Tuesday, 11 May 1999
Dáil Éireann Debate
4. Mr. J. Bruton asked the Taoiseach the schedule of future meetings of the Interdepartmental Strategy Group on Employment and Unemployment; and if he will make a statement on the group's work programme. [11519/99]
5. Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the issues discussed and the conclusions reached at the meeting on 27 April 1999 of the central review committee of Partnership 2000; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11523/99]
My address to the IMI national conference focused mainly on the need to upgrade our infrastructure, especially through the next national development plan; the importance of R&D investment in the information age; and the need to continue development of the social partnership model at both national and workplace levels to meet the challenges of the new millennium.
At the most recent plenary meeting of Partnership 2000, these and other topics were explored under the broad themes of enterprise, jobs and small business and modernising the public service. Among the key issues raised by the social partners were the need to address skills shortages and planning bottlenecks to facilitate the delivery of major projects; the desirability of further consultations before finalisation of the national development plan; the need for a more co-ordinated and fully integrated approach to promoting life-long learning; and the need to press ahead with regulatory reform.
On planning bottlenecks, the meeting noted the priority being given to the preparation of a consolidated planning Bill and the assignment of additional staff to An Bord Pleanála. On skills shortages, the recent announcement of 5,400 extra high technology places and the launch of the FIT initiative were welcomed.
Regarding the national development plan, the meeting was advised of my intention, as I stated in my IMI address, to consult the social partners  over the coming weeks so that finalisation of the plan will reflect a broad agreement about the development needs of the economy and in so doing provide a further boost to the social partnership process. To that end, meetings with each of the four pillars, involving the Tánaiste, the Minister for Finance and myself, are currently being arranged.
In response to Deputy Bruton's question on the Interdepartmental Strategy Group on Employment and Unemployment, the Departments concerned have been meeting the social partners. Arising from this, a standing committee, under the chairmanship of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, has been formed. Its main purpose is to consider, in consultation with the social partners, the extent to which active labour market measures under the present agreement have had a special focus on the long-term unemployed, particularly those 35 years of age or over.
The most recent meeting of the standing committee took place on 27 April and a further two meetings are planned for 17 May and 9 June. The next meeting of the Interdepartmental Strategy Group on Employment and Unemployment will take place later this month.
Mr. J. Bruton: Does the Taoiseach recall that at the end of his speech to the IMI he stated the time being taken to establish public-private partnerships is far too long? If this is so, why has the Government decided to deal with the Luas project by means of a public-private partnership? Is it not a delaying tactic to prevent Luas going ahead?
Mr. J. Bruton: Did the Taoiseach not say the establishment of public-private partnerships take too long? The words he used were that the time being taken from drawing board to implementation is too long. Given that he is head of the Government, what is he doing about it?
The Taoiseach: I was not talking about the problems with public-private partnership, but about projects which have existed for years. I cited six such projects, none of which was a public-private partnership. As the Deputy knows, we are taking action. Unlike the previous Administration, we increased the capital programme by 28 per cent last year and by 30 per cent this year. We have established a unit on public-private partnerships and have identified projects worthy of being pro gressed. We have an interdepartmental PPP advisory group and we are trying to progress some of the projects which should have been undertaken some time ago.
The Taoiseach: The last plan for which I was responsible was debated in the House and the same should be the case for this one. It must be completed and submitted to Brussels within three months of the end of the Berlin talks.
Mr. Quinn: In contrast with previous Administrations and bearing in mind the experience of Members, does the Government see merit in debating the plan before it is finalised, or will it be presented as a fait accompli which will be sent to Brussels following a series of statements in the House?
The Taoiseach: The matter of when it will be debated may be raised with the Minister for Finance who is responsible for its preparation. It is being debated widely by the social partners throughout the country so I see no difficulty with it being debated in the House.
The Taoiseach: The local development and infrastructural issues are being debated by the social partners. A debate could take place but the Minister for Finance would not be in a position to offer much information at present. The plan must undergo the regional process before it is returned to him so that he can put it together. A debate at this stage would probably be too early, but if the Deputy wants one now before the Minister has prepared the plan, perhaps that would be a suitable time. On the last occasion it was debated near the end of its preparation.
Mr. J. Bruton: Is the Taoiseach aware of serious shortages among certain categories of  workers, such as bus drivers and the nursing profession? What action is the Government taking to relieve these shortages, such as training the unemployed – approximately 7 per cent of the population – or encouraging the immigration of people with the required skills?
The Taoiseach: A range of initiatives is being taken. The standing committee under paragraph 424 of Partnership 2000 works with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, FÁS and other organisations and the social partners to identify people who are long-term unemployed. It is now dealing with people over 35, interviewing them to see what skills they need and examining what has happened under the activation programme to try to assist them in gaining jobs.
The Deputy is correct there is a skills shortage in many areas. Through a series of initiatives the Minister for Education and Science has substantially increased the number of third level places. There is also the fast track information technology – FIT – scheme which is operated mainly by technology companies, FÁS and some Departments to train about 2,500 unemployed people for the technology industry and guarantee employment for those who sit the course. That is up and running and has proven extremely successful on the basis of pilot studies conducted last year. The initiative on the over-35s has also proven successful. Long-term unemployment has dropped from about 9 per cent to 4 per cent, but there are still a number of people who can benefit. Everyone on the register is being examined, but the standing committee is at the stage of dealing with those over 35.
Mr. Quinn: Arising from the Taoiseach's replies and his speech in Killarney on 23 April when he said that a number of projects shortlisted for public-private partnership funding would be announced shortly, will he indicate when they will be announced as it is now over two weeks since that speech was made?
Mr. J. Bruton: Has the Taoiseach drawn the attention of the relevant Ministers to the National Competitiveness Council report which condemns the fact that 11 per cent of 16 year olds are not receiving any education and are out of the system? Does the Taoiseach agree that at a time when skills are so important it is a national scandal that still more than one in ten young people aged 16 do not attend school?
The Taoiseach: There is a separate question on this. However, I read the competitiveness report. While participation in second level education is increasing continually, students are still dropping out of the system. With a number of schemes like Youthreach, the falling PTR and the fact that  there are resource teachers and other teachers in the education system, I hope they can achieve their stated aim to hold more than 90 per cent of the people concerned in the education system and provide training, courses and apprenticeships for the others because there are sufficient jobs available, particularly for young people who are coming on to the labour market.
Mr. Higgins: (Dublin West): Is the Taoiseach aware that, according to the Central Statistics Office, between 1987 and 1997 profits grew almost two and a half times faster than wage increases and that over the same period workers wages as a percentage of gross national product declined by 25 per cent, a figure unprecedented anywhere else in the industrialised world? Would he agree that in looking forward to future agreements workers are justified in believing, when they consider the past 11 years, that their wages were kept low while employers' profits were allowed to rip? Would he agree in that context that it is this discrepancy between wages and profits which has resulted in the dispute of the scaffolders, who are among the lowest paid workers in the construction industry?
Mr. Higgins: (Dublin West): Given that even the editorial in The Irish Times pointed to the contradiction between low wages in the construction industry and the price of houses, would the Taoiseach join in a call on the Construction Industry Federation to immediately enter serious talks with the scaffolders and to agree decent wages increases from the massive profits which its members have accumulated?
The Taoiseach: I do not want to refer to an individual dispute but, as I said last week, the CIF raised the dispute at the recent meeting of the social partners. Its representatives spoke about the adverse effects on employment, investment, delays in work and competitiveness. While it would not be appropriate for me to get into the specifics of a dispute, I still hope that all the representatives of the scaffolders and the construction industry employers will use the means to achieve an agreed solution to this issue.
In reply to the question, I do not agree with the Deputy. What happened in this country in the past ten years is that whereas 18 per cent of the people were unemployed – more than 325,000 people at one stage – 45,000 people had emigrated, there was negative growth of 2 per cent  and Ireland was at 60 per cent of the EU average. Now we are at 100 per cent of the EU average and people are getting an opportunity to work and be educated. There are far more people in third level education. There are 1.6 million people working as against 1 million at that time. Long-term unemployment has been halved. Unemployment has been reduced by one third. The Deputy's argument is based on the past. I do not agree with it.
Mr. Rabbitte: Notwithstanding that the scaffolders' dispute was discussed at the plenary session of Partnership 2000, the Minister should intervene in this important dispute as a matter of urgency and encourage the parties to come together with a view to resolving it.
Does the Taoiseach accept that house prices now represent a definite barrier to re–entry into the Irish workforce? Since the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is intent on keeping the country safe from non-Irish immigrants, the only place towards which we can look to maintain growth rates is the stock of unemployed people. In that context, does the Taoiseach accept it is necessary to take specialised measures to deal with the training and re-training requirements of the unemployed? It is a dichotomy that at a time when we have an emerging skills shortage which threatens to halt growth rates in the economy, 199,300 people are still unemployed.
The Taoiseach: I am aware there are skills shortages in some areas, particularly high level ones, but I do not believe it is as bad as it is made out to be. People are receiving training and re-training through bodies such as CERT, FÁS and other private schemes and are taking up employment as a result. Employers are finding that the level of qualifications which they thought were necessary for some positions are not really required. Some people who have been unemployed for six or seven years are now gaining employment. Employers should look at the pool of long-term unemployed people.
Surveys show a substantial decrease in long-term unemployment from 9 per cent to 4 per cent. Our level of long-term unemployment has fallen more rapidly than anywhere else in the EU. However, more remains to be done; as long as  there is even one unemployed person, we should seek ways to train him or her.
Good quality jobs are now available for which people are not trained. The schemes which have been implemented by the Partnership 2000 groupings and standing committees are certainly worthwhile. People are being interviewed individually and are being advised and trained. The more education a person has, the better chance he or she has of gaining employment. Some people think courses are not a good idea but people do get jobs at the end of them. We can further reduce unemployment levels. Irish people are returning to Ireland in great numbers and more and more employers in the high-tech and construction areas are chasing Irish people.
The Taoiseach: It is a barrier in some locations, certainly in the greater Dublin area. However, I noticed recently that when Coca Cola advertised positions in their Ballina plant in an area in which they expected only 200 people to be available for work, some 4,500 people applied for 300 positions.
The Taoiseach: I saw a teaching position advertised recently which the employer foresaw a difficulty in filling. However, some 150 people applied for the job, 100 of whom applied from outside the country. People are returning to Ireland. However, we should continue to train and assist those who are currently unemployed to provide opportunities for them. That is happening; the efforts of the standing committee set up under paragraph 424 of Partnership 2000 are designed towards that and are particularly aimed at people who are 35 years of age and older. Records still show that the older people are and the longer they have been in receipt of long-term unemployment benefit, the harder it is for them to gain employment. That is also the case in the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. Some employers say they cannot find people to fill vacancies but able bodied people up to 55 years of age and older are available and are capable of filling those vacancies. Not everyone needs to be 25 years of age.
Mr. Barrett: While we welcome the action being taken to assist those who are currently long-term unemployed, does the Taoiseach accept, given the statistic cited by Deputy Bruton, that our real problem is that up to 11 per cent of 16 year olds are leaving second level education? While we may be dealing with those who are currently long-term unemployed, we are ignoring the future long-term unemployed if we do not address that statistic. Does the Taoiseach agree that part of the problem is that these children are being turned off the education system not at  second level but at primary level? All of us who represent Dublin recognise this. Will the Taoiseach initiate a total review of the factors for such a high percentage leaving prior to 16 years of age and the steps which can be taken to change the curriculum so that school and education mean something real to people who opt out and become the future long-term unemployed? Is our education system capable of dealing with children who find the current system unattractive?
The Taoiseach: When I set up the Youthreach scheme in 1987, the figure for early school leaving was 30 per cent, but it is much smaller now. We lose potential labour when young people leave, there is no doubt about that. In the recent Education Bill, the Minister, Deputy Martin, identified that. To combat that, the PTR is being reduced, remedial and resource teachers are being provided and liaison teachers meet families, not just pupils, to encourage them and to promote education. Those are good ideas. When children leave, or do not find the curriculum compatible with their lives, they may take part in training workshops. These are nearly empty compared to this time five years ago. All those ideas are in place.
Education is the best way out of unemployment. The more qualifications, skills or training people have, the better the chances they will have in the future. A range of measures such as the National Employment Action Plan, the Education Bill and resources being put into education are working. That is why the State now has 1.6 million people working and the unemployment figures are one third lower than they were six years ago. We must, however, keep working at it as long as there is unemployment. The European Social Fund and other State resources are used to work on that task but we must keep at it.
Mr. Barrett: All these ideas, while they may be in place, will not resolve the problem unless there is leadership. The only person who can give leadership in such a situation, because it cuts across every Department, is the Taoiseach. Will the Taoiseach prepare a plan which will co-ordinate the activities of all agencies and Departments to ensure the skills available to people can be used by them? It will not happen if it is left to various Departments to deal individually with these problems.
The Taoiseach: I take the Deputy's point but the interdepartmental strategy group on employment and unemployment is doing precisely what he is saying. It is doing that through the Departments of Education and Science and Social, Community and Family Affairs.
The Taoiseach: The Tánaiste, the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs and I, through my role in Partnership 2000, are involved. Long-term unemployment is the subject I address at partnership meetings. While there has been enormous success, there is further potential.
Curriculum development is continuing. There are people who cannot take to the normal curriculum and that is a difficulty. The Minister spoke about that recently. We must make sure that we can keep as many young people in education for as long as possible because that is their best chance.
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