Leaders' Questions

Tomorrow, commuters face another rail strike on one of the busiest days for public transport users. Since August, the National Bus and Rail Union, NBRU, and the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union, SIPTU, have warned that unless genuine efforts were made to resolve the outstanding issues, a strike was inevitable. This was almost three months ago, and there has been virtually no input from the Government to try to find a resolution. The Government has taken a hands-off approach, which seems to be the culture when dealing with relatively substantial matters. The Government allows a crisis to deepen and develop, and what will follow is chaos for travellers. To take this approach is unfair on people who depend so much on public transport as a means of getting to work or attending school or college. Intercity, commuter and DART services will face significant disruption across the country, and although the strike is expected to be confined to a number of hours in the morning, it will have a knock-on effect for the day.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Donohoe, suggests it is a very serious situation, while observing from the side lines, like a casual observer who has no involvement in the case. The gap between management and workers appears to be widening over the past three months. Workers believe they have contributed substantially to increasing productivity, and they have. They have made many changes that have improved the company’s viability. However, management consistently says they must find more savings. We are all aware of the core reason for the need to increase productivity and make savings, which is the continued depletion of investment in public transport over a number of years. I do not expect a lecture from the Tánaiste on what happened under the previous Administration.

The Deputy does not need one.

(Interruptions).

Given that it is the standard response from the Tánaiste, I am letting her know I am aware of those facts. I expect her to respond to my questions, rather than give her usual diatribe.

The truth hurts.

Workers are being required to work more for less take-home pay. I am well able to handle it. The Deputy might not be. He will have to deal with it shortly.

Fianna Fáil's answer is not to mention the war.

Fianna Fáil's answer is to throw more money at it.

The Tánaiste needs to decide and tell us what kind of public transport system her Government wishes to have in place and leave for the future. From listening to the unions last night, one would not be filled with hope about finding a resolution to the strike. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has been busy commending the gigantic effort everybody connected with the talks has put in and he seems to be concerned about the upheaval if the strike goes ahead. However, his only involvement in the strike to date has been to lecture all those concerned that Irish Rail is losing €1 million per month. Like a hurler on the ditch, he is appealing for the strike to be called off. His mantra is that Irish Rail must live within its funding, and it seems to be the Tánaiste's mantra too. He said, "Resolution of the dispute has to be found within the financial framework".

I will ask the Tánaiste some straight questions and ask her to limit her response to answering them. Does she accept that there are increased demands on the public transport system and that the changes already introduced by workers have assisted greatly in making savings and increasing productivity? Does she think it is right that the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has not intervened to ensure a successful outcome to the process that is under way and prevent a strike?

The most successful way of settling any dispute is through mediation and discussion, and this is precisely what has been ongoing for a long time. Talks aimed at averting a planned three-hour strike by train drivers tomorrow will resume later. These talks have been undertaken under the auspices of the Workplace Relations Commission. It is very important we settle the dispute. In all the material put forward by both sides, there are grounds for reaching an agreement. The dispute centres on claims by train drivers for payment for past productivity measures such as taking on new safety responsibilities and operating new services. Iarnród Éireann has said it is willing to share the benefits arising from future productivity measures the drivers undertake. This is the kernel of how, with the assistance of very experienced industrial relations negotiators, we can reach the desired outcome I assume everybody in the House, including the Deputy, would wish for, that we would not have a rail strike on a bank holiday weekend.

The biggest losers would be rail services, commuters and people travelling for the bank holiday weekend who would have to find alternative forms of transport. Given that this is a major revenue earning weekend for Iarnród Éireann, I appeal to both parties in the dispute to continue talking so as to arrive at an agreed settlement where there is the possibility, in terms of what is on the table, to reach an agreement.

It would be particularly helpful to those travelling over the weekend and to regular commuters on their morning commute in and out of work, especially in urban areas, if the dispute could be settled by negotiation. During the recent budget announcements, Deputies will have noted that the Department of Social Protection's contribution to public transport has increased from €77 million to €80 million. This increase will underpin the services provided by the Department, especially to people over the age of 66 through the free travel scheme. We have been issuing new free travel cards, together with identifiable photographs, to pensioners. As a daughter of a railway family - my father and grandfather worked on the railways - I assure the House that like the Department of Social Protection as a whole, I am committed to seeing every effort made to settle this dispute in the interests of the travelling public and of train drivers, who have an important job because they take on the safety of hundreds of passengers over each journey. I am committed to seeing this dispute resolved in a way that secures the future of Irish Rail and allows the company, which is very important right throughout the country, to go forward and make progress.

It is clear from the Tánaiste's response that she understands the gravity of the situation and the importance of Irish Rail's activities. I think she appreciates the important work the workers are doing. It is fine that she has made those observations, but in her position as Tánaiste she is in a position to make a substantial contribution to resolving this issue. I suggest the Government needs to interface with management and set out in a clear way how it intends to increase the level of subvention that is required by our public transport system in a growing economy. Like the Minister for Finance, who was displaced from his seat beside the Tánaiste a few moments ago by the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, the Tánaiste regularly tells us about the positive impact of the 6% growth in the economy. I remind them that the growth in the economy is accompanied by an increased demand for infrastructure to be provided by the State. When the economy is growing, the demands on the public transport system are growing. That requires further investment. I would have thought it would be important for workers and management alike to see some degree of certainty about how the Government intends to address that funding requirement into the future. I do not want to be political when I say it is important for the Government to set out a clear strategy. It is not enough for it merely to observe; it needs to make an input. Unions and workers are fair-minded people. They need certainty. They need to know that the Government supports the entire public transport infrastructure. They would be forgiven for questioning that because, as the Tánaiste-----

The Government needs to support the workers.

-----will recall, when this Government came into office, it appointed a Minister of State with responsibility for public transport only for that office subsequently to disappear under the cover of a Cabinet reshuffle. The Minister of State in question did not disappear but was elevated to his current position as Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, and he has had his own trials and tribulations in that role. In the minds of public transport workers, the Government's stated commitment to public transport vanished during the lifetime of the Government. The Government has quite a bit to do if it is to reassure them.

I do not think the Tánaiste answered the first question I asked. Does she accept that the productivity of the workers has contributed significantly to the viability of the company? Does she think it is acceptable that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, who is responsible for this matter, still remains outside this discussion? I do not think he has contributed in a way that would assure the workers that if they avoid the proposed strike, the Government will uphold its commitment to a long-term plan of investment in the public transport system of this State.

An increase of €28 million in the public service obligation subvention to the public transport companies was provided for in budget 2016. As this is the first time this has been done on such an enormous scale, I suggest that any ordinary person who is aware of the increase, including anyone who works in the CIE group of companies, will see it as a significant vote of confidence in public transport in Ireland and a commitment to the future of rail services. More important, as the Deputy is probably aware, work is under way at the moment to reopen the two-track tunnel under the Phoenix Park that has not been used for decades. This demonstrates that the Government is fully committed to public transport. The tunnel in question will be open this time next year. It will give people coming from Cork and particularly from south Kildare on commuter lines direct access into Connolly Station. That is an absolute vote of confidence in the future of rail in Ireland.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

I would have thought that as the transport spokesperson for Fianna Fáil, Deputy Dooley would have welcomed that.

Deputy Ó Fearghaíl welcomed it.

I also want to talk about the enormous schedule of investment that has been committed to.

That is not going to resolve the strike that is due to take place on Friday.

The Deputy asked me about the Government's commitment to Irish Rail. I am answering his question.

The drivers deserve a lot more.

If Deputy Dooley examines the capital programme that was launched two weeks before the budget, he will see that a new hub is to be developed at Broombridge.

The Labour Party is blaming the train drivers.

It will be called after a famous mathematician, William Rowan Hamilton, and will be open in two years time.

It does not add up.

It will be known as the Broombridge Hamilton hub. An immense amount of funding is being invested in the capital programme between now and 2021. Significantly and importantly for people working in Irish Rail, to whom I want to address my remarks as well as addressing them to Deputy Dooley-----

Deputy Dooley will convey the Tánaiste's views to them.

-----who must know all of this already, given that this is his brief, the electrification of the line between Connolly Station and Maynooth will take place over the next four years.

Connolly would have paid the workers.

Over the period of this capital programme, the initial phase of the full electrification of the line from Dublin to the south will involve the stretch of the line as far as Hazelhatch.

The Government needs to give back to the workers what it took from them over the past five years.

I assume Deputy Dooley is a regular rail user, as I am myself.

It is not in Tulla, in fairness.

People who are regular rail users will know that the electrification of the major railway lines is a huge commitment to the future of the Irish rail network, which plays a critical role in social development, in commerce and in moving people around the country.

More lectures.

When Deputy Dooley read through the details of the budget, he must not have noticed that the Department of Social Protection has committed an extra €3 million to free travel.

It should be more. One would think the Government was breaking the bank.

This is in addition to the development of the free travel cards-----

What about the extra €3 for pensioners?

-----which are important to the future of the railways in Ireland in terms of verifying people's identities.

All that is doing is meeting the demographic need.

This Government considers investment in public transport to be an absolute must for this country, especially under our global climate change requirements. We provided for such investment in the recent budget. I thank Deputy Dooley for his interest in the matter.

Now, Timmy. All the details are in the blacks.

Follow that, Timmy.

This why we have a strike looming.

I call Deputy Ó Caoláin.

Fianna Fáil is either supporting the commuters or it is not.

The train drivers are being blamed.

Commuters have an interest as well.

Timmy 0, Joan 1.

Order, please. I have called Deputy Ó Caoláin.

It is shocking that 7,630 people were on trolleys across the hospital network in September, which was just last month. That figure represented an increase of 17% on the number of people on trolleys in the same month in 2014. As patients and front-line staff face into the winter period, it looks as if this crisis is certainly going to deepen. Front-line practitioners have said that patient safety is being compromised. Hospital staff are working under unacceptable pressure in a health system that is severely under-resourced. The real cause of this is an ever-increasing lack of confidence.

While the budget debate was taking place here on Tuesday, 13 October, nurses at St. Vincent's University Hospital in this city were protesting over the appalling conditions they have to work in and that patients are forced to endure. A severe shortage of nurses is a major contributory factor to the current crisis. Nurses are choosing to go abroad because of poor working conditions and a lack of career prospects at home. A survey of 2,000 students across the six medical schools conducted by NUI Galway found that almost nine out of ten trainee nurses and those who have come through the process plan to leave when they qualify. That is a very worrying fact and we must face up to it. Career opportunities, working conditions and lifestyle were the top three reasons given by those surveyed.

The INMO estimates, and its figure is confirmed by a comparison between the number of nurses in 2007 and at the end of 2014, that more than 4,000 additional nurses are required in order to return the workforce to a realistic level, one that is capable of meeting the needs of our people. Does the Tánaiste accept that the existing recruitment package is not sufficiently incentivised and will not attract the necessary number of nurses needed to service our health system? What will she do, as Tánaiste and leader of the Labour Party in government, to address this very serious matter?

Deputy Ó Caoláin spoke about the understandable concern about delays and overcrowding in accident and emergency departments. As has been made clear on a number of occasions, dealing with delays in emergency departments is a priority for the Government. The Minister for Health commissioned the emergency department task force last December to provide focus and momentum in dealing with the challenges associated with emergency department overcrowding. The task force last met on Monday, 12 October, and significant progress has been made with all of the relevant parties, including representatives of the nurses organisations, involved in the preparation and delivery of a plan. Delayed discharges are reducing steadily as we speak. The waiting times for funding of packages has been reduced from 11 weeks at the beginning of this year to between two and four weeks now. Transitional care funding has supported approximately 2,000 people who have been approved for the fair deal scheme to move from acute to non-acute care while awaiting a long-term care placement. Over 1,200 additional home care packages will have been provided by the end of this year. Deputy Ó Caoláin and most other Deputies will know from speaking to the relatives of patients that the improvements in the delivery of home care packages have been very widely welcomed and appreciated. In addition, 140 additional public nursing home beds, 24 additional contracted beds in, for instance, Moorehall in County Louth, and 65 short-stay beds in Mount Carmel have all opened in 2015. These provide a mixture of rehabilitation and transitional care for patients who require assisted convalescence before they return home or enter long-term care.

The director general of the HSE is now co-chairing the emergency department task force implementation group from now until March 2016. He has taken that decision in order to ensure that all of the relevant parts of the health services, including acute, social and primary care, are provided with the optimum resources in order to deal with the particular challenges associated with the winter months. Additional funding of €74 million was provided in April of this year. Deputy Ó Caoláin will have seen a very significant additional supplementary allocation for the HSE and the Department of Health in the context of the budget. He will also have seen a significant additional allocation for next year. In addition to the aforementioned measures, an extra €25 million has been invested in support services which provide alternatives to, or relieve pressure on, our hospitals.

The second part of the Deputy's question related to recruitment of nurses by the HSE. I certainly hope that those who are currently completing their nursing degrees and training will give full consideration to a career in nursing in Ireland. I am aware of people who are taking that option but it is not for everybody. It has been traditional for many nurses and other health professionals to go abroad, either for a protracted or limited period of time, to develop their careers. That is understandable and that model has operated in Ireland for a long time. The HSE has been sending out recruiters and using social media and other methods of communication to attract nurses who left the country when there was a moratorium on recruiting public health staff, other than front-line staff. I am glad to say that we are now past that situation because of the economic recovery and this year there are between 400 and 500 extra nurses working in the HSE.

I agree with the Deputy that much progress is still to be made but we have come a long way from where we were at the height of the economic difficulties that befell the country.

Nobody knows better than I the complexity of all of the issues involved in this. It is not just a matter of delayed discharges. The points the Tánaiste has made illustrate the Government's piecemeal approach to the overall difficulties. It is very important to recognise that capacity is critically impacted by the number of nurses available and the current number is nowhere near what is required even to deal with the situation in the here and now.

A key contributor to the shortage of nurses is the excessive delay in the processing of registration applications. Incredibly, the registration process in this jurisdiction can take anything between six and 18 months, whereas on the neighbouring island it takes three to four weeks. While I accept that there can be difficulties in ensuring that all of the necessary documentation is to hand, it is very clear that the combination of the low levels of nursing provision and the delays in the processing of registration applications from nurses coming from overseas is creating what the INMO has described as a perfect storm in our health services. We must respond to this. It is very clear that despite the warnings to the Minister for Health and his Department, the response to this situation has been wholly inadequate. A relatively small additional complement of staff for the Nursing and Midwifery Board is simply an inadequate response at this time.

The Tánaiste made reference to the HSE's so-called "bring them home" campaign.

This campaign is not enticing the necessary numbers of Irish-trained nurses to make the return journey home. That is what the issue comes down to.

I ask the Tánaiste, as leader of her party in the coalition partnership, what she will do to ensure the recruitment package is sufficiently incentivised. We must bear in mind the reasons many young trainee nurses gave for opting to leave Ireland. While money was not the only issue, the cuts of recent years under the financial emergency measures in the public interest legislation were most certainly part of the reason they chose not to stay here. It is October and in no time the crisis that has extended from the summer period through last month and into this month will multiply. If we do not act now, we will come into very serious times.

Again, I appreciate the Deputy's concerns. As he will know, active recruitment is taking place of as many as possible of the young nurses who are currently graduating. My understanding is that a significant number of these nurses are opting to stay in Ireland. Equally, some of them are leaving. Ongoing arrangements are in place to relocate 456 people to Ireland. A relocation package of approximately €1,500 is on offer to attract nurses back and one year of nursing registration fees will also be paid. Those returning will also be eligible for permanent positions and will be given credit for service accrued while abroad.

What else is in the budget to attract people home? A key element of attracting young people such as recently qualified nurses to return, one with which Sinn Féin disagreed, is the reduction in the universal social charge. The reduction will assist people at the beginning of their career who are on lower incremental rates and have not reached the top of the scale. People returning home will face a universal social charge regime under which those who are on part-time earnings of up to €13,000 will be removed from the USC net, while those who are eligible to pay the lower rates of USC will receive a reduction in the rate. People taking up a full-time position will benefit most because the higher rate of 7% has been reduced to 5.5%.

I am aware that Sinn Féin, in its pre-budget submission, did not opt to prioritise reducing the universal social charge for people coming home.

That is not true. We would have focused on those earning less than €19,000.

With respect, I read the submission.

With respect, I came to the Chamber to discuss nursing in a sensible and fair manner. The Tánaiste is now peddling a mistruth. Our measures provided for taking 100,000 people out of the universal social charge net. The Government's measures have only provided for removing 43,000 from the USC net. Under our submission, more would have been allocated to reducing the impact of USC than the Government did. The Tánaiste should stick with the truth. We have heard loads of rubbish from her this week.

The Deputy needs to go back and study. I specifically spoke about people who, in the context of nursing incomes, could be working part-time and earning up to €13,000. That group would be lifted out of the universal social charge net entirely. The USC has also been reduced significantly for people on the lower rates. However, the real gain is for people with a medium level of take-home pay as the rate of USC they pay has fallen from 7% to 5.5%. If Deputy Ó Caoláin does not believe that it is a significant gain in take-home pay and to the money in people's pockets and purses, I must question the economics of the Sinn Féin budget proposals.

The fact is that people would be better off under Sinn Féin.

On coming to power, the Government promised to break down barriers, break up the cosy cartels, open up competition, eliminate the system of nods and winks and abolish quangos. The transport industry is very important and creates large numbers of jobs. It welcomes the measures the Minister for Finance took in the budget on taxation paid on large vehicles.

Those who drive lorries must obtain a licence. In the past three or four years, a quango or cartel has developed among those who provide courses leading to a haulage licence. A cartel operating in the eastern region is preventing other companies from offering these transport courses. I contacted the Ombudsman about the issue in the past year and one company in County Leitrim has been in constant contact with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Chartered Institute of Logistics in Transport, CILT. It has also contacted the Ombudsman and its representatives are present in the Visitors Gallery. For four years, this company has been excluded from the system because it is able to offer courses for nearly half the price currently being charged by the cartel. The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission wrote to me, making clear that the office is seriously concerned about what is taking place.

Will the Tánaiste give an undertaking that she will ensure that companies wishing to supply courses to people seeking a haulage licence will be treated fairly? Every time a letter is written about this issue, the reply states the matter is under review. A review was undertaken in 2011 but the companies seeking to compete in providing courses did not receive a response. Last year, when I wrote to the Department, I was informed again that the matter was under a review. Notwithstanding the lovely, fancy letters we receive from a Minister on this issue, it is clear the buck is being passed.

Approximately 80% of the work of the company which has been seeking information and trying to get on the ladder for the past four years is based in Athlone. It is interesting to note that because it raised its head above the parapet, all HGV testing in Athlone for buses and rigid and articulated trucks was suspended in the past week. Health and safety and a lack of places to turn a vehicle were the excuses given for the suspension. I know of 100 roads around Athlone where a heavy goods vehicle can be turned. I did my test in the area and have backed an articulated truck down many a road around Athlone.

There is something rotten, something that stinks, about what has occurred in the past four years. The Department, the Chartered Institute of Logistics in Transport and a cartel involving the suppliers of courses are caught up in a web that is keeping people out of the industry. Is the Government prepared to take on this cartel? Is it prepared to provide for fair and open competition for companies that can provide a service for nearly half the price consumers are currently paying?

The detail of the question the Deputy asks would be better directed to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport as it concerns references to specific companies which could have been addressed if the Deputy had provided them in advance. I undertake to have the matter examined and to revert to the Deputy with a reply. I acknowledge the welcome the haulage industry has given to the changes on the cost for those in the HGV sector. We are all aware that the industry suffered heavily during the downturn and, in particular, on foot of the recession in the construction sector. In the previous budget, the Government recognised the difficulties facing the sector and announced the fuel duty rebate for hauliers which could have resulted in significant savings. In the current budget, we have significantly reduced the cost of a licence to provide for greater competition in the haulage industry.

Can we deal with the cartel issue?

That is probably the most significant development and it has been widely welcomed by the industry. Given that he is raising issues around qualifications for those coming into the industry, the Deputy will be aware that SOLAS and the Department of Education and Skills have agreed with the haulage industry to develop traineeships for new and young people coming into the industry to qualify for HGVs and employment and self-employment. The Minister for Education and Skills indicated that in some detail at the launch of the Apprenticeship Council which has an agreement not only to relaunch traditional apprenticeships but to extend apprenticeships into new areas. Those new areas include the haulage industry. I had conversations with the Minister about that. One of the forms of employment that is most attractive to unemployed people is as a licenced haulier. My Department and the Department of Education and Skills have been co-operating on that. The Deputy may have seen that in the budget an extra €10.5 million was allocated to apprenticeship education which will mean that the overall number of apprentices will increase to 6,000.

In relation to the specific issues the Deputy raises, I will certainly raise them with the Department and revert to him.

This is going to take intervention at a high level. The Tánaiste told me to go to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. We have had two Ministers in that Department since 2011, neither of whom has cracked this cartel. These are the facts. It has not been done. No one is making the move. There are people who it appears cannot be challenged. What is left to the people at the moment? Hynes Quinn is a company in Leitrim that is providing 20 jobs and its only option now is to challenge this in court. As politicians we should be ashamed of ourselves. The EU talks about open competition for everyone. For a small SME to have to go to court to vindicate its entitlements is unacceptable.

I am not talking about SOLAS or the Department of Education and Skills. I know what they do and it is very good. I am referring specifically to the fact that for four years, two Ministers have closed their eyes. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport with the CILT and the quango allow a certain number of people to give a course. I am referring to people giving a course, not sitting down to get one. This little cartel is going on while other suppliers are fit to give this course around the country at nearly half the price. That would be a very good thing for the consumer and for ordinary people who need a licence to set up in the haulage industry. It is called a "haulage licence". They could get it at nearly half the price. Sadly, no one has done anything. Be it the Ombudsman or the consumer affairs commission, they do not seem to have clout. I am asking that someone takes this on at a high level to get it sorted. Nobody in the country should be forbidden from providing something that he or she is qualified to provide. He or she should at least be given the opportunity to get out there and be in competition. I ask the Minister to break this cartel. It must stop for the betterment of the haulage industry.

The Deputy has not said whether he has approached the competition authority. If this matter is purely one of competition, I would expect the competition authority to be interested in it were it referred by the Deputy and others. I go back to what I said about the budget. There are a lot of young people, as the Deputy knows, who could find very good and well-paid employment in the haulage industry, particularly given the fact that the measures introduced by the Minister for Finance in the budget have made the situation for Irish hauliers far more competitive through the reduction in the tax and licence rates. As an economy, we are now poised to have very significant further economic growth. Much of that growth will have to be served by the road haulage industry. Therefore, the Government, through the Department of Education and Skills, has put in place a plan with the haulage industry to provide apprenticeships for this occupation.

The Tánaiste is not answering my question at all.

I hope the Deputy would like to see young guys being able to get into the industry.

Yes, but I am not talking about that. I am talking about a cartel.

Yes, but I am talking about young people being able to get into the haulage industry through apprenticeships and traineeships.

The Tánaiste is not answering the question I asked about a cartel.

The Deputy did not make it clear whether or not he had referred any queries to the competition authority. I have given the Deputy an undertaking which I will fulfil to go to the Minister and get a response. However, the Deputy has not indicated whether he has taken the matter to the competition authority. What he has outlined is a competition issue. I do not know if the Deputy is saying to me that the competition authority has also turned him down.

I have made it clear that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission has said that what is going on is wrong.

As such, the Deputy has been to the competition authority. I will take the matter up and come back to him with a response.