Leaders' Questions

The ESB unions served strike notice last Friday and the notice is due to expire on Sunday week. We understand there is a wide gulf between ESB management and unions on the pension fund. This morning's edition of the Irish Independent has outlined some of the so-called contingency plans that have been put in place by public bodies, State companies and private companies around the country in advance of this. If this action proceeds, it will have a very detrimental effect on every citizen in the country and on businesses. The next few weeks for businesses will make the difference between opening and closing their doors after Christmas and keeping people in employment. It will have a huge effect on our transport utilities in the run up to Christmas and on so many operations.

Given that the clock is ticking and that there has been no progress in the talks to date, what action has the Government taken, apart from monitoring the situation? Is there any intention to involve the labour relations mechanisms of the State to stop this from happening? By the time the House convenes again next Tuesday, we will be five days away from the expiration of the strike notice. People and businesses need to know where they stand and certainty needs to be brought to the situation. There needs to be an understanding that the Government is on top of the situation.

Last Friday, the ESB group of unions served notice of their intention to take industrial action starting on 16 December. However, the ESB executive director team and the unions continue to meet under the company's established procedures for dealing with industrial relations issues. At this point there is ongoing dialogue between the parties, and while that process continues I believe it would be inappropriate to make further comment. However, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources will remain in ongoing contact with the company on the situation, and the Government will be kept informed.

The Government is acutely aware of the seriousness of this situation. We hope that notwithstanding the service of notice on the company last Friday, ESB management and the unions will work together to resolve the various issues through direct discussions within the framework of well-established procedures. The ESB, in co-operation with EirGrid, has a robust contingency plan in place in the event of industrial action. There is ongoing proactive engagement between EirGrid, the ESB and the energy regulator to ensure that if there is industrial action, appropriate and co-ordinated mitigation measures are taken to safeguard security of supply. There is a joint obligation on the company and the unions to have in place agreed contingency plans and other arrangements to deal with any emergency that may arise during an industrial dispute, including the provision of emergency services required on humanitarian grounds and all matters concerning health, safety and security, including that of plant and equipment.

My understanding is that pension scheme measures adopted under an agreement between the ESB and its unions in 2010 have had a positive effect, with the scheme actuary reporting that the scheme is now in balance on an ongoing actuarial basis.

The Pensions Board has confirmed that the scheme is on track and will be in surplus by 2018. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources said that there is no risk to the pension scheme and that employees retiring between now and 2018 will receive their full entitlements. I also welcome the fact that there are ongoing negotiations, but at what stage does the Government intend to knock heads together and ask for an assurance that these negotiations are going somewhere and that there will not be disruption? The contingency plan will involve power outages. The plan as outlined cannot guarantee to citizens that there will not be a power outage ten days before Christmas. At what stage is the Government going to intervene with the labour relations mechanism? Will it allow things to drag on to the very last minute and not give any certainty to people during this very important two weeks?

I think the Deputy knows from his own experience in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, which has responsibility for the machinery of industrial relations, that the Government has at its disposal an array of instruments and institutions that can be mobilised at the appropriate time. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is of the view that at this stage, ongoing discussions between both parties are taking place and it would be inappropriate to take any action outside those talks until such time as there are further developments. If an intervention is required, then that will be considered in due course.

Everybody in this House shares the concern about disruption of supply at this time of the year, coming up to the Christmas period. One of the factors that gave rise to this unease is the position of the pension fund, and the Deputy has already concurred with my own observation on that. Hopefully, the talks will produce a positive, constructive settlement. If an intervention is requested or required, then the machinery for that intervention is available.

D'fhógair an Coimisinéir Teanga, Seán Ó Cuirreáin, inné go bhfuil sé ag éirí as a chuid dualgais i ndiaidh deich mbliana sa phost. Is é seo an chéad uair riamh i stair na tíre seo gur éirigh duine ag an leibhéal seo as a chuid cúraimí ar an dóigh seo. The announcement yesterday by the language commissioner that he could no longer continue in his role due to a lack of commitment from State organisations is a damning indictment of the Government's policy on the Irish language. Thug sé le fios don chomhchoiste go bhfuil trí cheathrú de na scéimeanna teanga a bhaineann le heagraíochtaí éagsúla Stáit, as feidhm. Léirigh sé imní mhór faoi chaighdeán cuid mhaith eile acu. Ba é an rud is tábhachtaí a bhí le rá aige ná go bhfuil eagla air go bhfuil oiread dochar déanta agus easpa muiníne sa chóras nach féidir é a tharrtháil anois. Thug sé le tuiscint nach bhfuil iarracht mar is ceart á dhéanamh seirbhísí Stáit i nGaeilge a chur ar fáil do shaoránaigh na tíre. Theip ar pholasaithe earcaíochta sa Státseirbhís le cinntiú go bhfuil go leor Gaeilge ag na hoibrithe chun freastal ar phobal na Gaeltachta agus na Gaeilge mar is ceart. D'athraigh an Rialtas na rialacha. Ní dóigh leis an Uasal Ó Cuirreáin go bhfuil bealach ar bith go n-oibreoidh an córas nua. Ní fhaca sé in imeacht 30 bliain an oiread ísle brí agus lagmhisnigh. An nglacann an tAire leis go bhfuil an ceart ag an ombudsman a d'éirigh as inné?

My attention has been drawn to the announcement by the commissioner to resign with effect from 23 February 2014. My attention has also been drawn to the comments he has made on the status of the Irish language and the current attitude of the Government to implementing its strategy. I have been assured by my colleague beside me, the Minister of State, Deputy McGinley, who has direct responsibility in this area, that these criticisms by the commissioner are not accepted and that in due course, when his resignation takes effect, a new commissioner will be appointed.

Cuireann sé iontas orm go bhfuil an Rialtas ag cáineadh an méid a bhí le rá ag an gCoimisinéir Teanga. Thug sé sonraí iontach soiléir don chomhchoiste go bhfuil na pleananna as feidhm i gcásanna trí cheathrú de na heagrais Stáit. Tá sé de chúram ar an Roinn agus an Aire a chinntiú go bhfuil na pleananna ar fáil. Thug an coimisinéir an t-eolas seo do Thithe an Oireachtais inné. D'fhógair an Rialtas dhá bhliain ó shin go ndéanfar athbhreithniú ar Acht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla 2003, ach níor tharla aon rud go fóill. Tá sé i gceist ag an Rialtas ísliú stádais a ghearradh ar Oifig an Choimisinéara Teanga tríd an oifig sin a chónascadh le hOifig an Ombudsman. The commissioner had to take an unprecedented step yesterday in resigning, because the Government is totally undermining the work that he is doing. He told the committee that State organisations are ignoring their legal obligations. In two and a half years in office, the Government has done untold damage to the provision of services and supports for Irish language speakers throughout the State. An aithníonn an tAire gurb é seo an Rialtas is frith-Ghaelaí agus is measa don teanga a bhí sa Stát seo riamh? An aontaíonn sé gur cheart don Rialtas athrú treo a dhéanamh má táimid chun aghaidh a thabhairt ar an bhfianaise a thug an Coimisinéir Teanga inné? Shíl sé go raibh ar a phost a fhágáil mar nach raibh sé i dteideal aon rud a dhéanamh i dtaobh seo sa dá bhliain a chuaigh thart mar gheall ar an dóigh ina mbíonn eagrais Stáit agus an Rialtas ag déileáil le ceist na Gaeilge sa tír seo.

I thank the Deputy for his comments but I do not accept what he said about this Government's attitude to the language. If Deputy Doherty wishes he may table an adjournment debate matter or have a comprehensive debate on the matter with the Minister of State, Deputy McGinley, where he can respond to all the Irish Language Commissioner's claims.

I refer to a question which Deputy Séamus Healy has asked twice in the last two weeks, once of the Taoiseach and once of the Tánaiste. On neither occasion has he received a reply which dealt with the question he raised. Before the Minister replies, the 30,000 families affected by this and I are well aware that the Government has established the Insolvency Service of Ireland, ISI, that new legislation on bankruptcy has been enacted and that the Central Bank has a mortgage arrears resolution process. Listing these points by rote is not an answer to my very specific question.

My question is on householders who lack sufficient income to pay their existing mortgages. They are unable to come to an agreement for reduced payments, split mortgages or mortgage to rent with their lenders. They do not have sufficient income to avail of the options from ISI and they cannot access bankruptcy and keep their homes. Up to 30,000 families are in this situation and face eviction. Can the Minister spell out his Government's policy for a clear, political and financial solution for these people, without the waffle about the Government's priorities, to keep these people in their homes?

The Deputy has referred to a question to which she feels she has not received an answer. I will try to get a copy of Deputy Healy's question and will give her the note I have on this matter. The Government has put in place a comprehensive programme of actions to assist householders struggling to pay their mortgages.

Here we go again.

We have rebalanced the rights of borrowers and lenders under the biggest shake-up of personal insolvency law in a century and we have given those who bought their first homes during the bubble significant increases in mortgage interest relief. All the tools are in place to accelerate the work out of the mortgage crisis. Banks and borrowers need to use these tools to reach fair and sustainable solutions to mortgage arrears on a case-by-case basis. We cannot allow the economic recovery to bypass families in mortgage arrears. We cannot leave 100,000 families in limbo because they have no certainty about their financial situation. There is a solution and process available to people who cannot pay their mortgages.

Engagement between consumers and lenders has already led to 45,177 permanent mortgage restructures up to the end of September, an increase of 3,900 on the August data. Encouragingly, the total number of mortgage accounts in arrears has fallen by 2,316 accounts to just over 118,000 accounts. The number of mortgage accounts in arrears of greater than 90 days has fallen by 14,068 accounts, down from 82,624 to 81,156. Term extensions and arrears capitalisations are the dominant permanent restructure type, comprising approximately 60% of total restructures. There has also been an increase in the number of split mortgages to 3,688 from 2,521 at the end of August. The next data up to the end of October will be released on 12 December. The Central Bank has set clear targets for the banks to deal with distressed borrowers requiring them to offer sustainable solutions by the end of next year at the latest.

In my question I appealed to the Minister not to list off these points by rote, and that is exactly what he has done. He has not said what the Government will do to solve the problems of the 30,000 families who cannot access insolvency services. I thought it might be third time lucky today and I might have got an answer from the Government. I have an example of a family whose income is €80 over the Insolvency Service of Ireland's monthly basic living needs. The cost to that family of employing a personal insolvency practitioner, PIP, for entering the debt settlement arrangement is €6,888 with a €1,230 up-front payment. That family cannot afford to go into that insolvency service arrangement.

Many families do not even have that extra €80, they are on the living allowance line, and they cannot access the service. What will the Government do for these people? Has the Government created a bankruptcy regime and insolvency legislation for the Seán Fitzpatricks of this world while the ordinary householders whose income has been decimated by the crash can swing in the wind? Is the Government going to continue a policy of insolvency apartheid?

The Deputy refers to a specific set of cases. If she wishes to give me the details of those cases I will get a comprehensive and detailed response.

There are 30,000 of them.

There are 30,000, they are not individuals.

I have indicated the measures that have been taken to date and we believe they will help the vast majority of people who find themselves in that situation.

Outrageous. They are left swinging in the wind.