Topical Issue Debate

Job Losses

The loss of jobs at Aviva Insurance has been a slow motion catastrophe. Some 950 of the company's staff have lost their jobs, while approximately 300 further staff will have their jobs outsourced. Members of staff have been left in limbo for several weeks. The company is one of the largest and most profitable insurers in the State. The job cuts will result in €36 million being taken out of the economy and have the potential to increase the social welfare bill by €20 million. The Government has acted like Pontius Pilate. For several weeks, I have asked repeatedly that it intervene in this scenario which has been ongoing for weeks. Even at this late stage, I ask that it do everything in its power to save as many jobs as possible. Will it make officials of the Department of Finance available to the staff and unions at the company to ensure the costs and business plan of Aviva can be thoroughly analysed and savings made to make the jobs in question viable?

Having experienced redundancy in the recession of the 1980s, I sympathise and understand what the workers at Aviva Insurance and their families are going through. I ask the Minister of State to ensure all possible resources are marshalled to help the workers in question. Will he outline what resources will be made available? I also ask him to meet management of Aviva Insurance to ensure there is certainty regarding the workers and their entitlements and to argue for the retention of as many jobs as possible. Will he also clarify whether it is possible to submit an application for funding under the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund? I understand an application may not be made until March. If that is the case, will he ensure we will be prepared when the time comes? I also call on him to appoint one official to act as the sole co-ordinator across all Departments and serve as a single point of direct contact for workers. Having fallen down in this regard on previous occasions, we must ensure retraining and educational opportunities are available and workers are made aware of their entitlements.

As has been noted, the catastrophe that occurred in Aviva Insurance today had been well flagged, including, for example, in September when the company announced a review. The tone and content of that statement left us in no doubt as to what was on the way. What has the Government been doing in the meantime? What precise action has taken place to avert, or at least mitigate, this catastrophe? What discussions have taken place at chief executive officer level within other sectors of the insurance industry to adopt a co-ordinated approach? It seems this very important section of the services sector is vulnerable and we do not want another job shock between now and Christmas.

I deplore the lack of communication with the workers, even as late as today. Can the Government ascertain whether the company is in compliance with the provisions of the Employees (Provision of Information and Consultation) Act? It is certainly in breach of the spirit of that legislation and I am anxious to know if it is also in breach of the letter.

Will the Minister clarify the situation in regard to the company's announcement on outsourcing? If this means what we think it means, will the State agencies try to have an arrangement with the company whereby these outsourcing provisions will be confined to ex-employees of Aviva who already have the requisite expertise? My final point was that made by Deputy Humphreys, namely, there should be a single contact point across the board. That is something we experienced in Limerick as a result of the Dell fall-out.

There is one final important issue with regard to the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund. We applied to that after the Dell closure but the effect of the fund's investment was much less than it could have been. A few minor adjustments would have made all the difference. In committee today I asked the Minister of State's colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, whether the Government was seeking change in the criteria by which the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund might be applied. I wish to know the up-to-date position on that.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter. First and foremost, my thoughts are with the hundreds of workers in Aviva and their families who heard this news today.

Subject to the conclusion of negotiations between the company and the workers over the coming six months, the full support of the Government and its relevant agencies will be at the disposal of the workers affected by the announcement today. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, the Department and the relevant agencies have engaged almost daily with the company in an effort to minimise the impact of this process on jobs in Ireland. The Minister has met and been in regular contact with the Irish management of Aviva. He also met the company's European chief executive officer, Mr. Igal Mayer, and the company's global chief executive officer, Mr. Andrew Moss, and has remained in regular contact with them throughout this process.

There is a lengthy period of negotiation of six months ahead which is in contrast to what applied in the case of other recent job losses. I note the company's ambition to achieve many of its targeted reductions through voluntary redundancies. Any job reductions will begin after March 2012 and will take place over a two-year period which at least provides workers some time to plan ahead. I note also that the company has signalled the potential to grow up to 200 new jobs over the same two-year period. IDA Ireland is working and will continue to work with the company to try to deliver on that potential.

These job losses in Aviva reflect another legacy of the collapse of our economy over recent years. Aviva business has dropped by between 20% and 30% as people are buying fewer insurance products in general. It is also a reflection of the global economy given that Aviva worldwide has already reduced staff numbers significantly from 56,000 to 36,000. We are not immune from that situation but it important to note that Ireland has succeeded in building an international financial services industry that is diverse in the activities carried out and which enjoys a world-leading reputation in several sectors. Although the past three years have represented a severe stress test for all financial centres, firms at the International Financial Services Centre in Dublin have shown resilience and flexibility. Employing some 33,000 people directly and many more indirectly, the IFSC remains critical as both an employer and a centre of economic activity. As the House is aware, this Government has set job creation and retention as one of its key priorities in the programme for Government. It is what drives the work of my Department and that of other key Departments as we seek to provide a better future for our young people and our society in general.

The terrible news today from Aviva is part of the economic legacy which this Government inherited and we are committed to addressing it. The Government has shown it is a government of action. We have recapitalised the banks, renegotiated the memorandum of understanding with the EU, the ECB and the IMF and have substantially reduced the interest we will pay on loans from those institutions. When we came into Government we were told these things could not be done but we have shown our determination to turn this country around and are doing so in spite of continuing uncertainty in global financial markets. Notwithstanding the likely growth of the economy this year — for the first time in three years — today's announcement underlines the scale of the challenge ahead for the Government and the economy.

Thoughts and sympathy are not enough in this situation. I do not believe we should have a defeatist attitude. We must save as many of these jobs as possible. The two issues that affect these types of businesses are the anti-investment policy of the Government, which is killing demand, and costs. The Government should send officials from the Department to look, first, at the top-heavy management structures in these businesses, second, at the fact there are upward-only rents on a trophy building which was bought by the company at the height of the boom in 2007, and, third, what can be done in regard to rates and energy costs which significantly affect the cost baseline of business. Those decisions are down to Government. If it acts on them, it has a chance of saving these jobs. If it does not, all we are hearing is platitudes.

I thank the Minister of State. It is heartbreaking to see so many jobs being lost and we must work hard to retain as many of them as possible. I ask the Minister of State to act quickly on that. These are young people with young families who have mortgages and debts and are facing into a frightening scenario. Will the Minister of State consider appointing one person to co-ordinate the response? I ask for retraining to start now to allow people to move smoothly into new areas. I reiterate these are young people who are anxious to be retrained although they would prefer to stay in their own jobs. Preparation must start now. We cannot wait until people are walking out the doors. We must ensure now that the maximum number of people are kept in their jobs and that those who lose their jobs will be in a position to take up new jobs in areas in the economy where there is growth.

I am glad to hear about the meetings the Minister, Deputy Bruton, attended. To what extent did the Minister and the State agencies engage? The impression I get from the Minister of State's speech, and more particularly from the Taoiseach's replies today, is that the Government and the State agencies appear to be passive recipients of information from Aviva rather than actively engaging with the company to discuss any problems it had and whether those problems could be solved with a view to averting at least some of the job losses.

Is the Government now working on any proposals to alleviate this situation? Has it engaged with the company or is it in the process of so doing to see whether specific measures can be taken to make it as easy as possible for the company to retain as many jobs as possible? I reiterate my question about what is happening in regard to other players in the insurance business. Have they been spoken to with a view to their problems and to averting potential further employment catastrophes in this line later in the year?

I listened very actively to the Deputies' concerns. Our primary concern is for the workers who will eventually face redundancy. In that context, the timeframe announced by Aviva for its restructuring programme at least provides some assistance to workers. The State development companies will work actively in every way possible to minimise job losses. We must provide assistance to workers, and the State development agencies will support them in planning ahead, which is critical. It must and will be done.

When it becomes clear which workers face redundancy, each will be offered the full support of the agencies to ensure they are properly informed about other opportunities that present during the coming six months, such as options in employment, business education and training. The Government is dealing decisively and immediately with this. As Deputy Humphreys noted, this is about straight talking.

In addition, IDA Ireland will continue its engagement with Aviva to try to secure investment in new and growing business areas. This is an ongoing process.

It is important to note here that Ireland continues to be competitive in attracting investment from major global companies. Recent examples which testify to our attractiveness as a location for investment in the area of financial services include the creation of 100 jobs by Fidelity in Galway and Dublin, 100 jobs by BNY Mellon in Dublin, 50 jobs by Butterfield Fulcrum in Dublin, 60 jobs by Allianz in Dublin, 150 jobs by Arvato Finance in Dublin and 75 jobs by D&B in Dublin. In the area of shared services and customer support, recent announcements include the creation of 150 jobs by Quest in Cork, 350 jobs by PayPal in Dublin, several hundred jobs by Zenimax in Galway, 75 jobs by Avaya in Galway, 50 jobs by NEI in Galway, 100 jobs by NPD in Athlone, 100 jobs by Alere in Galway, 50 jobs by Citrix in Dublin and 200 jobs by EA & Bioware in Galway. I accept that what I have said about the creation of other jobs does not compensate anyone with regard to what happened earlier today.

I will bring to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Bruton, the point relating to the appointment of a single point of contact person to co-ordinate activities. As Deputy O'Dea clearly stated, our priority must be to ensure that the relevant agencies, including IDA Ireland, work with Aviva to ensure that the level of job losses will be minimised. The three Deputies may rest assured that the Department will continue its work in respect of this matter. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, has been actively involved in dealing with it since concerns first emerged several weeks ago. He has had discussions with all the senior personnel from Aviva in the context of ensuring the impact of today's dreadful announcement will be minimised.

Departmental Funding

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald. As she is aware, Foróige, the national youth development organisation, was founded in 1952. It deals with approximately 53,000 young people each year in the context of fostering their development and that of society. Some ten years ago it established the internationally proven Big Brother Big Sister programme in Ireland. Foróige's stated vision for the programme is to build successful mentoring relationships for all young people who need and want them, thereby contributing to better schools, brighter future and stronger communities for all. The programme is based on the premise of matching young people with caring adults or friends who assist them in developing positive assets. Having a caring adult friend can help to build positive assets for young people to enable them to develop a commitment to learning, a positive sense of self and the future, positive values of caring, social justice, honesty and responsibility, and social competencies of making friends, planning, making decisions and resisting negative behaviour.

The Big Brother Big Sister programme has been in operation here for more than ten years — in a community and a school setting — and has dealt with more than 3,500 youngsters. The plan is to develop it further so that it might deal with 2,000 each year. The programme has been objectively evaluated and the outcomes relating to it have been shown to have brought about considerable improvements in young people. For the past five years the programme has been in receipt of funding from philanthropic organisations such as Atlantic Philanthropy. At present, this funding stands at somewhere in the region of €1.2 million. This funding was provided to demonstrate that the programme is viable and valuable. Its viability has been proven. However, the philanthropic organisations involved will not provide funding indefinitely. It is likely that Atlantic Philanthropy and the other organisation involved will withdraw from the programme unless the State becomes involved in some way. I understand that if the State were to provide €600,000 in matching funds, the other €600,000 would be made available by the two organisations in question on a long-term basis.

The Minister is well aware that it costs at least €100,000 to keep one young person in a State institution. For the amount it would cost — €600,000 — to confine six such individuals in such institutions, it would be possible for Foróige to deal with approximately 2,000 young people through its Big Brother Big Sister programme each year. This programme is viable and it provides young people with a direction in life through the establishment of role models. Given that there is a great need for role models and mentoring in the constituency I represent, I am of the view that the programme is invaluable. It would be a shame if the programme were to be lost simply because the philanthropic organisations which have been involved to date withdraw their funding because the State is not prepared to provide matching funds. I urge the Minister to give careful consideration to this matter with a view to ensuring that the programme will remain in operation.

I thank Deputy Costello for raising this matter which, I appreciate, is of great interest to him and many other Members. Like them, I have been greatly impressed by the range of services provided by Foróige in communities across the State. Soon after my appointment as Minister I had the honour of addressing the Foróige annual leaders conference in Kilkenny and saw at first hand the number of volunteers who attended. I have since visited several Foróige projects throughout the country, including in my constituency. On all occasions I have been very impressed with the work of Foróige.

We are all well aware of the threats posed to young people by alcohol, drugs and unhealthy lifestyles. In the context, we must come to grips with the challenges posed by consumerism, the media and new technologies. The opportunities provided by youth work services and projects — such as those offered by Foróige — support young people in dealing with the issues to which I refer and in becoming: confident individuals, effective contributors, successful learners and responsible citizens. That is why I am strongly support youth work.

I must place this matter in context. My Department will provide €60 million in funding to the youth sector during the current year. Foróige is currently in receipt of just over €6 million of this, which represents 10% of the Department's total youth work budget. In addition, Foróige is in receipt of significant funding from other Departments and State bodies. For example, it received more than €3 million in 2010 from the Irish Youth Justice Service in respect of 29 Garda youth diversion projects. Foróige works very effectively with local gardaí and with those involved in community projects. I have received reports from the officers and community workers involved which indicate that these projects are operating well. Foróige also received significant levels of further funding from other State bodies including the HSE, the Crisis Pregnancy Agency and local authorities. In 2009, Foróige received approximately €16.2 million in funding from the State.

The Big Brother Big Sister programme was developed in the United States as a mentoring programme that matches an adult volunteer to a young person, typically ten to 18 years old. It consists of two types of programmes, namely, a community-based programme and a school-based programme. The Deputy is correct in stating that the programme has been evaluated. This is happening with increasing frequency throughout the sector and programmes are being evaluated as they develop. The Big Brother Big Sister programme involves a young person and an adult volunteer meeting, under supervision, once a week for a minimum of one year. The school-based programme aims to ease the transition of primary school students to secondary school by facilitating friendships between first year secondary school students and older students in their schools.

The Big Brother Big Sister programme is aimed at young participants who may be at risk of cultural or economic disadvantage. They may also have poor social skills. My Department and I recognise that many such innovative programmes have an important role in improving outcomes for children and young people. I commend Foróige on its initiative in introducing the programme to Ireland.

Foróige secured funding for this project from two philanthropic organisations, namely, Atlantic Philanthropy and the One Foundation. This funding was for a period of five years up to the end of 2011. Contrary to what the Deputy stated — I will check the position in this regard — I understand this funding is not being continued into 2012. Once-off funding was made available from the dormant accounts fund to assist with the evaluation of the programme, with some localised funding coming from the HSE. To date the Big Brother Big Sister programme has not been in receipt of any dedicated funding from of my Department's annual youth work budget. No commitment to future funding was given by my Department when the programme was established or since.

In light of the budgetary situation, the youth affairs funding schemes operated by my Department have not been in a position to accept new applications for funding since 2008. The focus has been on making existing interventions and services offered by those organisations in receipt of funds more effective.

My Department is currently examining options to reform funding allocation models to give youth organisations more flexibility in managing their allocation and to ensure both funding and on-the-ground youth provision are better focussed and responsive to the needs of young people in local communities. We are actively working in this regard. Having regard to the current fiscal environment, the reductions in public expenditure that must be achieved by Departments and State agencies, and in light of further budgetary constraints in 2012, it may not at this stage be realistic to envisage additional resources being available in 2012. However, I am very happy to continue to work with Foróige to seek to prioritise the most effective utilisation of existing resources, in particular from within the substantial envelope of existing State funding being provided to it, and to assist in ensuring the essential learning from the Big Brother Big Sister project is maintained and developed.

I thank the Minister for the comprehensive reply, which covers much of the ground and indicates the good work being done by Foróige. I understand from Foróige that whereas it gets 10% of State funding, it provides 15% of the youth services, so it is money well spent in that respect. In my constituency it shares an office with the Garda diversionary project and there is a linkage which is very valuable.

I may be wrong but my information is that the reason the philanthropic organisations are pulling out is a lack of engagement from the State. If there was engagement from the State for part of the funding, the philanthropic bodies would have been content to remain and be involved in further funding. Is this the case and is the Minister prepared to engage with the funding organisations, such as the One Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies, to see if there can be a reasonable contribution from the State if the bodies would allow matching funds to ensure the continuation of the project?

Foróige's current target is 2,000 people who are very much at risk in areas where we must make every effort to keep people out of trouble. A mentoring programme is very valuable and has been proven to be effective. I ask the Minister to speak with representatives of Foróige to see what level of funding may be forthcoming from those philanthropic organisations.

My understanding from contact with Foróige in recent times has been that the projected budget requirements for 2012 were €1.42 million and €1.63 million. The question of matching funding in the order described by the Deputy is new to me.

It is roughly half of that or €600,000.

That is not what I have been requested to provide. To date I have been requested to provide the amounts I quoted. It was certainly not clear that the agencies would reconsider and my understanding was that they were withdrawing funding. I am prepared to hear if Atlantic Philanthropies and the One Foundation are still interested and willing to provide that kind of funding. We are still left with the difficulty I outlined and the current demands on it. This would effectively be a new programme for the Department because it has not had dedicated funding before and given the current budgetary climate, we would be taking money from somewhere else. Many local youth projects need the funding I am giving them, so I still have a difficulty even if the organisations were willing to contribute 50% of funding. The Deputy mentioned €600,000 and my figures are €1.42 million and €1.63 million. It is unlikely the funding will be found this year, to be straight, in view of the demands on the Department and the expenditure review currently being undertaken by the Government.

Port Development

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating this debate and I welcome the fact the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, is here. A 2006 departmental study estimates that 10 billion barrels of oil and gas equivalent are in Irish waters, worth €800 billion at prices of €80 per barrel. I welcome the recent announcement made by the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, at the Atlantic 2011 petroleum conference, outlining that 13 new licensing options have been awarded to 12 companies.

We must see a dramatic increase in exploration activities in this country, given the massive potential which exists. The announcement by the Minister at the conference will encourage exploration drilling off our shores, which is an important step in realising our potential. We must advertise the fact that Irish offshore oil exploration offers significant potential, and the Minister's announcement does that.

As we up our game in this country with regard to oil exploration I propose the establishment of an interdepartmental group to examine the potential on offer from Moneypoint pier in the Shannon Estuary in County Clare. There is considerable spare capacity at the pier in Moneypoint and in its environs which could be used as a headquarters for oil exploration teams working off the west coast. It is a deepwater pier with 24-hour access, offering ease of passage to supply ships. It is a bonus that it is already an industrial site.

I ask that an interdepartmental working group be established to compile a report and formulate a plan for a high-tech oil exploration support base at Moneypoint. It should be chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach and include the Departments of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Transport, Tourism and Sport; the Environment, Community and Local Government; and Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. The working group should also include the ESB, Clare County Council and Shannon Development. The development of such a base at Moneypoint would give a significant boost to the Shannon Estuary, unlocking its potential as an industrial base and would have a positive consequence for jobs in County Clare and the mid west. It would be very beneficial.

I request that this interdepartmental group be established without delay and that a report and plan be drawn up. This plan could be used in our efforts as a State to accelerate the discovery of oil in offshore fields.

I am grateful to Deputy Carey for raising this important issue. I begin with the positive position that the Irish offshore has recognised potential as a petroleum-producing area. However, while I recently made the announcement to which Deputy Carey refers in respect of the outcome of the 2011 licensing round, which resulted in the offer of 13 licensing options in the Atlantic margin, the reality is it will be some time before any of these could turn into exploration drilling. Overall, for the coming years the level of exploration activity requiring specialist port services is likely to be low, with on average only one to two exploration wells drilled in the Irish offshore annually. In the near term, it is expected the majority of drilling in the offshore will take place in the Celtic Sea and is most likely to be serviced by the ports on the south coast.

We also need to recognise that several Irish ports are well located to act as the service port for exploration activity off the west coast, including the ports of Foynes and Killybegs. The Port of Foynes has traditionally served as the oil and gas exploration support base in the Shannon Estuary. It has all the basic port requirements including good road access and bunkering. However, as there has been more activity off the north-west coast in recent years, principally associated with the development of the Corrib gas field, this work has been serviced from Killybegs.

Turning specifically to Moneypoint, as raised by Deputy Carey, this is a key part of the national strategic infrastructure. It generates a substantial portion of Ireland's electricity demand and it provides important fuel diversity for the country. The jetty at Moneypoint is a large and specialised structure designed specifically to off-load coal from bulk ships up to approximately 200,000 tonne capacities. As such, the jetty has large conveyor belts running along its full length and also has two large ship unloaders, all of which are capable of handling only solid bulk material such as coal. Obviously, the continued use of this equipment is vital to maintain operations at Moneypoint. There are currently no facilities or space on the jetty for handling materials or services that might be associated with the oil exploration industry.

It is also important to note that the Moneypoint coal-fired power plant has a number of key roles including generation, dual-fuel capability and on-site fuel storage, which make it subject to specific environmental constraints under the large combustion plant directive, the national emissions ceiling directive, the emissions trading directive, the IPPC directive and the ambient air quality directive.

The ESB generating station at Moneypoint is the most important power station in the national emissions reduction plan, NERP. The air emissions targets set out in the NERP are dependent on reductions in emissions from Moneypoint. Having already invested significantly in the Moneypoint environmental retrofit project to reduce sulphur dioxide, SO2, and oxides of nitrogen, NOx, emissions, the ESB is keeping abreast of technological developments in this area through its membership of industry bodies, including the Electric Power Research Institute, EURELECTRIC, VGB, the Edison Electric Institute and the Association of Edison Illumination Companies.

Having regard to hydrocarbon exploration activity for the foreseeable future and the nature of the Moneypoint facility, at this stage it is too early to identify the location that would best serve an eventual oil or gas production location that will hopefully develop in the Atlantic. It is also important to appreciate that once a discovery is made, it will take some time to bring it to development. Because of that time lag I must admit that I have not focused on the important point raised by Deputy Carey but I assure him that I will now do so.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I accept the issue is a long-term one but we must do work on it now. There is considerable merit in Moneypoint. It is perfectly located in the Shannon Estuary and has significant attributes. If we can exploit the potential now the establishment of an interdepartmental group, as proposed, would make a compelling case for Moneypoint, the pier and site. It would offer accommodation for the headquarters of oil exploration teams to locate their engineering and logistical functions. I appeal to the Minister to establish such a working group to examine the pros and cons of using the pier site to drive the project.

I again thank Deputy Carey for raising a matter that has not been to the forefront of my mind which does not mean it is not very important.

I also have great difficulty addressing a House with no Opposition. It is the first time I have ever seen the House without an Opposition. I have taken many lectures on how dedicated Opposition Members are to spending time in the House while the rest of us are working in our offices.

Moneypoint is a dedicated and specific facility built and designed for that purpose but as Deputy Carey indicated, it has many natural advantages. Because the rate of drilling offshore has only been of the order of on average less than two holes per year the demand is limited. As I said, in one case the drilling was serviced from the southern ports and in the other from Killybegs. They have developed some facility in doing so. Foynes is a significant port in its own right. I do not know about the correct mechanism at this time to explore the matter but now that Deputy Carey has raised an important issue in terms of infrastructure to cope with what hopefully will be positive prospects offshore I will certainly examine the matter.

District Court Services

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this topic for debate which came to light at the weekend following comments made by Judge Devins which were carried in the media this morning. I thank the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, for replying to the debate. I understand he has just come from a select committee this afternoon.

The Courts Service met yesterday to make decisions on the future of the courthouses in Kiltimagh and Claremorris. There were also rumours in recent days about District Courts in Swinford and Ballyhaunis. I understand the decisions are based on cost savings which, in a sense, we all understand and support.

The key point I wish to make is that the Courts Service seems to be making decisions on cost savings to the provision of District Court sittings. The cost for the provision of court sittings in each of the two locations is approximately €17,000 per year. I am concerned at the additional costs involved for other parties. The Courts Service may save money but the Garda, solicitors and members of the general public will incur higher costs. One must bear in mind that the areas to which I refer are rural. There is not public transport to bring people for instance to the centralised courthouse in Castlebar. Kiltimagh is seen to be near Castlebar but the court serves an area as far as the Galway and Roscommon borders. I am sure the Minister is well aware that a small number of Garda serve in those towns and if they are caught up in courts in Castlebar their front-line duties will suffer. In addition, costs for travel and subsistence must be taken into account.

Currently, there are dedicated court days for sittings. If cases from all over the county are dealt with in Castlebar I expect there will be longer waiting periods on the day with gardaí being tied up for longer. The system will be a lot less efficient and cost-effective than is the case at present and will prove unwieldy. I ask that an overall cost analysis be carried out on the decision before it is implemented.

I also have a major problem with the way the decision was arrived at without consultation with the stakeholders — the Garda, judges, solicitors, coroners and members of the public. We all understand the need for savings and are in favour of them but rationalisation has already taken place in this area of the county. Courts were closed in recent years in Charlestown, Foxford, Kilkelly, Balla and Ballinrobe. If the closures go ahead there will be a whole swathe of the county without any District Courts. It has been a tradition for hundreds of years that justice is administered where the law has been broken. These closures will put an end to that tradition. I urge the Minister to intervene by asking for an overall cost-benefit analysis of the closures and their effect on the delivery of services.

I thank Deputy O'Mahony for raising this issue. Like my Cabinet colleague, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, I find it extraordinary that the House is dealing with important issues and there is no sign of an Opposition Deputy. It is clear there is a commitment among Labour Party and Fine Gael Members to using the Topical Issue Debate in a productive way to address issues of concern. I hope we continue to deal with matters in this way and that at some stage the Opposition might return to the Chamber.

I want to deal historically with the issue raised by Deputy O'Mahony before directly responding to the points he has made. As he will appreciate, under the provisions of the Courts Service Act 1998 management of courts is the responsibility of the Courts Service and, as Minister, I have no role in the matter. Section 4(3) of the Act provides that the Courts Service is independent in the performance of its functions, which include the provision, maintenance and management of court buildings and provision of facilities for court users.

I made inquiries with the Courts Service, which informed me that in the current financial climate all court venues are kept under continuing review. In the context of the overall funding that will be available to my Department next year, and as the Department that funds the Courts Service, I am conscious of the need to effect efficiencies to meet our financial obligations and contribute to public sector cost reductions. It is important to place this review in context. The last review of the work of the District Court took place more than 50 years ago. Significant changes have occurred in addition to the current financial difficulties, including demographic, social and infrastructure changes, better access to modern transport and improved roads. I have been informed that the Courts Service applies a number of qualitative criteria to each venue, including case count, condition of the building, proximity of local gardaí and number of sittings per annum. It endeavours to ensure, insofar as possible, that venues have cell accommodation available to reduce Prison Service escort costs and meet the standard that court users are entitled to expect, while considering the efficiency of the courts.

Under section 6 of the 1998 Act, the Courts Service has broad powers to do anything necessary or expedient to enable it to perform its functions, including the designation of court venues. Having undertaken an extensive study of each area, levels of business and access to court venues and services, it has amalgamated more than 100 District Court venues, many of which were completely unsuitable for use. At the same time, it has benefited from a very substantial capital investment, with approximately €200 million spent on 50 venues. This upgrading work concentrated mainly on county towns and larger venues which are now available as appropriate resources in which to centralise court sittings.

The policy has been successful in developing more efficient use of time for the Judiciary, court users and gardaí. Rather than short half-day sittings in smaller venues, a full day's list can be dealt with. Delays in the District Court have been greatly reduced as a result and while local gardaí may have to travel to the alternative venues, they are likely to be involved in other cases there in any event and as a result can reduce the overall time they spend in court.

I have been informed that at its meeting on Monday, 17 October, the board approved proposals to transfer District Court business currently heard in Kiltimagh and Claremorris to the District Court sitting in Castlebar. Therefore, Castlebar District Court will from early next year deal with the business previously conducted at these three venues. The Courts Service has assured me there is capacity in Castlebar to do this. As the Deputy will be aware, a state-of-the-art courthouse is available in Castlebar since the completion of a €12 million project in 2004. This refurbishment saw the number of courtrooms increased to four and provided additional improved public waiting areas, consultation and practitioners rooms, extended court offices, judges' chambers, universal access and an enhanced sense of privacy and dignity for all court users. The facilities have capacity for video conferencing and digital recording of proceedings, which are requirements of an efficient 21st century court building.

I am aware of media reports about Swinford courthouse. The Courts Service has informed me that, contrary to such reports, no decision has been taken to close Swinford and it will continue to be kept under review.

The Deputy may also be aware that decisions were taken over the past five years to close four other venues in County Mayo. Three of those venues sat fewer than six times per year and dealt with an average of 150 matters each. It is simply not viable to retain such venues. The more venues there are, the more time court users spend travelling between them. This rationalisation gains operational efficiencies for courts, gardaí and the Prison Service. It also saves time and improves the speed of access to justice for everyone concerned. Taking into account this week's decision, which will take effect early next year, there will still be seven court venues in County Mayo and two of these will be located in the Gaeltacht area of the county.

These decisions are being taken by the Courts Service to achieve greater efficiencies, particularly with regard to freeing up judicial, staff and Garda time currently spent travelling between venues. This rationalisation gains operational efficiencies, saves time and improves speed of access to justice. I agree with the Deputy it is important in addressing an issue such as this that an overall cost-benefit analysis be carried out. I am assured by the Courts Services that such analyses are undertaken very carefully and diligently. Unfortunately, in the economic times as they exist, there are efficiencies we need to achieve to meet the objective of reducing public expenditure. The Courts Service has taken these decisions with that in mind.

I thank the Minister for his extensive reply and I support the Courts Service in its efforts to find savings. However, if gardaí are to be absent from smaller areas I cannot see how they will be able to make more efficient use of their time. If it is shown that the overall cost of the new arrangement saves money, I will put up my hand and accept that there is nothing to be done but, while the Courts Service will decide on court sittings, I ask the Minister to ensure that the administration of justice here is done in a cost effective and efficient manner. I cannot see logic in the proposal as it stands at present.

I again thank the Deputy for raising the matter. I appreciate his interest in the proper administration of justice in County Mayo. It is important that those who come before our courts do so without unnecessary difficulty, whether in criminal or civil matters. At the end of the day, the Courts Service is independent and the decisions it makes are outside my control in the context of individual courthouses.

I share the Deputy's opinion that it is important the decisions made to reduce costs and use resources wisely in one part of what I describe as the justice structure do not impose unnecessary and additional costs on other parts to offset the benefits that may be gained. It is my understanding that this type of assessment and analysis has been undertaken in the context of these two courthouses but I will make further inquiries in that regard to provide whatever further assurances I can to the Deputy.

It is regrettable that courts which have existed for many decades and provided a service to local communities should have to be closed. Tragically, in the context of the huge economic difficulties with which the State is confronted, fiscal stringencies need to apply. In the context of using taxpayers' money wisely, decisions have to be made, whether by me as Minister or other bodies under my aegis, which bring about change. These decisions are a cause of concern in local communities, which we have to address, but we have to implement them because it will otherwise be impossible to meet our financial obligations and reduce the level of public expenditure to restore the State to economic sovereignty.