones. Now they are dealing with firearms.
An Garda Síochána can only use the resources it is given by the Minister. It does not have enough resources. There are five community gardaí in Drogheda and only six in Dundalk. That is not good enough. It is not good enough that there is a vacancy for a junior liaison officer in Dundalk. It is not good enough that there are not enough resources for community projects.
The Minister did not answer my question about whether the review of the drug-related intimidation programme is completed.
That is also not good enough. I ask, at least, for an answer to that question. Is the review completed?
Unprecedented levels of resources have been made available by the Government to An Garda Síochána-----
Not good enough.
-----as evidenced by the recent budget. I want it to be absolutely clear that the type of criminal behaviour we have seen in Drogheda has no place in a civilised society and will not be tolerated.
An Garda Síochána has overcome similar challenges in the past and will do so again. Gardaí in Drogheda have put in place a policing operation to prevent, detect and mitigate against any further escalation of violence in the area. The operation will entail a number of high-visibility patrols. I am sure Deputies from the area will join me in wishing them well in their endeavours.
I assure the House that I am firmly committed to supporting An Garda Síochána and ensuring the organisation is appropriately resourced. Available resources have reached unprecedented levels with provision for 2018 standing at more than €1.6 billion, including an allocation of €95 million in respect of overtime. Further tangible progress is being made on achieving the Government's vision of an overall Garda workforce of 21,000 personnel by 2021. Since the reopening of the Garda College in September 2014, almost 2,200 recruits have attested as members of An Garda Síochána and ongoing recruitment will continue. Additional policing hours have been provided for across the country by way of both increased numbers of gardaí and the redeployment of experienced personnel to front-line policing duties on foot of civilianisation.
As of 30 September 2018, there are 331 full-time gardaí in County Louth. With the reopening of the Garda College in Templemore, there are 35 new gardaí on the streets of Drogheda. However, I acknowledge what Deputy O'Dowd and others have said and will convey their concerns directly to Garda headquarters. Unprecedented investment is being made in Garda ICT infrastructure. The provision of €342 million between 2016 and 2021 will enable An Garda Síochána to deliver on reform, work more efficiently and deploy cutting edge technologies to deliver a professional policing and security service for the community, including Drogheda.
Direct Provision System
I am deeply concerned that instead of trying to dismantle the shameful and unacceptable direct provision system, the Government is hell-bent on expanding the number of centres operating across the State. Direct provision is the incarceration of innocent people and, with good reason, it is often referred to as the Magdalen laundries of our generation. I received an email last week from the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, last week to invite me and others to a meeting tomorrow evening to outline its proposals to open a direct provision centre in the Grand Hotel in Wicklow town. This was somewhat disingenuous as I am informed that 13 rooms in the hotel are currently occupied under RIA's direct provision system already. As such, it appears this is not a proposal but is already being rolled out. Centres are often referred to as "holding camps" and as sites of deportability. For the Department to open another centre in the Grand Hotel in Wicklow town amid public outrage at the system is to show utter contempt for public opinion and refugees alike.
There is also a great deal of concern in the country about the loss of the only hotel in Wicklow town and the impact of that on tourism. Questions have been asked about how this fits into the recently launched tourism strategy for Wicklow. To open a new direct provision centre in Wicklow town will not serve the vulnerable people we must serve and protect as they arrive in the State seeking international protection. It will also not serve the recently launched tourism strategy. The only people it will serve are those private parties who are making multiple millions from this system. What is the Minister doing to dismantle the direct provision system? What process is used to identify the accommodation centres used? In this instance in Wicklow, were other centres actually considered?
Whether a person is refused or granted asylum, the process is taking far too long. Those people are kept locked up given the way it is done. Media reports from the last few days suggest that some people appear to be making a business of going around the country getting hotels to access the financial gain, to put it bluntly. When agreeing terms with a prospective person or company, does the Department check if the buildings proposed are planning compliant and does it check whether recreation facilities will be available for the vulnerable people involved? Are the buildings fire compliant? Does the Department check whether there are legal challenges in the background or does it simply make an agreement on a facility? I am referring in particular to the centre in Roosky.
For the State to meet its obligations as set out in Directive 2013/33/EU, which lays down standards for the reception of persons seeking international protection, and SI 230 of 2018, the State must have available sufficient accommodation to meet the demand of persons in the protection process. Due to significant demand, my Department has sought to identify additional accommodation by publishing notices seeking expressions of interest in the national press as the current accommodation portfolio will not meet the demand. It is by way of an expression of interest in response that the premises in Wicklow town and elsewhere were offered to the Department. To answer Deputy Fitzmaurice in that respect, officials do not go around looking for places. They are offered to the Department by the owners. As with all our accommodation centres, whether they are located in rural or urban areas, my Department will work closely with all relevant State agencies such as the Heath Service Executive and the Departments of Education and Skills and Employment Affairs and Social Protection to ensure that the services the residents of the accommodation centre require will be available to them.
All contractors are obliged to meet the reasonable transport needs of residents. Where an accommodation centre is not in place where public transport is readily available, additional transport arrangements are provided in consultation with Reception and Integration Agency. I stress that transport costs are funded through the local community welfare officer or RIA as appropriate. The contractor at each centre will also be required to set up a "friends of the centre" group as recommended in the McMahon report to facilitate linkages between the residents and the local community to encourage integration. My Department works closely with such groups to achieve these aims. Planning is checked with the relevant local authority to ensure there is compliance. Fire regulations are also checked out with the local authority. Recreation areas are important, as Deputy Fitzmaurice points out, and they are available. I cannot answer any questions about legal challenges. Deputy Brady asked if other sites were looked at but it does not work that way. Centres are offered on foot of a call for expressions of interest. If a centre is suitable, the Department enters into discussions with the owner or contractor to agree a contract to provide for people. We are all concerned about the people who come here looking for protection. That is paramount.
These are not Magdalen laundries. People are free to come and go. I ask that people do not use that kind of terminology as it is not fair to the people who live in the centres to have them described as holding camps. That is not the case. People are free to come and go from the accommodation which is offered to them. They do not have to take that offer up and some do not. Some people have friends and relatives with whom they can stay. If somebody arrives at Dublin Airport, Cork Airport or any of the ports and applies for asylum tonight, he or she will be offered accommodation if he or she needs it.
The likely alternative is for them to be on the streets and no Members want that. We are currently at capacity because approximately 3,500 people will seek accommodation under that process this year. That is why we put out a call for expressions of interest under which interested parties will offer accommodation to the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA.
There is no current plan to dismantle our accommodation centres because there is no available alternative. Similar systems are in operation across Europe. The McMahon report has been published and the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children ensure that standards in direct provision are as high as possible. As the Deputies will be aware, there was a change to the law as alluded to by Deputy Fitzmaurice to speed up the decision-making process to progress people through the system. The number of people in the system varies with frequent arrivals and departures. We are doing our best to move people through the system as quickly as possible.
The Minister of State missed the key point. I did not describe the centres as Magdalen laundries. Rather, the NGOs which deal with refugees seeking protection in this State did so. They are right to point out that direct provision centres are the modern-day equivalent of Magdalen laundries. The problem is that the Government is turning to the private sector to address the accommodation needs of these refugees. We need to provide accommodation for asylum seekers but the reliance on the private sector in that regard is part of the problem.
I wish to offer a short-term accommodation solution to the issue I outlined in Wicklow town. The district hospital in the town closed in 2010-11. It is vacant and in State ownership. It is close to all of the services the Minister of State outlined need to be in place and could be brought on stream to a high standard and meet all the needs of the refugees quickly and cheaply. That would ensure Wicklow town does not lose its only hotel. It would mean moving away from paying for private sector accommodation and would allow us to develop secure, safe, publicly provided accommodation that is suitable for the needs of asylum seekers.
We must ensure that the process of seeking asylum is not long and torturous. The lengthy waiting time is part of the problem, with people locked in direct provision centres for three or more years. The process must be sped up to ensure that places in the centres are freed up for asylum seekers.
I ask the Minister of State to pass on my proposal regarding Wicklow district hospital to RIA and his Department.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Is he or his Department concerned at what appears to be the concentration of contracts in the hands of certain providers? He is correct that it is not the fault of the Department and that people are free to tender for the contracts. Is there a concern that some providers are seeking the contracts for three, four or five centres? I welcome that the Minister of State clarified that the centres must be compliant with planning law and fire certification. If there is a concentration of supply, does the Department check what legal stipulations apply to those tendering for multiple contracts? I presume the contracts would not be signed before that is carried out.
I again urge caution in drawing comparisons to the Magdalen laundries. There is a significant difference. Those in direct provision were offered accommodation. They can come and go as they wish and they are treated very well. Inspections are carried out by the Ombudsman for Children among others. It is a completely different situation. Not all of the centres are operated or owned by the private sector; some are owned by the State. I will consider the proposal made by Deputy Brady regarding Wicklow district hospital.
On legal issues, I ask Deputy Fitzmaurice to notify us in writing of any legal concerns he may have. The centres are rigorously checked by RIA.
I thank the Deputies for raising this important topic. Earlier this year, RIA published in the national press a call for expressions of interest in providing premises to meet the increasing demand for accommodation for persons in the protection process. I emphasise that we put out a call for expressions of interest. The Department and RIA do not go around picking places and knocking on doors. The call sought expressions of interest from parties interested in providing accommodation and related services on an urgent and emergency basis. It was issued in response to an unforeseen demand for accommodation and related services for persons arriving in the State seeking international protection.
The criteria against which the Department assessed the offers of accommodation were availability, standard of the property, ability to provide communal and social spaces for residents, ability to cater at mealtimes and proximity to various other services. It should be noted that the premises were offered to the Department by individual contractors across the country and the Department did not randomly choose any location over another. It should also be noted that several centres are located in rural areas and are run successfully with all residents having access to required services.
Following on-site assessments carried out by staff of the Department, the Grand Hotel in Wicklow town, Caiseal Mara Hotel in Moville and Shannon Key West Hotel in Rooskey were deemed suitable. The premises are, or after refurbishment will be, capable of providing meals to residents, have the scope to provide the required communal and social areas and are located close to other social services with the support of additional transport if needed. My Department has engaged with the chief executives of local authorities in each of the areas and has provided elected representatives with information regarding the opening of the new accommodation centres. As with every other accommodation centre in the country, the Department works closely with all relevant Departments and agencies to co-ordinate the delivery of State services to residents. The Grand Hotel in Wicklow and Caiseal Mara Hotel in Moville are contracted to accommodate approximately 100 persons for one year pending compliance with all regulatory requirements. The indicative timeline for the opening of the centres is within the next two weeks. The hotel in Rooskey is not expected to be available until later this year after the completion of necessary refurbishment works.
The Department recently commenced a public procurement exercise under which public tenders for the provision of accommodation and ancillary services by way of independent living for persons in the protection process will be advertised to meet accommodation needs in the longer term. This process is scheduled to continue throughout 2019 and be completed in 2020. It will be delivered via a series of regional competitions.
I wish to raise the issue of the decline in water quality at Bellvelly on the great island of Cobh. I was contacted by residents of the area who told me that on Monday last Irish Water lifted a "Do not use" notice. The company stated that customers could resume normal usage of the water for drinking, food preparation, brushing teeth and other domestic use. The notice was lifted following consultation with the HSE and the receipt of satisfactory monitoring results indicating the new water supply was safe to drink. Councillor Cathal Rasmussen and I met the residents last Monday evening after the Irish Water notice was lifted and we were given recent samples of the water. If I could bring one of the samples to the House, I would do so. I am not a scientist, but it was clear that the water was not suitable for human consumption or other domestic use. It was very discoloured.
It is normal practice for Members to try to work through any issues in respect of water supply or sanitary issues in our constituencies with Irish Water, but we have been going around the houses on this issue for some time and I felt compelled to raise it in the House. Several affected families want a solution to this problem which has been going on for 20 years. They want the restoration of a safe supply of potable water that can be used for showering and other everyday domestic use. They want a water supply similar to that enjoyed by the rest of the country. That is their right.
Irish Water should not have lifted the "Do not use" notice on Monday because it is very clear that the water is of insufficient quality and something has gone wrong in the system. The residents will not use the water and they have no confidence in Irish Water.
They can present evidence of the fact that the water is still very discoloured, notwithstanding the flushing of the network. The Minister of State will tell the House that this has been done and that a pH correction has already been inputted into the water system. I can tell him now that the water quality is not what it should be. The "do not use" notice should not have been issued. We want a response from the Minister of State that states clearly that there will be capital investment to ensure the residents of Belvelly have an adequate and proper water supply.
I thank Deputy Sherlock for raising this issue. I am taking it on behalf of my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. I am pleased to have an opportunity to outline the policy and legislative arrangements that are in place for the development and delivery of water services. I understand that the "do not use" notice in respect of water services at Belvelly was removed in recent days and that Irish Water and Cork County Council have notified consumers on the affected section of the network that normal water services have been restored. This follows the implementation of remedial measures to deal with the standard level of iron in the supply having been exceeded, as well as the confirmation by the HSE of satisfactory monitoring results. This means everyone can resume normal use of the water supply. I acknowledge the patience, co-operation and assistance of the public since the "do not use" notice was put in place on 16 August last. I realise how stressful and distressing service curtailments can be. Any inconvenience caused to householders and the business community at Belvelly is greatly regretted.
Since 1 January 2014, Irish Water has had statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local levels. Irish Water as a single national utility is taking a strategic nationwide approach to asset planning and investment and meeting customer requirements. In October 2015, a water services strategic plan was prepared by Irish Water and obtained ministerial approval. The plan sets out a high-level 25-year strategy to ensure the provision of clean and safe drinking water, effective management of wastewater, environmental protection and support for economic and social development. The first water services policy statement to be prepared in line with the Water Services Acts was published, following approval by the Government, on 21 May 2018. The statement, which outlines a clear direction for strategic planning and decision-making on water and wastewater services, identifies key policy objectives and priorities for the delivery of water and wastewater services over the period to 2025. It sets out a series of high-level policy objectives across the three thematic areas of quality, conservation and future-proofing which must be pursued when capital investment is being planned and current spending plans are being framed. The policy statement will provide the context within which necessary funding and investment plans by Irish Water will be framed and agreed.
Last week, on foot of the water services policy statement, the Minister approved Irish Water's strategic funding plan, which sets out the costs of providing domestic and non-domestic water and wastewater services and the recovery of those costs. The strategic funding plan will feed into the allowed revenue determination for Irish Water by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, as the economic regulator of Irish Water, and will ultimately feed into future annual Estimates and budgetary processes. Irish Water's next investment plan, for the period from 2020 to 2024, will set out the financial plan for capital investment to support its strategic objectives, as set out in the water services strategic plan and the strategic funding plan, to deliver improvements to water services throughout Ireland where they are needed most. Irish Water will also take account of developing subsidiary programmes within its investment plan, such as those aimed at addressing the needs of smaller communities, to assist in implementing the national planning framework and the national development plan. Irish Water will work with each local authority to develop such programmes further for inclusion in future funding requirements.
Water services are essential to the daily lives of our citizens and to the economy. We need to ensure the best and most appropriate arrangements possible are in place for the delivery of these vital services. A substantial proportion of investment by the State through Irish Water over the next ten years will focus on programmes to improve compliance with relevant public health and environmental standards. Deputy Sherlock was pre-empting my reply when he mentioned the flushing of the network, which is not referred to in the document provided to me. I note his comments about the visual quality of the water. I will make contact with Irish Water on the lifting of the "do not use" notice. The HSE's monitoring showed that satisfactory results have been obtained. While I have no reason to doubt the HSE or the Department when they say that the requisite standards have been met, I can recheck the reply. I would also like to refer to the funding of Irish Water measures across the country. Since the establishment of Irish Water, Ministers have not been able to make a direct input into decisions on the funding of projects. It is a matter for Irish Water to make such decisions.
I appreciate the Minister of State's reply. He has given me some comfort with his assurance that he will raise the issue with Irish Water. That is to be welcomed. Although I am not a scientist, I have seen the water samples that were presented on Monday at approximately 8.30 p.m. The "do not use" notice had been lifted some time on Monday morning or afternoon. The residents of Belvelly have no confidence in the water supply. We want Irish Water to be called to account for the lifting of the "do not use" notice. There are serious public safety and public health issues for the residents. They are being told by Irish Water that they can drink the water now, but they see clear discolouration when they look at the water. There are children, babies, older people and people with compromised health living in the community. People want to have confidence that their water supply is as it should be. We want to see an evidence base or benchmark for the quality assurance used by Irish Water. We do not know how, or against what benchmark, Irish Water is measuring what qualifies as or what constitutes good or bad water. The point I would make about the flushing of the pipes is that the water supply infrastructure is very old and Dickensian. It needs capital investment. In light of the number of people living in the Belvelly area - I have been told that up to 175 houses are affected - I am asking for a solution to be found. If we can find €500 million for a rainy day fund, I am sure we can divest a fraction of that amount to start fixing problems like this. Notwithstanding the Minister of State's comments, there is a wider issue with how Irish Water sometimes communicates with Members of the Oireachtas. The relationship is very positive at local level, but further up the food chain the level of engagement with Members tends to diminish from time to time.
I reiterate that my contacts with Irish Water on constituency matters have always been positive.
So have mine, to be honest.
The primary function of Irish Water is to provide clean and safe drinking water to consumers and to treat wastewater in a safe and environmentally correct manner. This is not a question of resources. Irish Water's capital investment plans from 2014 to 2021 have identified that €5.5 billion is necessary for the upgrading of the system. The level of funding available to allow necessary works to be done has increased significantly in the last couple of years. I do not agree with the Deputy's categorisation of flushing as "old and Dickensian".
No, I said that the pipes are Dickensian.
Okay. I misunderstood. I will endeavour to get a response from Irish Water in the context of the safety issue. It is important to point out that in this case, Cork County Council, the HSE and Irish Water lifted the notice together. I have no reason to doubt them.
They did not take samples from the taps in people's houses.
I will endeavour to get the logic and the reasoning behind the decision to lift the notice. I do not think it was done lightly. Water quality is an important issue. We should ensure the highest standards apply. I reiterate that the Water Services Acts 2007 to 2017 give specific roles to Irish Water and to the Minister.
The Minister cannot directly interfere in the allocation of resources to specific schemes. Smaller schemes can be devised between Irish Water and the relevant local authorities. I know a little about the Cork Harbour area and Belvelly would fit into this. I will seek to get a direct response from Irish Water on the issues the Deputy has raised.
I welcome this opportunity to raise an important issue for County Laois, which is the need for IDA Ireland supported jobs and investment in the county. Before I prepared for this debate, I decided to take a strong proactive and positive approach towards working with IDA Ireland to secure jobs and investment in County Laois. All too often when dealing with this matter at local level, too many people take the easy option of attacking IDA Ireland for having a very bad record in respect of County Laois but it has its worst record in the county. This approach on its own has not produced any results. While IDA Ireland has a bad record, I want to concentrate on the positive reasons this can now be corrected.
County Laois is an attractive place for investment and we would welcome foreign investment. The county has an excellent workforce and, surprisingly, 11,500 highly educated people leave Laois by car, van, bus or train to work in other areas, mainly in Dublin. Recently, the local authority conducted a major survey on them. More than 6,000 people responded. A total of 1,671 work in business and IT, more than 1,400 in healthcare, more than 1,000 in training and development, 1,000 in manufacturing and another 1,000 people in retail. A number of people from Laois also work on construction projects outside the county. The regional office of IDA Ireland welcomed the survey and stated it has increased its understanding of the skills profile of County Laois and that it will be helpful for potential investors when considering where to place their investment. Having this insight is important for IDA Ireland.
The survey also shows that a workforce of up to 400,000 people lives within a one-hour commute of Laois, which is also important. Everybody now accepts the central location of County Laois. It is near Dublin but not in Dublin. Land, building, investment, rates and rent are not at Dublin price levels. It is much more economical to set up in County Laois. The roads are of the highest quality of any county in Ireland. We have the M7 and M8 motorways from Dublin to Cork, Limerick and Kerry. We have the best network of motorways in the country. We have outstanding hotels and services. We have a lot of zoned land, particularly in the Portlaoise area. I want IDA Ireland to concentrate on the site it owns on the Mountrath road in Portlaoise. As I mention Mountrath, I want to particularly mention members of the Men's Shed from Mountrath who are visiting the Dáil today. I want IDA Ireland to target the site in its ownership, together with the site that Laois County Council acquired at junction 17 on the M7 and M8 motorways as they turn into County Laois. There is now no good reason investment should not come to the county.
On 16 February, I took the first initiative of its nature when I invited Mr. Martin Shanahan, the chief executive of IDA Ireland, and Ms Julie Sinnamon, the chief executive of Enterprise Ireland, together with local businesses in Laois to have a meeting in Portlaoise. It was the first time the two chief executives ever came to the county for such a meeting. Its purpose was to put Laois on the map and, more important, to put it in the minds of those two key chief executives. They agreed on the day they would return in 12 months, which will be next February, to discuss progress. I look forward to this. I gave them a reasonable period of 12 months and we hope that between now and then there will be substantial progress, site visits and perhaps, with a bit of luck, some good announcement for County Laois. If it is in Portlaoise, everybody will be happy.
I thank the Deputy for promoting County Laois, as he always does when he gets an opportunity to do so in the Dáil and rightly so. I apologise on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, who cannot be present.
The Department and its agencies continue to highlight the benefits of expanding or locating in all of our regions, including County Laois. County Laois is marketed as part of IDA Ireland's midlands region and the agency continues to work hard to create further employment opportunities in the county and to increase the number of multinational companies located there. There are two multinational companies based in Laois, which shows the potential for the county to attract new foreign direct investment and in retaining existing multinational investment over many years. In July, SkOUT Secure Intelligence announced it will open its new Europe, Middle East and Africa, EMEA, headquarters in Portlaoise, creating 30 high value cutting edge cybersecurity jobs in its initial phase. During the summer, Standex Limited celebrated the 40th anniversary of the opening of its operation in Mountmellick, County Laois. Both of these companies clearly represent the positive, enterprise-focused environment for international business that has been fostered in the county.
IDA Ireland actively encourages prospective investors to visit Laois and these site visits represent an important tool through which companies can be encouraged to locate in the county. While site visits are not necessarily linked to job creation, I am heartened that there had been seven site visits as of the third quarter of 2018 compared to four site visits for all of 2017. This positive trend reflects IDA Ireland's ongoing and intensive marketing efforts to promote Laois to as an attractive destination for foreign direct investment. The availability of serviced land and buildings in advance of demand is a key element in IDA Ireland's ability to encourage its clients to locate in a particular county. IDA Ireland operates a business and technology park in Portlaoise with approximately 24 acres of available land for investment. This site is being actively marketed to IDA Ireland clients through its network of offices in Ireland and overseas. IDA Ireland also regularly engages with key stakeholders on the ground in Laois, including local authorities, public bodies, the education sector and companies from its client base and the indigenous sector.
I want to emphasise that creating jobs in the regions is a priority for IDA Ireland and the Department. The Department is focused on doing everything it can to deliver the fairest possible spread of investment throughout the country. The energy and resources we have invested into regional growth is, as the evidence illustrates, now producing results. In 2017, for example, IDA Ireland delivered 99 regional investments with 45% of new jobs created outside Dublin. A total of 30,000 new foreign direct investment jobs have been created outside the capital over the past three years. We will continue to do our utmost to encourage further such job growth across all parts of Ireland in the time ahead.
I thank the Minister of State for his response on the overall approach of IDA Ireland but I want to concentrate specifically on Laois. In recent times, mainly through Enterprise Ireland, Irish businesses have made announcements about Portlaoise. These include Glanbia's cheese plant, SkOUT, as the Minister of State mentioned, and the announcement by Mr. McDonagh. People might not be aware that Portlaoise is the fastest growing town in Ireland based on the recent census. It has a population of 25,000. It has outstanding new schools. Every primary and secondary school in Portlaoise is brand new and was built in recent years. No other town can boast this. It is a good place for people to raise families and we want families to move there.
I want to put on record the official IDA Ireland position in County Laois. At the end of last year, there were 119 IDA Ireland supported jobs in County Laois. By 1 million miles, this is the worst figure of any county in the country. All the surrounding counties fare better on this front. They also fare better when it comes to investment and site visits. However, I appreciate and acknowledge the increase in site visits this year. IDA Ireland needs to step it up and keep it going. It is in their minds and I look forward to the chief executives of IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland coming back to Laois, as they committed to do, in the coming spring. I will work with them to promote the county and I ask for a positive attitude towards IDA Ireland investment in the county. It is something we would all welcome. I look forward to an announcement before then. I am putting pressure on IDA Ireland day in, day out. I am not just doing it on a once a year basis, I am doing it constantly and I will continue to raise the matter in the Dáil and directly and personally with IDA Ireland until we get a good positive result for County Laois. This is what we want to see. I look forward to this happening sooner rather than later.
We have made progress in creating opportunities in Laois and we are determined to achieve more. Total employment in Enterprise Ireland supported companies in Laois now stands at 1,473.
The Deputy may say that is not an awful lot but, by comparison with the figure for 2016, it is an increase of 8%. It is about 3% above the national average.
It is important to emphasise that foreign direct investment forms only one part of the investment in regional locations. As the Deputy is aware, Laois is fortunate to have a strong base of indigenous investment and employment in companies supported by Enterprise Ireland and the local enterprise office. There are 55 companies supported by Enterprise Ireland, employing a total of 1,473 people. Last year alone, the number of Enterprise Ireland-supported jobs in Laois increased by 8%, with 94 additional new jobs added.
My Department is always open to the Deputy. If he needs to seek a meeting with officials to discuss further developments in County Laois, the impact of the midlands action plan for jobs and so on, he may do so. The action plan covers counties Laois, Longford, Offaly and Westmeath. Some 15,300 additional jobs were created in the period 2015 to 2018. Some of these will have been created in County Laois. I offer the Deputy an opportunity to meet officials in my Department at any point in order to discuss investment in County Laois by foreign direct investment companies. If he needs to meet officials from Enterprise Ireland, he should feel free to contact my Department. We will absolutely facilitate a meeting for him.