Topical Issue Debate

Seirbhísí Farantóireachta

Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle as ucht an deis an cheist seo a thógáil maidir leis an mbád farantóireachta go hInis Mór. Rinne an Rialtas deireadh ciseach den cheist seo ar fad. D'fhág sé praiseach idir na seirbhísí aeir agus na seirbhísí báid go hÁrainn. Is í fírinne an scéil ná go raibh seirbhís faoi chonradh ag gach oileán nuair a d'fhág mise an Roinn agus bhí socruithe maithe déanta maidir leis an tseirbhís aeir. Go mormhór, an t-oileán is mó a bhfuil daonra air, fágadh i ndroch-chaoi iad. Tá siad ag dul ó mhí go mí agus ó bhliain go bliain agus gan barúil ar bith acu an mbeidh seirbhís aeir nó seirbhís báid acu. Cúis imní é an tionchar atá aige sin ó thaobh bhuaineacht phobal an oileáin nuair nach féidir leo pleanáil go mbeidh seirbhís ann.

Mar is eol don Aire Stáit, ainneoin go bhfuil an daonra is mó oileánda ar Inis Mór, thar aon oileán ar fad an chósta, tá an táille is airde ar thicéad fillte go dtí an t-oileán sin. Sílim go bhfuil sé chomh hard le €17 ar oileánach ticéad fillte a fháil go dtí an t-oileán. Níl ach €10 ar an méid is mó ag aon oileán eile. Mar is eol don Aire Stáit, tá bagairt ann ach tá sé curtha siar. Mhol mise go gcuirfí siar an dáta go dtarraingeofaí siar an tseirbhís. Ach ar an 22 lá den chéad mhí eile, deir an comhlacht atá ag cur seirbhís ar fáil go hÁrainn - nach bhfuil faoi chonradh, ar ndóigh - nach bhfuil i gceist aige leanacht leis an tseirbhís i rith an gheimhridh. Dá dtarlódh sé sin agus mura ndéanann an tAire Stáit socrú cuí, beidh na hoileánaigh ar Inis Mór fágtha le seirbhís Aer Árann. Tá Aer Árann thar cionn ach, mar is eol don Aire Stáit, níl sé in ann ach ochtar a iompar ag aon am amháín.

An féidir leis an Aire Stáit dearbhú a thabhairt anseo sa Dáil inniu go mbeidh seirbhís ag muintir Árann théis lár na míosa seo chugainn? An bhféadfadh an tAire Stáit a leagadh amach don Teach céard atá i gceist aige a dhéanamh le cinntiú go mbeidh seirbhís ann? Mar is eol don Aire Stáit, beidh comhoibriú aige uaimse má dhéanann sé gníomh. Ach ní féidir liomsa seasamh siar mura ndéantar gníomh, agus é go sciobtha, le teacht ar réiteach na faidhbe seo le déanamh cinnte go bhfuil socrú buan in áit agus ní socrú sealadach mar a rinne anuraidh, socrú nár chuir an fhadhb ach siar.

Tá socrú buan de dhíth le cinntiú go mbeidh seirbhís iomlán cheart chríochnúil ar an bpraghas céanna leis na hoileáin eile ar a mhéid ag muintir Árann le cinntiú gur féidir leo dul ar aghaidh lena saoil agus gan a bheith buartha ó mhí go mí nach mbeidh seirbhís báid ann ar lámh amháin nó seirbhís aeir ann ar an lámh eile. Tá a fhios agam nach bhfuil an milleán ar fad ar an Aire Stáit. Fágadh le huacht é ag an mbeirt a bhí roimhe agus ag an Rialtas a bhí ann chun deiridh, ach ní haon mhaith é sin a rá le na hoileánaigh. Tá siadsan ag rá linne, agus leis an Aire Stáit go mórmhór, an fhadhb a réiteach go gearrthéarmach agus go buan agus nach chóir go dtarlódh sé seo riamh go deo arís.

Ar dtús báire, ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Teachta as ucht an t-ábhar tábhachtach seo a ardú liom. Caithfidh mé a rá go bhfuil a fhios agam cé chomh tábhachtach is atá an tseirbhís seo d'Árainn. Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil Island Ferries faoi láthair ag cur seirbhíse maith ann, go bhfuil báid mhaithe acu agus go bhfuil daoine sásta leis an tseirbhís. Mar atá a fhios ag an Teachta, cuireann mo Roinn cúnamh ar fáil chun seirbhisí iompair a chur ar fáil chuig na hoileánaigh a bhfuil cónaí orthu thart timpeall an chósta. Tá na seirbhísí seo comhdhéanta de sheirbhísí farantóireachta paisinéara agus lastais. Chomh maith leis sin, tugann mo Roinn fóirdheontas chun seirbhís aeir a chur ar fáil chuig na trí Oileáin Árann, Árainn nó Inis Mór san áireamh, faoi chonradh oibleagáide seirbhíse poiblí, nó PSO.

Mar chuid de seo, cuireann mo Roinn cúnamh ar fáil don tseirbhís bainistíochta do na haeradróim atá lonnaithe ar na hoileáin. Bhí buiséad iomlán de €6.631 milliún ar fáil do mo Roinn in 2016 le caitheamh ar chúrsaí reatha a bhaineann leis na hoileáin. Faoi dheireadh na bliana, beidh suas le 60% den bhuiséad sin caite ar sheirbhísí iompair do na hOileáin Árann. Maidir le hÁrainn, nó Inis Mór, tháinig deireadh leis an gconradh farantóireachta paisinéara don oileán sin ar 31 Eanáir 2013. Chuaigh mo Roinn i mbun phróiseas tairisceana phoiblí sa ghnáth-shlí chun conradh nua cúig bliana a aontú. Ní bhfuair mo Roinn aon tairiscint, áfach, i leith na seirbhíse laistigh den sprioc-am ach lean an farantóir ar aghaidh ag cur an tseirbhís ar fáil ag an am. In 2014, bhí sé ráite ag an bhfarantóir céanna nach mbeadh aon rogha aige ach éirí as ag cur an tseirbhís ar fáil ó Shamhain 2014 mar go raibh caillteanas á dhéanamh ag an gcomhlacht agus ní fhéadfaí leanúint ar aghaidh. Chinn an Roinn gurb fhearr tairiscintí poiblí a lorg sa ghnáth bhealach le haghaidh chonradh níos faide a thiocfadh chun críche ar 31 Deireadh Fómhair 2017, an t-am céanna a chríochnóidh an conradh do sheirbhís Inis Meáin agus Inis Oírr. Fuarthas tairiscint amháin. Cuireadh coiste le chéile chun measúnú a dhéanamh ar an tairiscint sin. Bhí cruinniú idir an Roinn agus an comhlacht a rinne an tairiscint ar 22 Deireadh Fómhair 2014 mar chuid den idirbheartaíocht agus tar éis go leor plé, rinne siad féin cinneadh go bhfágfaí rudaí mar a bhí, gan aon chonradh leis an Roinn agus go leanfadh an comhlacht ag cur an tseirbhís ar fáil tríd an gheimhridh chomh maith leis an samhradh ar bhonn eacnamaíoch. Arís in , chinn an comhlacht a bhí ag cur an tseirbhís ar fáil nach leanfaidís leis an tseirbhís tar éis 31 Eanáir 2016 suas go dtí mhí Aibreáin. Dúradh gur éirigh an cinneadh an uair sin as cás cuairte in aghaidh Chomhairle Contae na Gaillimhe nach raibh aon bhaint ag mo Roinn leis agus a chaill an comhlacht farantóireachta. D’fhágfadh seo nach mbeadh seirbhís iompair farraige do phobal Árann ón dáta sin a chruthódh deacracht ollmhór don saol laethúil ar an oileán. Chuaigh an Roinn i mbun plé le geallshealbhóirí ábhartha chun feiceáil an bhféadfaí teacht ar réiteach. Tar éis an plé seo, d’aontaigh an comhlacht farantóireachta seirbhís éigeandála a chur ar fáil ar feadh tréimhse trí mhí ó 1 Feabhra go dtí 30 Aibreán 2016 ach suim €50,000 a íoc leo. Tá an figiúr seo bunaithe ar chuid den chaillteanas a bheadh i gceist don tréimhse trí mhí agus go leanfaidís ag cur an tseirbhís ar fáil ina dhiaidh sin sa séasúr ard gan chúnamh airgid ón Stát. Níor tarraingíodh an deontas seo fós. Tuigim anois go bhfuil an deacracht atá ann faoi láthair de bharr fo-dhlíthe Chomhairle Contae na Gaillimhe. Bhí cruinniú agam féin agus ag ionadaithe na Roinne leis an gcomhlacht farantóireachta agus le Comhairle Contae na Gaillimhe le cúpla mí anuas ach is léir nach bhfuil an farantóir sasta fós glacadh leis na fo-dhlithe mar atá siad aontaithe ag Comhairle Contae na Gaillimhe. Go deimhin, bhí cruinniú agam leis na Teachtaí Dála ón dáilcheantar, le Seanadóirí agus leis an gcomhairle contae Dé Luain seo caite. Bhuail mé le hionadaithe an oileáin ina dhiaidh sin.

Ba mhaith liom a shoiléiriú don Teachta go bhfuil mé oscailte d’aon chéim réasúnta a thógáil a chuideoidh le réiteach a fháil ar an gceist seo. Tuigim go mbaineann an cheist áirithe atá faoi chaibidil ag an Teachta le Comhairle Contae na Gaillimhe agus leis an bhfarantóir go príomha. É sin ráite, is féidir liom a rá go leanfar le gach iarracht lena chinntiú go mbeidh seirbhís farantóireachta rialta do phaisinéirí chuig an oileán i rith na bliana agus go bhfuil mo Roinn ar fáil i gcónaí le haghaidh comhráite. Chuige sin, bhí mo Roinn i dteagmháil leis an bhfarantóir agus leis an gcomhairle contae inné le súil gur féidir teacht ar réiteach.

Tá go leor staire sa chás seo agus ní fhéadfaí a rá gur stair an-mhaith é le cúpla bliain anuas. Réiteach gan réiteach, leath-réiteach, réiteach nár oibrigh, bagairtí agus, ag deireadh an lae, éaginnteacht do phobal an oileáin. Mar is eol don Aire Stáit, mar Theachta Dála do Ghaillimh Thiar cosúil liom féin, is é an bád agus an t-eitleán an bóthar do phobal an oileáin. Tá sé chomh simplí le sin. Táim an-díomách leis an bhfreagra mar ní léir go bhfuil aon phlean an-chinnte ag an Aire Stáit. Tá sé ag rá go mbaineann sé leis an bhfarantóir agus leis an gcomhairle contae. Ní aontaím leis. Nuair a bhí mise mar Aire, bhraith mé go raibh freagracht ar an Rialtas agus ar an Stát déanamh cinnte go raibh seirbhís bhuan farantóireachta d'ardchaighdeán chuig gach oileán amach ón gcósta. An cheist atá agamsa ar an Aire Stáit trathnóna ná, an bhfuil sé chun suí ansin ag fanacht go dtiocfaidh an chomhairle contae agus an farantóir ar réiteach nó an bhfuil sé chun déanamh cinnte de go mbeidh duine éigin i mbun seirbhíse ar chonradh don Stát ó lár na míosa seo chugainn ar aghaidh agus nach bhfágfar muintir Árann sáinnithe idir an dá thaobh.

Tá go leor go bhféadfainn a rá faoin méid atá tarlaithe, faoi iompar na comhairle contae agus faoi iompar an fharantóra, ach ní dóigh liom gurb é seo an áit. Ach ag deireadh an lae, titeann an dualgas ar an Rialtas déanamh cinnte go mbeidh seirbhís iompair cheart go dtí na hoileáin ag na hoileánaigh. Mura bhfuil an farantóir sásta comhoibriú, caithfear dul agus farantóir eile a fháil. Sílim féin go bhfuil dualgas ar an gcomhairle contae comhoibriú go hiomlán leis an Rialtas sa gcás seo le teacht ar réiteach, go mórmhór ó tharla gur chuir an Stát €52 milliún isteach in acmhainní de chuid na comhairle contae i bhfoirm deontais agus gur chuir siad acmhainn an-láidir agus an-luachmhar ar fáil don chomhairle contae. Mar sin, b'fhéidir go n-inseoidh an tAire Stáit dom sa dara chuid den fhreagra céard atá ar bun le cinntiú go mbeidh seirbhís ann do mhuintir Árann ar an 22 den chéad mhí eile. Is í sin an cheist atá ag na hoileánaigh iad féin.

Tá an ceart ag an Teachta go bhfuil a lán staire i gceist. Bhí a lán stair sa bhfeagra uaimse agus ó mo Roinn toisc go bhfuil an-stair ann. Tá sé sórt casta mar gheall nár chuir aon chomhlacht tairiscint isteach do chonradh ar aon cheann den trí huaire a raibh mo Roinn ag iarraidh conradh a chur le chéile chun an tseirbhís thabhachtach seo a chur ar fáil. Níl an milleán ar an Roinn mar gheall ar sin. Ní raibh aon iomaíocht ó haon áit don tseirbhís thábhachtach seo. Dúirt mé tar éis na gcruinnithe Dé Luain go raibh mé ag iarraidh seirbhísí éigeandála a chur ar fáil ar an gcéad dul síos. Labhair an tArd-Rúnaí ó mo Roinn leis an Ard-Rúnaí sa Roinn Cosanta má theastaíonn seirbhísí éigeandála tar éis 20 Samhain. Cuirim fáilte roimh an tréimhse ama bhreise a chur Island Ferries ar fáil roimh dheireadh a chur leis an tseirbhís. Dúirt mé freisin go raibh mé ag iarraidh léiriú spéise a fháil sa Roinn ó chomhlachtaí báid trasna na tíre nó an domhain, má theastaíonn, chun seirbhís a chur ar fáil i rith an gheimhridh agus go mbeidh mé ag dul ar aghaigh in 2017 chun próiseas comhairliúcháin a thosú idir na hoileánaigh, mo Roinn, an chomhairle contae agus an farantóir chun conradh nua PSO a chruthú don trí oileán. Ba mhaith liom an trí oileán a chur le chéile i ndiaidh 2017 agus conradh nua a chur a fáil don trí oileán go léir. Táim ag déanamh chuile rud a chaithfidh mé a dhéanamh chun a chinntiú go mbeidh seirbhís againn i ndiaidh 20 Samhain.

Consumer Prices Data

Brexit and its potential implications here have elicited much debate in recent months. Very understandably much of the focus of attention has been on exports from Ireland to the UK. However, there is another side to the depreciation of sterling which is one of the immediate effects of Brexit. Every day I hear that there does not seem to be any change in prices of ordinary things that people buy here as a result of the depreciation of sterling, particularly from UK multiples.

With that in mind I did a price comparison in Liffey Valley last Saturday. I picked some toys, home ware, children's clothes and shoes, a bag, women's clothes, non-prescribed pharmacy items, magazines and also an electronic item. There are very significant differences between the prices in the UK and what they sell for in Ireland. It is not a case that people really have a choice to shop around.

Ironically magazines benefit from the 9% VAT rate because they fall under the hospitality area. That reduced rate applies to things other than restaurants and hotels in that category. In that area I found the most significant difference. With barcodes on certain items it may not be possible to see the price, but it may be possible to see the UK price. In one of my local shops I saw an item showing a price of 89 pence and it cost €2.80 at the checkout, which is an outrageous rip-off. It is part of the reason that people feel our money does not stretch any distance and it will lead to a big exodus to the North, ironically to go to exactly the same shops to buy exactly the same things as they would in the South. That is what will happen because people will not be taken for fools.

On 14 items, including a television which would be one of the big items one would travel to buy, there is €463 of a difference in price. When buying more expensive items, obviously the price difference is even higher. There is an irony about some of it. For example, something that is £3.99 in Boots in the UK is €5.99 here. Something that is €35 here is £25 there. They are nice, neat, round figures. I picked out very ordinary things across a range of goods. However, there appears a minimum 20% mark-up to start with.

With two outlets, Marks & Spencer and Next, I was able to do a comparison with the Netherlands, France and Germany. Marks & Spencer here was more expensive, but the Netherlands varied. In all cases the UK was cheaper. One would have to say there may be a reduction in price in the UK relative to other countries. The problem is that people cannot shop around because it is the same shops and all the shops are using this 20% differential.

I remind Members not to mention specific shops when we are in a discussion like this.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue and also for providing me with a copy of the table she produced. I commend her on taking the time to put it together. It is an interesting piece of work.

I should note at the outset that this is primarily a consumer issue, and as such is primarily a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. It would be a cause for concern if sterling's depreciation against the euro were ultimately not reflected in prices here.

I will consider this issue from a macroeconomic perspective. There are numerous sources of uncertainty at present which pose risks to the Irish economy. These risks are primarily external in nature and, as highlighted in budget 2017, include the potential impacts from the UK's recent vote to leave the European Union.

Over the course of 2016 and in particular since the Brexit vote, the euro-sterling rate has appreciated significantly. Since the UK's vote on 23 June the euro has appreciated by over 15% against sterling and is currently trading at a rate of around €1 to 89p sterling. In addition, further appreciation remains a distinct possibility with adverse implications for the Irish economy in general, most notably for Irish exports to the UK, especially in the more traditional sectors and also for areas sensitive to cross-Border trade.

While the appreciation of the euro-sterling rate is certainly one factor that can influence retail prices and consumer prices more generally, there are other significant and mostly external factors driving price developments. From an Irish perspective, the decline in the price of transport and energy products over the past two years arising from the fall in the wholesale price of oil has offset price increases in other areas, notably for services.

Annual inflation, as measured by the harmonised index of consumer prices, averaged minus 0.2% in the year to date and is expected to be slightly negative on average for 2016 as a whole. This recent easing in consumer prices has been broad based with food and non-alcoholic beverages, clothing and footwear, furniture and household equipment all recording significant annual price declines this year. This low and even negative rate of consumer price inflation has helped to protect real incomes and has supported consumer spending. This is the context in which we are discussing prices in high street retailers.

All else being equal, the appreciation of the euro against sterling should pass through into lower consumer prices, in particular for the range of goods that are priced in sterling. However, there are a number of factors which may delay this process. In general, consumer prices tend to respond to exchange-rate movements with a lag as firms delay price changes until there is greater certainty around future exchange rates. Also, many Irish firms importing from the UK will have purchased stocks prior to the UK referendum when sterling was at a significantly higher rate than that prevailing today.

It is also important to point out that the depreciation of sterling over the course of this year has increased the cost base for UK-based suppliers which could result in pressure on them to increase their sterling prices. However, the appreciation of the euro would be expected to offset partly, or wholly, such sterling denominated increases, depending on the extent of the appreciation.

This notwithstanding, there are some signs that consumer prices are benefitting from recent exchange-rate developments. For example, overall consumer prices have fallen by 0.2% year-on-year in the three months since the Brexit vote. Similarly, consumer prices of non-energy industrial goods, a large proportion of which we import from the UK, have fallen by an average of nearly 4% over the same period.

To the extent that I or my Department become aware of concerns regarding unwarranted price pressures arising from sterling's depreciation, they will be brought to the attention of the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and her Department which, as I have already noted, has primary responsibility for this consumer issue.

I appreciate the issue goes across a number of different Departments. If there is a large-scale exodus of people to do Christmas shopping in the North, essentially there will be a loss to the Exchequer and to the domestic economy, which obviously puts pressure on jobs here.

The HSBC analyst, David Bloom, predicted an interest rate cut by the Bank of England, which could further weaken sterling possibly leading to parity with the euro. I imagine that people who are purchasing will be watching those kinds of things and will want to time their purchases. Even if the full exchange rate difference were passed on here, it still would not account for the price differential. That price differential is a minimum of 20% in most cases and up to 45% depending on the type of item. While the market in the Republic of Ireland is small, it is even smaller in Northern Ireland and therefore one would imagine there would be a cost differential there, but that does not seem to be the case.

There is a serious issue at play here. People do not really have a choice to shop around because all of the multiples appear to start out with a 20% differential. If that is the case, we must ask whether it is warranted, whether it has been organised and what can be done about it.

I thank the Deputy and I note that point. The Department of Finance is looking at the sterling-to-euro exchange rate from a macroeconomic point of view. The point the Deputy raises is very interesting and relates to the extent to which, if any, changes in sterling that should be to the advantage of an Irish consumer are actually being felt by the Irish consumer. I have already outlined some of the issues that arise, such as a lag in changes being felt, hedging - or when the stock was purchased - and other factors that might delay this type of change. Given the work the Deputy has done and the basket of goods she has looked at, I can see merit in developing the basket and some of the various price indicators, for example, other markets where UK goods might be exported and what the changes have been there.

I encourage the Deputy to sit down with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to examine this issue. I am sure the Minister is across it, particularly as it warrants further attention. However, we must be sensitive to the timing involved and realise that it may take a bit more time. There are no controls on prices in Ireland in order to allow competition among businesses but it is also the case that if businesses or traders are suspected of coming together to agree the prices they will charge, they can be investigated by the CCPC and could potentially face legal sanction, including fines and imprisonment. If there suspicions or if the Deputy has any evidence to bring to light on this matter, I recommend that she does so. As already stated, to the extent that I or the Department become aware of them, any concerns regarding unwarranted price pressures arising from sterling's depreciation will be brought to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, and her Department, where responsibility for this issue lies.

Higher Education Institutions

Deputy O'Keeffe is raising a very serious question. He is quite entitled to make his case but I do not want him to mention any names.

I thank the Acting Chairman. I also thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me the opportunity to raise this matter. I further thank the Minister for Education and Skills for taking the time to be here. In light of the current situation, plenty of people want to meet him on Kildare Street.

This issue I want to address has been in the doldrums for a number of years. My reasons for addressing it arise on foot of a number of newspaper articles published in recent months and as a result of concerns that have been brought to my attention by constituents. As a Cork Deputy, I have a vested interest in the biggest educational institution not only in Cork but in Munster. I refer, of course, to University College Cork. This matter was addressed recently in an article published in The Irish Times on 11 October under the headline "Fear and loathing on campus: bullying at Irish universities".

There are significant levels of dissatisfaction among staff at University College Cork regarding gender issues and the promotion process relating to staff within the college. Despite being the very first university to appoint a female professor in Ireland and Great Britain - Professor Mary Ryan in 1909 - the college now has the second lowest number of female professors in the country. A report by Barry Roche in The Irish Times on 11 July last gave an insight into unpublished research by management at UCC. The latter showed that 36% of the 375 respondents, comprising 265 females and 110 males, believed the culture and atmosphere were not female friendly and inclusive. Half felt the promotion process in UCC was not transparent and fair and one in four felt that academic promotions were not free of gender bias. One quarter felt they were not treated fairly on merit, without regard to characteristics such as gender, civil or family status or, most strikingly, sexual orientation.

The fact that this report was suppressed and shelved and no attempt was made to deal with its findings is a damning indictment of senior officials at the college. As a result of what I have mentioned, many cases have been brought by staff of UCC against the institution. We saw recently where a Member tabled a parliamentary question seeking information on the amount that UCC and other universities have spent on legal fees over the past number of years. The results were startling. Figures reveal that UCC has spent almost €1.5 million in the past five years on legal cases involving staff. These cases are on range of issues. In the report I mentioned, 55% of staff said that they would not feel comfortable reporting an issue if they felt they were treated unfairly, while 43% said they would not feel comfortable reporting an incident where they witnessed another staff member being treated unfairly. This is a culture of fear within - a fear to defend oneself, a fear to act and a fear to help others. Who are those who create a culture of fear? They can only be classed as bullies.

It can be argued that the fact UCC hired six full-time solicitors also creates a fear of taking on the establishment. When compared, for example, to Trinity College, the number of complaints made by staff is much higher than in UCC yet the legal costs are much lower. Staff in Trinity College have the confidence to bring any concerns they may have to the appropriate bodies within the college and have confidence in the internal processes that are in place. This is not the case in UCC. The latter uses the power of taxpayers' money to contest the outcomes of internal and external cases, such as the Jordan, Tyndall and Bushin cases. There have been scenarios whereby UCC has failed to implement the outcome of internal appeals cases, despite them having been chaired by a High Court judge. Staff at UCC do not want to appeal or question any grievances they have because they cannot rely on the internal processes at the college.

The Deputy will have a further two minutes. I know he is addressing a very serious issue. I will allow the Minister four minutes to reply and I will then give the Deputy another two minutes.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I am not privy to some of the content of the claims he has of cases where he suggests unnecessary appeals may have been made to contest findings or to some of the other concerns he raised. The Higher Education Authority is very concerned about gender equality and has initiated a system-wide review of higher education institutions' gender profiles and gender-equality policies encompassing all higher education institutions under its remit in 2015.

The review process formally began in September 2015 with the development of the terms of reference and the appointment of the expert group. With the support of the HEA, the review was conducted by a five-member independent expert group chaired by Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, former European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science. The report of the expert group regarding the HEA national review of gender equality in higher education institutions was published in June 2016 and I welcomed its publication. The expert group's 61 recommendations provide an informed and considered basis for a collective and participatory national approach to attaining gender equality in Irish higher education. The report includes objectives, recommendations, proposed timings and key performance indicators for all relevant stakeholders in the higher education sector. It also contains an in-depth analysis of the gender balance of higher education staff across all grades of employment, as well as management teams, academic councils and governing boards. As the chair of the group, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said at the launch, "This report clearly demonstrates that significant gender inequality remains in higher education, and this must be addressed - for equality, social and economic reasons."

With regard to the next steps, the expert group's recommendations provide an informed and considered basis for a collective approach to this, in attaining gender equality, but the achievement of true gender equality in Irish higher education institutions requires systematic positive action from all stakeholders. The review proposes that the next step should see the development of a detailed implementation plan, which will include a robust system of follow-up evaluation and performance monitoring linked to funding through the HEA's strategic dialogue process. It is important that we now ensure this detailed implementation plan is developed, to build on the work of this expert group, and I welcome the fact that officials from the Department of Education and Skills will now liaise with the HEA, the institutes of higher education, research funding agencies and other key stakeholders in the development of such a detailed implementation plan. Higher education institutions will risk funding penalties if they fail to address gender inequality following the development of the detailed implementation plan.

It is also important to remember that Irish girls and young women continue to outperform their male counterparts in educational attainment. Ireland currently occupies the top position for female graduates across the European Union as measured in the keynote statistics for the European Union's economic growth policy.

What is clearly outlined is all institutions will have to develop an implementation plan to address weaknesses that have been exposed. Under the recommendations, it is intended a number of practical measures will be put in place, for example, a vice president for equality, a key decision-making body with a balanced membership, and a gender equality sub-committee of the governing authority. Each higher education institution will have an academically-led gender equality forum and so on. There are many recommendations which if acted on will hopefully address some of the Deputy's concerns.

I thank the Minister for his response which was more general and dealt with the gender equality issue. I was talking about more than just gender balance in the college.

Following on a number of articles that were published recently, the revelation of legal expenditure at UCC, and concerns that have been brought to my attention, it is clear that the institution is mirroring a culture of bullying and imprudent use of public funds on legal costs. The misuse of these funds diverts administrators away from core functions at a time Irish universities are failing in the international rankings. The time for hiding behind the sectoral autonomy of the universities and the HEA needs to end. Who is holding them to account? There is no transparency or accountability in the university system anymore when it comes to appointments many of which can be described as "casual". There is no accountability with regards staff complaints or issues and no questions are asked as to why millions of euro are spent by universities every year on legal fees.

It is clear that universities are going to great lengths to cover up issues that staff may have with them through intimidation to the point where the victims will drop their case. The Department needs to act now because down the line there will be another inquiry involving yet another High Court judge. The Minister and his Department have four nominees on the governing body of UCC. There is an onus on him to investigate the concerns I have raised, which have been in the public domain. The Minister may not have been informed officially but the press usually carry the true story. While I have focused on this issue, I acknowledge the good work being done in UCC. This year, for the second year in a row, it has been recognised as the No. 1 college in Ireland, given its focus on education and higher grades for students. I ask the Minister to come with a more positive reply. I will probably be back to him again.

In general, the Equality Tribunal is the forum for hearing extreme cases of bullying. Every college must have an anti-bullying policy. The relationship with the HEA involves setting out performance areas under which colleges must show they are addressing concerns. I will bring the Deputy's concerns to the attention of the authority. I cannot substantiate the cases in respect of any college or whether one college is better or worse than another. Cases have been brought to the Equality Tribunal, which have resulted in a broad programme of action being taken by colleges to address bullying or prejudice in selection procedures and so on.

The idea behind Ms Máire Geoghegan-Quinn's approach is that there would be respect across the system and people's rights and opportunities would be respected. While the expert group concerned itself with gender equality and there is evidence that many women are not advancing as they ought to, there are wider principles, which if they were brought to bear in all the colleges, would address these concerns.

I will bring the Deputy's concerns about one institution to the attention of the HEA. I have no basis for confirming or indicating otherwise that there is a problem. I have read the articles but as they have indicated, the research was undertaken in order that an action plan could be taken on board by the college concerned. As I understand it, there has been some action within the college. I will seek to establish more information for the Deputy in light of the reports he has tabled and ascertain whether I can give him a more satisfactory response.