Adjournment Debate. - Bell Lines Freight Transport Group.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Batt O'Keeffe, Ned O'Keeffe and Martin Cullen.

I am sure that is satisfactory and agreed.

Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for allowing me to raise this matter. I know you have a particular interest in it, coming from the south-eastern area, as do my colleagues, and I thank the Minister for coming to reply.

We were all surprised last week when an examiner was appointed to Bell Lines. Some of us were aware of poor trading results at Bell Lines, particularly since the cranes toppled over last October. I do not wish to comment on the role of the examiner at Bell Lines. My main purpose in raising this matter is to highlight the crisis facing the workforce at Bell Lines and other haulage firms.

It is ironic that credit facilities were withdrawn by lending institutions to the haulage firms on the day the examiner was appointed. I am disappointed that lending institutions, which make profits of £1 million per day, acted in that way. Haulage firms are mainly family-run by fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. They operate on slim profit margins in the region of 3 per cent. They have enormous financial commitments and leasing arrangements; many of us are aware of the capital cost of outfitting a tractor and perhaps several trailers.

Most of the people concerned are small haulage contractors; there are 103 companies which includes 173 trucks. Many hauliers have just one or two trucks and they have not been paid since October or November 1996. I acknowledge some running costs were paid last week but that was only a small amount.

These people have shown goodwill since the crisis developed at Bell Lines and have operated since the time the money was owed. They are prepared to continue to do that but they must have some support for their operations. Evidence suggests that a large number of these small operators will not survive until restructuring has been carried out at Bell Lines. We are talking about a total of 450 jobs which could be saved at a cost of £1.8 million, approximately £4,000 per job. That is fair value when one considers what it currently costs for the IDA to provide a job in this country.

I was disturbed to hear that a large number of hauliers had their credit facilities withdrawn last Friday, and some leasing companies are already demanding the return of their trucks. The Irish Road Haulage Association wants Bell Lines to continue and will do everything in its power to ensure that it does. These people are not looking for handouts; they are prepared to pay back anything that may be given to help them survive.

I hope the Minister will take note of these facts. I am not sure what he can do but I ask him to do everything possible to ensure the jobs at Bell Lines are saved and that the workforce is given some hope in that regard. The Minister is aware of the enormous investment by various Departments, Kilkenny County Council and the Waterford Harbour Board in the Belview port development. I hope there is no hidden agenda here and I ask the Minister to do all he can to deal with this problem.

Concern must be expressed about the corporate tactics being employed relative to Bell Lines and I ask the Minister to investigate the machinations involved. There is a strongly held view among members of the public and those who have dealt with the company that it has been set up for a sell-off and that as part of that sell-off there will be cherry-picking of the most profitable sections.

We are all aware of the major financial difficulties facing the haulage contractors involved. They are mostly small, family-run firms which will be forced to close unless something is done for them. It is important to contrast the cost of an IDA job in this country from a multinational mobile investment company against the cost of saving what could be a viable and profitable company. I urge the Minister in the strongest terms to do something immediately to alleviate the hardship faced in particular by the family firms of contractors.

I am disappointed at what is happening in Bell Lines, the flagship company of the Irish roll-on/roll-off modern container service. This crisis is affecting jobs and creating uncertainty in places like Little Island and Mallow railway station where there are a number of jobs involved. I am aware some hauliers are owned between £30,000 to £300,000. I am aware also of a meeting which took place in Kilkenny on Sunday at which people were in tears as a result of what is happening. That is serious.

I question the management practices at Bell Lines, particularly in regard to the incident involving a crane crashing into another during a storm. Safety was an issue in that incident because I understand cranes must be tied down during storms and it is obvious that was not done in this case. The cost of replacing the two cranes was £10 million yet this company is complaining it has lost business because of the opening of the tunnel between the United Kingdom and France.

It is important to protect the hauliers who have lost substantial amounts of money and incurred enormous debts. It is not good enough for them to be told that storm damage is the cause of their problem; the problem goes deeper than that. I would like to see an investigation into this company.

I would not have chosen to raise this matter on the Adjournment — a different mechanism is required to deal with it — and I will be seeking the assistance of the Ceann Comhairle's office to raise it another way.

The matters involved here are of the utmost gravity. I am aware there are forces at work in this whole area — I am pleased the Minister for the Marine is present — that deserve investigation. I want the message to go out that if any attempt is made at what can only be described as corporate piracy off the backs of the management, workforce and hauliers in this company, this House will not stand for it.

I want the Minister to examine closely the examinership process and the reason it was put in place. I ask him to examine also the competition laws and I want the Competition Authority involved in this matter. These are matters in which the State has a huge investment and we will not be manipulated by corporate factors external to this country to suit somebody else's agenda.

These are serious matters of which I am sure the Minister is abreast but they cannot be finalised this evening.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter and I am impressed by their strength of feeling and their concerns about the development. I will certainly reflect on what they said.

The position is that an examiner has been appointed. The purpose of an examinership is to provide a procedure for the rescue and return to financial health of an ailing but potentially viable company. Upon appointment of an examiner the company is placed under the protection of the court. During the period of the protection and while the examiner is preparing his report, no proceedings may be instituted either against the company's assets or to wind up the company.

As an examiner has been appointed by the court to Bell Lines Freight Transport Group, I have no function or involvement under the Companies Act with this company. I understand my colleague, the Minister for the Marine, is keeping in close contact with the Waterford Harbour Commissioners on the implications of current developments for the commissioners.