Joint Committee on European Union Affairs- Tuesday, 1 April 2014

European Semester Process: Committee of the Regions

Deputy Joe O’Reilly:
I thank the Minister of State for his presentation. The entire plan is highly laudatory, as are its objectives, which we support. Naturally, we will place individual emphasis and make individual comments on aspects of it. I had intended to start where the Chairman left off – that is, on the question of regionalisation. I missed the initial presentation from the Committee of the Regions. I am concerned that we would set overall national objectives without having a regional dimension.
Extraordinary progress has been made by Government in creating an environment in which 61,000 jobs have been created over the past 13 months in the private sector. That is an enormous achievement and something about which we should be very proud. The difficulty is that those jobs tend to be created in the major urban centres and in centres with large populations, and we all understand the arguments around that.
In the area I represent, which is represented very competently by Senators Reilly and Comiskey, we have a number of IT companies and PLCs. Broadband is now pretty comprehensively available and we have a good road infrastructure. There is no reason we should decide our region is not capable of creating jobs, of accepting inward investment and of having the personnel to make it work. I put it to the Minister of State that it would be very helpful if regional targets we set or, at least, if there was a commitment to regionalisation.
Yesterday, when I spoke at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly plenary session in Dublin Castle, I put it to Mr. Frank Ryan, chairman of the IDA, that I was very keen on getting jobs into the regions and places such as Cavan-Monaghan.
Mr. Ryan referred to the IDA proposals for a short and medium-term plan in the next few months. He made a commitment to look again at the question of bringing more jobs to the regions. Unfortunately I will not be present to hear the Minister of State’s response but I would be very grateful if he could indicate his personal support for bringing a spread of jobs to the regions and embodying that target in the programme. There should be a commitment in writing to bringing jobs to the regions. I think the people we represent deserve not to be written out of the national economic recovery.
I welcome the excellent job activation measures. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, deserves a commendation for her pioneering work on changing the concept of what was traditionally known as the dole – a paternalistic payment for bare existence – into a payment for people who are jobseekers in the real sense. These measures give people the opportunity to find employment. What has been done in the area of job activation is excellent. I am very happy with the written commitment to implement the youth guarantee, albeit incrementally, and I am interested in learning the targets that have been set for the short term. My colleague Senator Kathryn Reilly organised an excellent seminar on the youth guarantee scheme some weeks ago in Cavan. My colleagues who attended told me about the very good discussion. The experience in Finland would suggest that the youth guarantee is a concept that we should pursue.
Many young people cannot get an apprenticeship because of the decline in construction, a sector now experiencing a 60% rate of unemployment. Contractors who had small businesses such as plumbing and heating are no longer functioning. A young person who wants a trade cannot readily access an apprenticeship. I think there should be a commitment to simulated apprenticeships in colleges and schools. It is not beyond the imagination to create the same tasks in an artificial environment, so that young people can pursue an apprenticeship. Of course one would prefer if these young people were out in the real world, but unless we address this issue, there will be a dearth of tradespeople and many youngsters will miss out on this opportunity. In so far as they would need practical experience, could opportunities be created in public projects in conjunction with SOLAS?
The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, has introduced a number of financial initiatives, but we need a State system to finance small business in parallel with the banking sector and the private sector financial houses. This would stimulate them to do better. We need an initiative to get small business going. I am happy with the increase in expenditure on research and development, which is vital.
The UN report, which was covered widely in the media, puts the issue of climate change and energy into perspective. The Minister of Stater was unnecessarily humble in suggesting that he would not be able to address all the areas, but I am sure he can. Is there a possibility that we can reduce the cost of wind energy? It is the most natural source of energy we have, but I understand it remains too expensive. Will the Minister of State comment on that?
Nobody wants to speak about the elephant in the room – nuclear energy. We have a NIMBY culture and some politicians pander to every group who want to stop development in the country. We must become more mature and, as politicians, give a lead to people. In the context of climate change and having to maintain our agricultural economy and reach the targets in Harvest 2020, we may have to look at new nuclear technology afresh. I ask the Minister of State to respond to that. It is too atavistic and simplistic to immediately dismiss nuclear energy. If I had to face a choice between nuclear energy and the dismantling of our agricultural industry, which creates jobs in my area, I would have no doubt as to what should be done. We have to examine how we can reduce our demand on energy, and in my view nuclear energy should not be dismissed totally. We should at least conduct a cost-benefit analysis of its use.
I welcome the targets set for early school leavers. I know it sounds outside the box, but the provision of two years of preschool education will alleviate poverty and in the long run will deal with much early school leaving. From my experience as a teacher I know that intervention at the youngest possible age is the way to deal with educational disadvantage.
Will the Minister give some thought to the leaving certificate applied course, which has been underplayed? It is the only outlet for the weaker academic student. We treat it as a Cinderella and there are insufficient outlets from it.

Minister Paschal Donohoe.
We will do our best to take account of the input of the Committee of the Regions. I am aware of the views it has articulated to the committee in response to which I would make three points. The first is that it will very much be the job of the line Minister with responsibility for the sectoral area concerned to ensure the regional objective is delivered. Second – this aspect was raised by Deputy Joe O’Reilly – it will very much be the role of bodies such as Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland to ensure a regional dimension in our national objectives. Third, there is an important political dimension to all of this; as clustering in our cities and urban areas continues to accelerate – Deputy Seán Kyne made reference to the fact that 50% of the population would be resident in Leinster in the medium term – we need to examine political configurations and the bodies that will act in a way that is consistent with the overall development of the country. I have recently heard discussion about strengthened regional assemblies and the type of work they could do. That is something we should examine and it is facilitated by the Local Government Reform Act 2014. I am very clear, even though my constituency is an entirely urban one, located in the centre of the capital city, that we cannot deliver on our objectives for everybody in the country unless there is balanced regional development. The roles of Ministers and semi-State bodies in this respect are important, but we examine how we organise political activity to meet this important objective, a matter about which Deputy Joe O’Reilly also asked me.
The Deputy also raised the issue of apprenticeships in the construction sector which now accounts for the equivalent of 4% to 6% of national output, whereas at the peak of the boom it was equivalent of 20%. Most developed economies of this size would have a construction sector which would account for the equivalent of 10% to 12% of national output. The first thing we can do to address the concerns about apprenticeships identified by the Deputy is develop a reasonable, well regulated and appropriate construction sector for an economy of this size. I take on board the point made by the Deputy. I am aware of cases in my constituency where young men and women cannot fulfil their apprenticeships. What I would like to see happen is local authorities – the gateway programme in this area has been identified by the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan – continuing to do what they can to allow people to complete their apprenticeship programmes and, as the construction sector recovers, enable them to participate in its development.
The Deputy also mentioned the cost of wind energy. This issue is covered on page 31 of the national reform programme. To date, wind energy production has been the largest driver of growth in the area of renewable energy. The national reform plan contains considerable material detailing how we can seek to develop its contribution further. It recognises that further development is needed if Ireland is to meet its objective of 40% of energy consumption being met from renewable energy sources. It contains some important strategies for how we can achieve this objective.
Regarding nuclear energy, while the semester programme includes many things, it does not include a reference to nuclear power. I will leave that issue to the relevant Minister and Oireachtas committee. There are many other strategies and plans, in respect of which we have the infrastructure in place, that will enable us to deliver on our objectives in meeting the energy targets set.
I agree with Deputy Joe O’Reilly in his point on the preschool year. I am aware of the commitment made by the Government which the Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, announced recently, whereby in a number of areas across the country it is seeking to deepen the current early intervention measure. There is no doubt that the preschool year and even interventions made prior to it can change the life chances of individuals. I have seen this happen and want to see more of it.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website