I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this issue for debate. As the Minister of State is probably aware, this issue is pertinent and has come to our attention again in the past week. In my constituency, a new long-awaited school building project was interrupted last week when some subcontractors, desperate for some sort of resolution to their problems, went into a school in Kilfinane in County Limerick and tried to remove material from the school. The issue of whether they were right or wrong to do that is an issue for another forum.
The situation has caused significant distress among the school community, the parents, teachers, management and pupils, who have been waiting on this new building for a long time. The situation has also created a momentum with regard to dealing with the issue of subcontractors. These people entered into contracts in good faith to provide building services for State sponsored buildings.
They have been left high and dry on more than one occasion. Indeed, the provision of the school in Kilfinane, County Limerick, has been delayed before. The people have had a previous false dawn.
The stimulus package that was recently announced by the State allows for up to 80,000 new school places to be provided. I know from reading the Official Report that this is not the first time the House has considered the issue of subcontractors being left high and dry after working on schools or other public facilities like council houses and State buildings. I am aware that the Construction Contracts Bill 2010 is about to be considered on Committee Stage.
I suggest that the Department of Education and Skills could set out provisions to be applied during the tendering process. For example, it would be simple to require a bank account to be opened for the sole purpose of the project at hand. That would enable us to ensure that cheques and moneys from the Department of Education and Skills or the school's board of management - it depends on whether it is a devolved grant - are lodged into the bank account of the project in question. The only invoices that should be drawn on that bank account are those relating to the project. The problem at the moment is that contractors are getting paid by the State for work being done by subcontractors. The contractors are using that money to pay for other work that has already been done and that other people are waiting to be paid for.
There are no winners in this instance. The subcontractors did not want to do what they had to do. The parents did not want to do what they had to do. At the end of the day, there is a community in the middle of this. When due diligence is being attached to the awarding of these contracts by the Department of Education and Skills or by local boards of management, there needs to be a greater level of input from quantity surveyors to ensure the race to the bottom, whereby a contractor submits a price which we know in our hearts and souls is below the cost at which the project can be delivered, is not successful. It is also hugely important for consideration to be given to anecdotal evidence of the history of these companies. I am familiar with cases - for example, in the south east of the country - in which contractors have left subcontractors high and dry and local authorities are making retention payments in the full knowledge that the subcontractors have not been paid. The State has an obligation to intervene in such cases. I appreciate that the Construction Contracts Bill 2010 is ready to be debated on Committee Stage. There are things we can do in the short term to ensure subcontractors and, ultimately, school communities are protected.