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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 8 Mar 2017

Vol. 942 No. 1

Topical Issue Debate

Traffic Management

I wish to raise increased traffic congestion in the Dublin area. I have raised this matter a number of times in parliamentary questions and have received a number of answers that go some way towards addressing the issue. In the course of my contribution I wish to focus on transport, public transport and transport infrastructure in my area in the western part of Dublin. It lies roughly between the N4 and the N7 and is affected by the M50.

In a previous reply to a parliamentary question the Minister stated:

I recognise that there is considerable evidence emerging of increased travel demand across the Dublin region in general, with growing traffic levels on many of the region's roads and streets. The increase in the number in employment has impacted on transport through the beginning of a recovery in public transport numbers, but also through increased car use and the re-emergence of peak period congestion. ...

Insofar as congestion issues in Dublin are concerned, the National Transport Authority (NTA) has overall responsibility for the implementation of their published Transport Strategy for the Greater Dublin Area (GDA). My Department is working closely with the NTA with a view to intensifying efforts to combat congestion across Dublin in the short to medium term through greater use of bus priority, demand management and other alleviating measures.

I accept the Minister's response, but I am greatly concerned because I do not see its impact in my area. The challenge for the Minister in his response is to outline whether the plan of the National Transport Authority needs to be reviewed. What are the other alleviating measures to which the Minister referred?

I will outline some of the problems. Two weeks ago I was driving home from Leinster House but at Bluebell I ended up sitting in a traffic jam at a certain time in the evening. The journey took me almost one hour and 45 minutes. The cause of the traffic jam from Bluebell, as I heard it reported on the radio, was a broken-down car on the N7 at Rathcoole. It was reported that there were delays to the Long Mile Road, but the delays were not just to the Long Mile Road but back to Bluebell and Inchicore. That is the capacity at which these roads are operating. The Minister should try to get out of Palmerstown at the junction of the N4. There is no flyover or intersection, so people queue for hours on end each day. He should consider the M50 between the N4 and N7 junctions. In 2014, it was predicted that by 2023 there would be an annual average traffic flow there of 143,000 per day. The figure was 140,000 in 2016. By any stretch of the imagination, it is far ahead of what was expected. However, our responses are not dealing with those issues.

In terms of public transport, there were 10 million extra passengers last year. Where are the increased number of new buses for Dublin Bus? Kishogue railway station in my constituency is lying idle. It will be opened at some time in the future. Where is the Luas to Lucan project that was planned? Surely it is time to address that, given the volume of traffic movements on the M50. Metro west, an orbital route to link Tallaght, Clondalkin, Lucan and Blanchardstown, whether it is a metro or bus service, is gone. The Minister should try to get a bus out of Lucan in the morning. If one has to get into town, people know that there is no point in queuing at certain bus stops because the bus will be full when it arrives. They move to the next bus stop.

There is an immediate crisis in public transport in my part of the city. I am glad the Minister is present today because the written replies I have received on this matter offer very little comfort that real and tangible solutions will be put in place in the short and medium term. The Minister referred to alleviating measures. What are they? We need more than just a promise that the mid-term capital review will deliver something. We need specifics and we need them urgently. As I said, the traffic movements on the M50 between the N4 and N7 junctions are already at the levels predicted for 2023.

I thank the Deputy for raising this question. I am sorry that he has not found the written responses adequate but I will try to elaborate on them. Before I address the matter specifically, the Deputy should realise that the problem of traffic congestion in Dublin is extraordinarily difficult because of the volatility of what has been happening with traffic congestion, traffic numbers and traffic speeds in recent times. The variation in traffic patterns, speeds and numbers is mainly a product of the economic changes which have occurred. By any standards, they have been unpredictable. The Deputy is seeking comfort regarding what is going to happen in the near to medium-term future. I will try to give him some indication of that within the powers of prophecy that I have about what will happen to Dublin traffic in the years to come.

The advent of Ireland's economic downturn in 2008 significantly affected transport patterns and levels of transport usage. Largely reflecting the growth in unemployment, public transport usage and car usage in the Dublin region dropped significantly during the downturn and in subsequent years. This also applied to the west Dublin region.

The period from 2008 to 2015 can be characterised as a period of reduced transport usage and suppressed transport growth. Focusing solely on road-based transport, levels of congestion fell from 2008 and journey times reduced for many people. It is fair to say that traffic congestion was not a major issue during this period. However, I fully recognise that, as the Deputy has pointed out, a growing body of evidence is emerging of increased travel demand across the Dublin region in particular, with growing traffic levels on many of the region's roads and streets. Indeed, 2014 saw the start of a reversal of the trend of reduced travel demand. Public transport usage in 2014 increased for all modes, including bus, Luas and commuter rail services.

While the welcome increase in the numbers in employment affected transport through the beginning of a recovery in public transport numbers, it has also manifested itself through increased car use and the re-emergence of peak period congestion. As a key indicator of recent trends, in 2014 users of the M50 motorway began to experience significant increases in journey times for the first time since the completion of the M50 upgrade. In terms of traffic flows, average daily traffic at the tolling point on the motorway was almost 18% higher in 2016 than in 2014. The effect of this growth can be seen on a daily basis, with slower speeds and longer journey times evident on the M50. Similar patterns, though not as pronounced, are emerging elsewhere on the road network. As Dublin city is the target destination of many of the journeys being undertaken in the region, there is a substantial degree of congestion evident at many locations on the road network approaching the city.

Insofar as congestion issues in Dublin are concerned, the National Transport Authority, NTA, has overall responsibility for the implementation of its transport strategy. My Department is working closely with the NTA with a view to intensifying efforts to combat congestion in the short to medium term through greater use of bus priority, demand management and other alleviating measures. The NTA’s approach to managing congestion for the period 2015-18 focuses on public transport provision on key routes to the city centre, supported by adequate traffic management arrangements, measures to protect the efficiency of national roads in the region and measures to address local travel delay locations. The bus network is the backbone of the public transport system in Dublin. While a small number of corridors have enough patronage to justify development of light rail, metro or heavy rail lines, the bus system has to serve the majority of the Dublin area. With this in mind, in its approach to tackling congestion in the Dublin region, subject to the availability of funding, the NTA will focus on transforming the bus system to deliver a step change in performance across the region and complementing that improved public transport system with a network of park and ride sites.

I will detail more specific measures in my supplementary reply.

I thank the Minister but I am sorry that he did not begin reading from the middle of his script rather than from the beginning. The beginning was a history lesson and went over many issues with which we are already familiar. I do not mean to be rude but-----

The Deputy is correct.

I have set out the position as we find it today. The Minister finished by referring to Dublin Bus but does the Minister know how many extra buses Dublin Bus will have in 2017? The total provision of additional buses this year for Dublin Bus, at a time of significant growth in demand, is 20. That is a grossly inadequate response. The bus network, as the Minister has said, is the backbone of the public transport infrastructure but the Government is not providing the required level of response. As I raise this issue with the Minister, I am frustrated at the lack of urgency. The frustration of the people who will sit in their cars and on buses this evening is not being reflected in the Government's responses.

The entire road infrastructure in the Dublin region is at capacity. Are there plans to deliver what was previously proposed in Lucan, namely a Luas line? Are there plans to open a train station in Kishogue? Are there plans to provide local bus services that would join major transport infrastructure hubs, for example, bus services from neighbourhood centres in places like Clondalkin and Lucan to the Luas station at Red Cow or the main Fonthill Road railway station? Where are the specific plans that could have a more immediate impact?

I could speak on this topic for ages but my time is running out. The final point I will make is that I am concerned about long-term planning. I am concerned because Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, and South Dublin County Council, SDCC, have very different views on where things are going. By 2023, TII expects the population of the SDCC area to be 268,000, with jobs in the region standing at 105,000, an increase of 7% and 12% respectively. However, the council itself anticipates that the population will be 280,000 and the number of jobs in the area will be 115,000, representing growth rates of 11% and 23% respectively. How are we going to deliver the necessary infrastructure when TII and SDCC cannot even agree on projected future growth?

I will try to go into more detail on the latter part of my script. The medium term outlook is far better than the picture painted by Deputy Curran. I intend to make the case for increased investment in public transport as part of this year's review of the Government's capital plan and the need to tackle congestion will be a key theme in that case. I acknowledge fully everything the Deputy has said and I acknowledge the need to address the issue. We need a major step forward in our attitude to public transport and we need extra funding for the sorts of measures to which the Deputy referred.

In terms of the specifics, questions should be addressed to TII or the NTA, but if the Deputy has a problem getting an adequate response from either of those bodies regarding specific issues in his constituency, I will certainly be able to ask questions on his behalf. There is no difficulty in that regard but those issues are not ones that I can address across the floor of the House today. The Deputy has raised what are operational matters for the aforementioned bodies; they are not matters for me.

On a general policy level, I will address the matter of the M50. Besides managing demand and optimising operational efficiencies, we are introducing measures to address the very serious and difficult problem of congestion. The Deputy is absolutely right when he says that the numbers using the M50 have increased to approximately 140,000. Those numbers were not predicted and they make it very difficult to manage. However, we have introduced revised merge layouts, permanently signed diversion routes and enhanced vehicle recovery services. The Deputy spoke about being stopped on the M50 for a prolonged period because of an accident on the N7. The aforementioned enhanced vehicle recovery services have been introduced to counter situations such as the one the Deputy described. We have also introduced variable speed limits which have the effect of reducing congestion.

Some of those measures are three years old.

What else have we done? I suggest to the Deputy that he is not acknowledging some of the things we have done.

In the period 2015-18, several matters will be addressed. First, Luas cross city will be completed this year, on time. The train service on the Kildare rail line will link with the city centre through the Phoenix Park tunnel. A ten-minute DART service will be provided during peak hours. The bus fleet, to which the Deputy referred, will be increased. Additional buses will be acquired and additional capacity will be added on busy routes currently experiencing high passenger numbers in peak hours. Approximately 30 to 40 km of additional bus lane infrastructure will be provided on a number of priority bus corridors forming the core bus network within the Dublin region. There are other measures planned, the details of which I can send to the Deputy. I assure him that the issue will be addressed. We are now in a period of critical congestion which we are taking seriously and which will be addressed in the years to come.

Post Office Closures

Deputies Éamon Ó Cuív, Mattie McGrath, Martin Ferris and Bríd Smith have three minutes each to make an initial statement and the Minister of State has four minutes to reply.

It is ironic that we have just been talking about overheating in one part of the country but as the Minister of State, who is from Mayo, will be hugely aware, the problem in many parts of rural Ireland is that there are not enough people. This Government has done virtually nothing except exacerbate that problem. What is happening with regard to the post offices is symptomatic of the ability of this Government to commission reports, evaluate plans and publish documents that have already been published many times previously in different guises while doing nothing. I am the first to recognise, because I live in the real world, that post offices face a challenge. I am realistic enough to accept that there is a challenge in the migration to e-payments by many citizens. However, I do not accept the inaction by the Government because there are many people who would avail of more services in post offices if they were available.

Whereas for some of the population and particularly those who use iPhones, tablets and so on, e-booking and e-payments are very handy, there are many people who think that is a very mysterious world and much prefer to do the thing in person.

Bobby Kerr published his report in January 2016 and it is now March 2017. A working group was established; it had one meeting between July and November 2016 but we have still had no action. I repeat what needs to happen: motor tax; white-label offerings and projects in telephony, energy, financial services and banking. The Minister of State knows the menu.

The issue here today is not what needs to be done. The issue is whether the Government will do it. If it does not do it, we will not be talking about 80 post offices. I hear from postmasters and postmistresses that persisting with the status quo will mean that very cleverly, the Government and An Post are forcing them out of business. It is not viable anymore because the Government will not give them the alternative services to address dropping mail volumes and dropping revenue that is happening in every post office in the country.

Finally, let me say the Government is closing the post offices and it will not give us broadband either.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this Topical Issue today. The Rural Independent Group recently tabled a Private Members' motion. We had consultation with the Departments of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Communications, Climate Action and Environment and the Taoiseach. The motion was agreed and we were delighted. Everybody supported it here. In Monday's edition of the Irish Independent Charlie Weston reported that an unpublished report, which we have been awaiting, will recommend that 80 post offices should close. If these indications from the unpublished report are accurate, our worst fears will have been realised. It will result in increased economic hardship, increased social isolation and an escalation of the decline of rural communities.

I remind the Government that as recently as last November, it supported a Dáil motion on the future of the post office network tabled by the Rural Independent Group. We asked for clear and explicit commitments in terms of seeking out new and innovative approaches to sustaining the post offices in rural communities. We all thought that acceptance of that Dáil motion meant we were all right. However, here we are. The Government is doing nothing while Rome burns and is twiddling its thumbs. The Government is either committed to rural post offices or it is not. So far all the indications are that the Government will continue to speak out of both sides of its mouth on this issue. We need absolute clarity. We need an acknowledgement that rural areas cannot cope with the level of withdrawal of services going on at present, including post offices, credit unions and what is happening with our roads. It could lock the people up altogether, as Deputy Ó Cuív said. It gave us no broadband either.

As a Deputy from a rural county, the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, should understand. I think it might have been a trick by the Taoiseach when announcing his last Cabinet he split ownership across three Departments and no one knows who is responsible. None of them is responsible and none of them is looking after it. The Government is closing them by stealth. It will not allow them do motor tax or driver licences. It will not allow them to be tourist offices. It will not allow them do the parcel post. It is strangling them with their hands behind their backs and eyes blindfolded.

As the Minister of State knows, the postmasters and postmistresses give sterling service. There is a huge social aspect to their service and they are willing to do much more if the Government lets them. Successive governments have closed them by stealth, but this Government has been the worst. We are going to be stripped of more post offices resulting in less connectivity. It was buses last week and also last week the credit union in Clonmel was bulldozed into taking over debts from Charleville credit union. Now it is the post offices.

The Minister of State has no empathy with rural areas. Is he trying to punish the electorate after it punished Government members for their reign of terror over five years in bailing out the banks? Is it trying to take away everything from rural communities? Given that he is a rural Deputy, the Minister of State should know what is going on. He should hang his head in shame. The post offices represent the last bastion. The Government let the Garda stations go. If it were approached imaginatively, the post offices could also be used in the evening time to allow the community garda be in there for an hour to meet people. There are many imaginative ways to support the post offices instead of strangling them, stifling them, kicking them down the road and insulting the good postmasters and postmistresses. There is huge waste in the GPO with many staff who have had no meaningful work for decades. The Government should look at where the real problem is with waste and not with the individual post offices.

If 80 rural post offices are to close as reported, it would be a national scandal and it has to be resisted. I would like to think that the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, who comes from a rural community in one of the most western parts of our country, would have a full understanding of the value of post offices and the life link it is for rural areas. Over recent years we have seen the total erosion of small shops, the creameries are practically gone, Garda stations have closed down and a lot of pubs have closed down. These are all areas of what I would call rural connection. Those facilities, along with our small post offices, are of immense value particularly for those who live in isolated rural areas and those who are elderly. They depend upon that for the social connection.

Representatives of An Post management told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs that 55 out of 500 are unsustainable. However, how is unsustainability defined? Is it defined just in monetary terms or by the social value it gives to communities? I argue that small post offices are invaluable to rural areas. Elderly people can go to post offices and the post offices come to them through their postman and they keep that connection. If the post offices are closed down it would be another death knell to rural areas.

We need to be prepared to stand up and ensure we judge the value to the community, not as unsustainable but as sustainable. Having such facilities in a community adds to the sustainability of the community. The Government and previous Governments have had a very negative impact on rural areas. I have considerable faith in the Minister of State, Deputy Ring; I say that as an Opposition spokesperson. The fact that he lives in a rural area and is acquainted with what is happening there means that he should be able to take this on and defend the facilities for rural areas. He should defend the small post offices so that they survive and that connection to rural communities is maintained.

If we had €1 for all the various committees and studies on An Post that have been commissioned by the Government we would have a nice few bob in a savings account in An Post. There has been a plethora of working groups reviewing the post office network. One was under the auspices of the Minister of State, the post office hub working group to examine the Kerr report which, itself, was a separate report. In addition, the Government set up a network renewal implementation group. Meanwhile the Minister, Deputy Naughten, and his officials are examining the potential for motor tax etc. to be paid through post offices.

I ask the Minister of State to explain to us how all these groups knit together to try to resolve what An Post claims is an impending crisis for the 1,100 remaining post offices. Obviously, the announcement that 80 are to close is an indication of the failure of these groups to come up with ideas. For example, we could give some sort of public service obligation payment to the post offices, which they do not receive. We could stop underfunding them and stop removing services from them such as social welfare payments by insisting that certain Government payments must be made through bank drafts etc. The State could form something similar to the Sparkasse or Kiwibank models that would help An Post perform multiple functions and therefore survive.

It reminds me of the same rhetoric we have heard regarding Bus Éireann.

In that case, it is claimed that we cannot keep the service going, that it is costing the State too much, that it is valuable for rural Ireland but that it is too expensive and not competitive. The operative phrase is “not competitive” because we are running down social services for the sake of neo-liberal ideas that profit must be made and one must be competitive. It is not going to work without risking the fabric of rural life being torn apart, if that has not started already. The threat to An Post and the threat to Bus Éireann are one of the same threats to the fabric of rural society. It is also winding it up to send a signal to the workers in both Bus Éireann and An Post that they better not dare look for a pay increase the way the Luas or Dublin Bus drivers or other workers did, that there is a crisis and that they will not get any pay rise. Will the Minister of State comment on all of these points, in particular how this will destroy the fabric of rural life?

I want to be very clear and place on the record of the House the fact that I have no statutory responsibility for An Post or post offices. Overall responsibility for the postal services and for the governance of An Post lies with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, while operational matters and commercial decisions are a matter for An Post. I have no function whatsoever regarding post office closures. As a rural Deputy-----

On a point of order, why is the Minister of State here then? This is ridiculous.

This is a joke. This is the best one ever. I have often seen Ministers coming in on behalf of other Ministers and apologising for them but I have never seen them disown them.

Deputy Mattie McGrath is upset because it is an Independent Minister.

I am not upset. I just want to find out who is responsible.

I am telling the Deputy who is responsible.

Why is he not here so?

He is meant to come in. Where is he?

I will move on to the next Topical Issue if I do not get order in the House.

I want to put on the record of the Dáil what is factual.

The Minister of State is not responsible, however.

I will move on to the next Topical Issue if the Minister of State is interrupted again.

Do we get the right to come back?

Then let us hear what the Minister of State has to say.

We can come back but the post offices cannot come back.

Does the Deputy want to push it and see me move on to the next Topical Issue?

As a rural Deputy, I know first-hand just how important the post office is to rural Ireland. I recognise that post offices play a significantly valuable economic and social role in rural, as well as urban, areas. At the same time, we must accept the reality that the postal sector is undergoing fundamental change both at home and internationally. People are increasingly using e-mail and social media to communicate, rather than using traditional postal services. Businesses, too, are increasingly providing services online. As a result, core mail volumes have decreased year on year. This is not just an Irish trend but a global one.

The chief executive officer of An Post said today there has been a decline of nearly 50% in mail services globally. An Post is currently carrying out a comprehensive review of the company, led by McKinsey consultants with a view to developing a long-term strategic approach to the business. Much media coverage has been given this week to the post office network and references to a report completed by Mr. Bobby Kerr. Mr. Kerr’s report was carried out for An Post, not for the Government. Mr. Kerr submitted his recommendations to An Post in December. At this point, I call on An Post to publish Mr. Kerr’s report, given that much of what it contains is already in the public domain. An Post should also clarify how Mr. Kerr’s report will feed into the wider decision-making process once the McKinsey process has concluded.

It is important to put on the record that the post office network is not owned by the State. An Post is a commercial State body. As of the end of February, there were 1,121 post offices nationwide, 50 of which are operated directly by An Post, with the rest being run under contract to An Post by postmasters and postmistresses. Decisions about the post office network and whether there are to be any closures are matters for the board and management of An Post.

That said, the Government is committed to working with stakeholders to ensure the ongoing sustainability of the post office network in the changed environment in which it operates. While I have no statutory responsibility for An Post, as I have said already, I have been working with the various stakeholders to ensure the commitments in A Programme for a Partnership Government for the post office network are delivered. As a rural Deputy, I believe post offices should be encouraged to play an increased role in the provision of services in rural areas and generate new economic activity that can support the revitalisation of rural Ireland.

That was the most extraordinary performance ever by a Minister of State. There was an arrangement made-----

I learned from the Deputy a lot.

I delivered on the ground. The Minister of State knows that and he admitted it to me many times.

The Minister of State claims he has no responsibility for An Post but gives us no explanation regarding where the Minister is. Under Standing Orders, the Minister responsible is meant to take Topical Issues.

I am realistic enough to know there is migration away from postal services and we all use the Internet more. However, there are plenty of other services which can be put into the post offices. The Government has been talking about this for six years but nothing, tada, rud ar bith has happened. That is our question. Is the Government going to let these post offices wither on the vine and disappear or realise it has ultimate responsibility for them?

I know we are a week into the Lent but what the Minister of State is doing, blaming the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, is the greatest Pontius Pilate act I have ever witnessed. I had to deal with all the Departments involved and they dealt with our recent motion on this.

We got the report from An Post. What does it do this week? It puts up the price of a stamp by 35% when sales of stamps are dropping. Any other company which did that would be out of business in a week. This is heads in the sand stuff.

Last week, the Minister of State announced another sham consultation about public banking. Our motion sought to allow the post office network become involved in community banking. The Minister of State is having a consultation period on this but the network will be imithe – gone - like the snow off the ditch. The Minister of State is passing the parcel to the other Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten. It is he who should be here dealing with this, instead of the Minister of State hand-wringing, doing a Pontius Pilate job and passing the buck. The post office network is disappearing before our eyes while the bus services and Garda stations are gone. There will be nothing left in rural Ireland, only the hen harriers, along with the weeds and the ditches the Government will not let us cut.

Several weeks ago, Sinn Féin put down a vote of no confidence in the Government. Today’s report from the Minister shows how right we were. This is a Government which has no responsibility for the workings of a network which has served this country for decades. Rural Ireland is in irreversible decline because this and successive Governments have neglected to look after it. They have treated its citizens as second class. Even today, when Ulster Bank will supposedly close 30 of its 120 branches, rural post offices will be left with skeleton staff and another 500 to go because they are considered unsustainable. The Government treats rural Ireland as unsustainable. Rural Ireland is sustainable if it gets the support necessary from the Government and its agencies.

I honestly do not blame the Minister of State for being annoyed and shouting and roaring that he is not responsible.

This morning's edition of The Irish Times put it well where it states: "A complicating factor within Government is that while Mr Naughten has responsibility for the overall governance of the company, the post office network comes under the authority of the Minister for Rural Development Heather Humphreys, and the Minister of State at her department, Michael Ring". Pass the parcel is not in it. The Cabinet should think about this matter and dedicate time to considering it and stop playing games with the rural post offices because that is what is going on. There is no direct responsibility for what is happening. I mentioned earlier the plethora of committees and reports and, in the meantime, ordinary people on the ground are suffering. Never mind the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys's grand opening of her rural development scheme, with €12 million for 600 towns and villages. That is great. It is an average of €20,000 for each of them, but while she is doing that the Government is winding down the delivery of services to rural Ireland and no Minister is taking responsibility for it. There must be an urgent discussion at Cabinet and some person has to be the fall guy for what is going on here.

I will finish reading the last two page of my speech as it might explain my role. One reason I established the post office hub working group last year was to identify potential models under which the post offices could provide additional services in this new operating environment and act as economic and social hubs in rural areas. The group has finalised its report, which I am bringing to Government shortly. Arising from the work of the group, I believe there is scope for a shared value model of post office, which would see local post offices act a multi-purpose space for the community.

They will not be there.

Deputy, please desist. Continue, Minister.

This is an approach that has proved successful in other jurisdictions. I would like to see a number of pilot projects launched by An Post as soon as possible in order to test the concept ahead of a much wider roll-out of the model, if it proves successful. My officials are also working with the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government to examine the potential for motor tax to be offered through the post office network, and their work is almost complete.

A fundamental element of financial sustainability for the post office network will be the increased availability of financial services in branches. To this end, I very much welcome the stated intention of An Post to launch a payment account in the near future. My Department is also willing to continue to work with An Post and the Irish Postmasters Union, which were both members of the post office hub working group that I established. I was given the role in government to establish that and I did establish it. I am making recommendations to Government and the person who has responsibility for this is the Minister, Deputy Naughten. I do not have responsibility for it.

The Minister of State is washing his hands of it now.

Deputy Ó Cuív spoke about responsibility. He knows about the difference in terms of dealing with semi-State companies and if the Government was to interfere in a semi-State company, he would be the very first one, along with Deputy Mattie McGrath, who would be shouting and roaring telling us what we were doing was wrong.

The Minister of State is washing his hands of it. He should use some soap.

The Minister of State is absolutely wrong. I always believed that-----

Thank you, Deputies. I am moving on to the next Topical Issue.

Why does the Minister of State not wash his hands of it altogether on the way out?

The Deputy should go and talk to his man.

Okay gentlemen, thank you. Please leave the Chamber quietly and act like grown ups.

Departmental Reports

I believe we would all agree, if we can agree on anything after that debate, that during the term of the previous Government almost no post offices were closed. All the roaring and shouting that is going on now about the current Government is not impressive.

We would all agree that the third level sector is vital to our future and that third level colleges and universities are the platform on which we hope to produce graduates who will not only get good jobs and join different professions but who will start their own companies and provide for entrepreneurships.

I am very disappointed and angry at the way this Government has treated staffing issues in the third level sector since it came into office. The economy is in recovery mode but we know that during the period of the crash, little or no recruitment was made in the universities or colleges or generally in the public sector but that period is behind us. I am concerned about the terms and conditions under which younger and newer staff are currently being recruited.

We have had two reports by senior counsel, one by Peter Ward some time ago dealing with the issues and specifically focusing on issues around the entire education sector regarding staff getting quality contracts for the very important jobs they do. The other report, the Cush report, which was delivered to this Government some time ago, basically examined the conditions of teaching staff in colleges and universities and how their contracts and terms and conditions would be improved. Essentially, we find the quality of jobs has been both stripped out and stripped down in a number of the universities, including in the one closest to us in the Dáil, Trinity College, over a period of time, whereby increasingly more staff are now on short-term contracts or contracts which are subject to renewal at frequent intervals. The consequence of that for staff, who are vital for providing services to students, researchers and their institutions, is that their position of employment is extremely precarious, and if it were to continue that way, the staff will not be in a position to acquire a mortgage because they simply will not have contracts of a quality which would allow them to have financial security and commit to a long-term investment such as the purchase of a family home.

The Government has very significant resources at its disposal. What will it do to improve the terms and conditions of staff at third level and, in particular, to move away from short-term contracts and return to the principle of people getting permanent, contracted employment in which they can commit to the institution, give good service and also be able to enter into financial commitments? What about this model of short-termism which is also being employed for ancillary staff such as people who work in the libraries and in administration? It is a really insidious form of permanently reducing people's status and conditions.

The report of the chair of the expert group on fixed-term and part-time issues in lecturing in Ireland was published in May 2016 and contains a number of recommendations which will assist in addressing concerns raised about the level of part-time and fixed-term employment in lecturing in the third level sector. My Department issued directions to the sector on 4 July 2016 to implement the recommendations contained in the report in accordance with the terms of the Lansdowne Road agreement and my understanding is that the institutions are taking steps to do so.

The recommendations can be summarised as follows: a reduction in the qualifying period for a contract of indefinite duration from three years to two years; this reduction is to be reviewed when it has been in operation for five years; where additional hours are awarded to an existing holder of a contract of indefinite duration, the qualification period for a further such contract in respect of those additional hours should be one year; extra available lecturing hours should be offered to existing qualified part-time lecturers within the institution before being advertised externally; the employer and management representatives in the sector should have discussions with a view to implementing a feasible redeployment scheme; the adjudication system for dispute resolution in regard to the awarding of contracts of indefinite duration which already existed in institutes of technology should be extended to the universities; and, finally, employers now have the flexibility to recruit staff to non-Exchequer funded posts on a fixed-term or permanent basis.

If a union representing lecturing grades believes that a university is not implementing the recommendations contained within the report of the chair of the expert group, that union can seek to have the matter addressed using the dispute resolution procedures provided for in the public service agreement.

The above-mentioned report is specific to concerns raised about part-time and fixed-term employment in lecturing and its recommendations are not applicable to non-lecturing grades. My Department is not aware of any issues regarding non-lecturing grades.

In line with the Universities Act 1997, third level institutions have autonomy in regard to human resource policies, subject to compliance with Government policy in respect of employment numbers and pay policy. Employers in the higher education sector are also required to operate in accordance with the provisions of national industrial relations agreements.

My Department is not aware of any instance of a third level institution not operating in accordance with good practice in respect of work and contract conditions or not operating in accordance with the provisions of national industrial relations agreements.

I note that the Minister said, "My Department is not aware of any issues regarding non-lecturing grades." I suggest the Minister agree to meet the representatives of the staff involved and their union representatives so they might advise him of what is happening as regards the quality of the work and contracts and the extent of permanency being made available, as I said, in particular in respect of staff involved in library services and administrative staff. It behoves Deputy Bruton as Minister for Education and Skills to familiarise himself with the present difficulties. We all understand that we have come out of a difficult economic period. That period is over. Deputy Bruton is taking a very retrograde step in saying he, as Minister, will wash his hands of the quality of contracts that vital ancillary staff will be able to obtain in third level institutions and colleges. It should be remembered that these ancillary staff, particularly those who work in libraries or provide other services to students, provide absolutely vital contact for students in their colleges and universities. We already know that class sizes have broadly increased, so ancillary services are enormously important to the quality of the educational experience a student receives. If this sector is so important in giving people opportunities to qualify as graduates-----

-----and bolstering research in the Irish university and third level sector, it seems to me a very retrograde step, as I said-----

-----to strip the quality of these jobs. The Minister claims-----

The Deputy's time is up.

-----he has no knowledge of this. The previous speaker referred to Pontius Pilate.

I thank the Deputy. Her time is up.

The Minister, unusually for him, is doing a Pontius Pilate on this-----

-----and he needs to address it.

I reiterate that I do not have responsibility for the HR policies of colleges. Those colleges have fought hard for the autonomy they have secured and Deputy Burton would have been one of those advocating the independence of the governance of colleges. My work is to ensure the framework of performance for these colleges is shaped in such a way that they deliver high quality, see more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds coming through their college doors and deliver degrees and research to high standards. I seek to win additional resources for them.

Deputy Burton is right that we have come through a very difficult period, when there was no money for third level. This year, for the first time, I have secured €36.5 million to invest back into the third level sector to allow these colleges to grow, expand and provide additional service. Further, I am seeking to commit to additional resources in each of the next three years and I am working with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to provide a funding model that has both Exchequer and employer contribution. However, I do not have a direct role in human resource issues. That is the way it has been set up under law and I operate within the law of the land.