Leaders' Questions

Today again witnesses huge disruption for up to 155,000 passengers on our railway system, the DART and so on. These are people going to work and to hospital appointments on intercity routes. This huge disruption is not good for our economy. The rail workers have not had a pay increase in ten years. They do not want to be on the picket line and they are very anxious for an orderly, proactive resolution of this dispute.

The origins of and background to this lie in a lack of proactivity from Government, in particular the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, in regard to public transport policy in general and in terms of investment in our railway system.

In the aftermath of the bus strike the Minister made serious commitments to convene a stakeholders' forum involving the National Transport Authority, NTA; his Department, Irish Rail and the unions, but it was never convened. The whole idea was to try to prevent the industrial relations turmoil that, sadly, has been too much of a feature of the public transport system in the past two years. I would like to know why the stakeholders' forum has not been convened.

A national rail review was initiated 12 months ago and submissions were sought from everyone. Political parties made submissions, as did various interested bodies, but the review has never seen the light of day. Where is it?

There is an overall funding issue pertaining to Irish Rail and the railway system. The NTA has stated there are major issues and that, at a minimum and just to stand still in the next five years, Irish Rail will need €103 million over and above what it is receiving in order to ensure the tracks will be up to speed and existing deficits will be bridged. If we are serious about tackling climate change, public transport will be a key enabler in Ireland meeting its targets in that regard. Investment in public transport, including railways, will be essential if we are to meet the climate change targets we have set.

That is the policy background to today's industrial dispute. I argue that we are where we are because of a lack of proactivity on the part of the Minister and his lack of empathy towards the idea behind public transport. Given his public utterances during the years, he has a long track record of lacking basic sympathy for and empathy with Bus Éireann, Irish Rail and CIÉ overall. That has been his form. However, a country is now at stake. Instead of tweeting about the fortunes of Manchester United or contemplating publicly a fantasy visit to North Korea, he would be far better off focusing on issues within his realm of responsibility, including industrial relations in the transport sector. It would be far better if he were to concentrate on having these issues resolved and proactively deal with them well in advance in order that we do not arrive at a situation like today's.

When will the national rail review be published? Why did the Minister not convene the stakeholders' forum? Does the Taoiseach accept that, in the context of an effective and viable rail network, a step change in investment will have to occur? Will we see more proactivity on the part of the Minister in terms of public transport policy?

I thank the Deputy. As far as I know, the stakeholders' forum has been convened, or at least efforts are being made to set a date for its first meeting, but I will double check with the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross. I do not have a date for publication of the rail review, but the Deputy will be aware of many public-----

I do not have a date for publication of the rail review, but the Deputy will be aware that there have been many other publications of rail reviews in the not too distant past. Today is the second day of the train strike. I understand the unions have now announced plans for three more strike days in the next few weeks. I agree with the Deputy that the strike is very much to be regretted. Some 150,000 passengers are being inconvenienced today - people who are trying to get to work, to go about their daily business and to get to hospital appointments. Of course, others are being very badly affected, too, in buses that are more crowded and because of much heavier traffic on the streets. Also, staff have lost income. People with associated businesses in train stations are losing out, too. The strike has further undermined the company's financial position. However, I have no doubt that, as is the case with all strikes in CIÉ involving train and bus services, the strike will be resolved. It will be resolved in the normal way, under the auspices of the State through the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, and, if need be, the Labour Court. Certainly, I encourage both the unions and management to engage with the WRC or the Labour Court, as necessary, and let us have the strike settled and resolved there, as it always is. It is regrettable that, when it comes to CIÉ, for some reason it is always necessary to have a few days of strike action when other disputes can be resolved at the WRC or the Labour Court without a strike, but the time has certainly come for the unions and management to engage with the WRC or the Labour Court. Let us settle the strike and avoid further inconvenience, loss of income or damage to the company.

It is absolutely the case that during the recession funding for Iarnród Éireann was cut back significantly.

It is important to tell the story of the last three years. Over the past three years, there has been a 35% increase in the subvention for Irish Rail, which is significant relative to other public bodies. The numbers of passengers has increased, which means more fares are coming into the company. Fares have also increased. The company has benefitted in three ways from additional revenue. There has been additional subvention, more passengers and higher fares.

The question which now arises is how those resources should be spent. Should they be spent on shoring up the financial position of the company, paying down its debt in order to secure jobs and services into the future? Should the money be used to improve services for passengers, such as more trains more frequently? Should it be used to fund pay increases? From the tone of the Deputy's question, I think he shares the view that the money should go into investment in services, the company and infrastructure.

Presumably, that is what a rail review would come up with and why everybody was asked to make submissions 12 months ago. The Taoiseach is not in a position today to tell me when that will be published or the work completed.

The bus dispute was six months ago. He committed, prior to its resolution and acceptance of the Labour Court recommendation, to convene a stakeholders' forum. He is flailing around and asking people to come up with the type of forum he should convene. It is the job of the Minister to get on with it and convene a forum of that kind.

Given the febrile nature of industrial relations and public transport, he had an obligation to do that. He should have done so six months ago in the immediate aftermath of the bus dispute but he did not do so. We now find ourselves in another dispute. It stems from a lack of proactivity in respect of the public transport sector.

In terms of investment, a step change is required if one is to believe the assessment of the NTA on the current position of Iarnród Éireann and the need for an additional €103 million per annum simply to stand still. This might be unpalatable for people to take on board, but it is what it is. It has raised safety issues, train times becoming slower between cities and so on. It would have sent a very important signal, in the context of the rail review, if people were assured of a Government commitment to public transport and railways, in particular, given the wider Government objectives on climate change and so on.

Workers do not want to be on strike. The Taoiseach cannot casually say that they had to go on strike. They do not want to be there.

I am not going to allow slippage today to the extent that one minute becomes two minutes.

As I said, now that we have some money we have invested in the railways. There has been a 35% increase in subvention in three years. Very few semi-State or public bodies have had a 35% increase in subvention in the past three years. Between 2008 and 2016, an extra €5 billion was invested in CIÉ companies, the bulk of which, some €3.7 billion, went to Iarnród Éireann even though it does not accommodate the bulk of passengers. Very many more people travel by bus than by train in Ireland.

I agree it will be useful to convene the stakeholders' forum and I will speak to the Minister, Deputy Ross, about that. It would also be useful to publish the rail review. However, I do not think for a second that publishing the rail review or convening a stakeholders' forum will resolve this dispute. This is a pay dispute. Ultimately, it is about salaries, wages and money.

We are aligned on one thing, namely, that we need to invest more in public transport and make sure that our railways are safe. We need to improve line speeds and buy more carriages so that we can have a better quality of train service for passengers. We need a safer service and one which helps us to deal with climate change. That means the vast majority of additional revenue which goes into companies, whether through subvention, fares or additional passengers, should go into improving services and making them safer and better, rather than into pay increases.

Tá an cheist chéanna agamsa faoin stailc in Iarnród Éireann. Mar a bhfuil a fhios ag an Taoiseach, tá a lán daoine faoi bhrú inniu agus iad gan traein. Creidim go bhfuil ceart ag an lucht oibre. Tá ceist mhór ann faoin Aire. Cá bhfuil an tAire, an Teachta Ross? An bhfuil sé ann? Níl.

The decision of workers to engage in industrial action is completely understandable. They have not had a pay rise in ten years. There are looking for fairness, which is an increase in line with the transport workers.

The Taoiseach knows that in 2016, the revenues for Iarnród Éireann were a record high of €245 million. Passenger numbers have increased hugely and the company is looking forward to the best ever passenger numbers since its foundation, yet it refuses to pay its workers a fair wage and lectures them about the financial crisis facing the company. The financial crisis was not caused by the workers but rather by successive Governments. The Taoiseach is a former Minister with responsibility for transport and will not admit this but bad Government policy is at the heart of the transport chaos.

The question must be asked as to where the Government is in all of this. Where is the Minister? The Taoiseach claims not to be a keeper of his Ministers but where is the Minister with responsibility for transport? The National Transport Authority's 2016 rail review document laid out in black and white how much investment is needed by the company, but what is the Minister's attitude to this? We have seen little or no interest from him in addressing the matters raised in the report. The stakeholders' meeting has not been convened and it is an example of the way the Minister does not have a focus or the urgency required in all this. Given his efforts towards peace - perhaps he is Minister with responsibility for North Korean affairs in his own head - I suppose a rail strike is a very trivial matter for a man so preoccupied with such big matters.

The Deputy is not so bad at it himself.

It is little wonder a union official stated there is no point in calling for the Minister to intervene. The Government has a responsibility and is the sole shareholder in the company. Unless there is an intervention and the Minister faces up to the challenges facing the State's public transport network, we will have continued safety concerns, other difficulties and stress placed upon workers, their families and train users.

Will the Taoiseach step in to ensure the rail workers' very reasonable demands are met as a matter of urgency? Will he ask the Minister, Deputy Ross, to do his job? He is paid many times more than any Irish Rail worker and it is time he worked for it. Will the Taoiseach hold him to account?

Níl a fhios agam. Bhí an tAire ag an gcruinniú Rialtais ar maidin. Tá sé imithe anois, áfach.

No, he is definitely in Baile Átha Cliath.

A one-way ticket. We can all chip in.

Where is he? He is responsible for public transport.

The unions could advise him over there.

A non-return ticket.

I can certainly assure the Deputy that the Minister, Deputy Ross, is in the country because he was at the Cabinet meeting this morning and briefed it on the rail dispute, the options open to us and the next steps that may follow.

I hear a real contradiction in the position being put across from Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. I am not sure if the Deputy hears the contradiction but it is there. Both the leader of Sinn Féin and of Fianna Fáil have said we need to invest in our railways, that we need to make them safer and we need to improve line speeds. They argue we need more carriages and capacity, better services for passengers and to deal with climate change. At the same time, the parties, or Sinn Féin at least, seems to be arguing that it supports demands for pay rises substantially above the increases being paid to others in the public and private sector.

Are they not exclusive issues?

It cannot be both. That is not honest politics. One cannot argue for pay rises in Irish Rail substantially above the pay rises that people are getting in the public service next year-----

What about Deputies' pay rises?

-----while at the same time arguing there should be investment in the railways for all those good reasons. That is just not an honest position.

The company has more money and, as I mentioned, the subvention has gone up and passenger numbers are increasing. The targets I set as Minister with responsibility for transport to increase the use of public transport are being met. Fares have gone up as well, so more revenue is going to the company. This must be split three ways, with the first paying the debt, making the company more solvent and securing its future in the long term. It must also improve services for passengers and pay for the staff. We must split the resources three ways and make priorities. The consensus of this House is that while there should be some form of pay increase, the priority should be investment in infrastructure, safety, line speeds and carriages while improving services for passengers and dealing with climate change.

Of course the Government can intervene, but it does not do so in such disputes through ministerial intervention, as that has not been the case for a very long time.

The way that is done is through the bodies that are established by this House and funded by the State to manage industrial relations disputes. These are the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, in the first instance and the Labour Court thereafter. I know that the Labour Court and the WRC are willing to intervene in this dispute if they believe there is sufficient willingness from both management and unions to come to an agreement. I hope that willingness exists, and if it does I am sure there will be a Labour Court intervention.

The Taoiseach is gaining a reputation for having a hard edge to his tongue. Supporting workers' rights is interpreted by him as, "Not honest politics". Within 12 months, Deputies and Ministers will have grand increases in wages - €10,000 for Deputies and €15,000 for Ministers - yet the Taoiseach lectures rail workers because they are seeking a reasonable pay increase, which they have not received for ten years.

I understand that the Cabinet met this morning. Was the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, at the Cabinet meeting? Did he mention this issue? This is a rail strike. Thousands of people have been discommoded today. Was it mentioned, even informally at the side of the meeting? Was it on the agenda? Some common sense is required here. The Taoiseach has recently spoken about removing the right of workers to strike and to ban them from standing up for their rights. Instead of that type of right-wing rhetoric, perhaps he should appreciate that the rail workers' demands are very reasonable. The Government should make it clear that the ten-year pay freeze should be ended, and the Taoiseach should take the opportunity to signal that now. He should remember that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, is the main stakeholder. He is supposed to act in the best interests of the public. Will the Taoiseach commit to doing this?

The Deputy is gaining a reputation for just not listening, or perhaps he does not understand what is going on around him. Perhaps, indeed, the supplementary question was pre-written and he was unable to depart from it. In my reply, in both Irish and English, I said that the Minister, Deputy Ross, was at the meeting this morning and that he did brief us on the dispute.

To correct Deputy Adams, Ministers will not be accepting any pay rise next year. The decision was taken some time ago-----

The Deputy said Deputies.

-----to forgo any pay restoration during the period of this Government. I can absolutely guarantee that the Government is putting public services and the interests of others ahead of any pay restoration for ourselves.

It is also important to point out that what is happening for public servants next year is pay restoration, or the reversal of pay cuts that happened in the past. It will comprise a 1% increase in January and 1% later in the year. Those pay cuts were not imposed on Irish Rail.

I had planned on raising a different issue, but I got an email last night from a woman in Wexford called Jane Johnston who is the mother of two severely autistic children, Daniel and Evan. She is at the end of her wits from trying to deal with the HSE. I will read a little of her email:

Evan is now 17 years old and was diagnosed with severe autism just before his third birthday. He did not develop any speech, and remains non-verbal, but has excellent comprehension. He has significant mobility issues, and due to a degenerative eye condition he also has significant visual impairment. Evan lost his dad due to a sudden cardiac arrest almost three years ago. His brother, Daniel, also has significant autism. Evan has been the survivor of more tragedy in his 17 years than most of us will witness in a lifetime. He never stops trying, and he has the same lust for life and adventure as any other boy his age. He deserves respect, the right to dignity, and to live the best life he can, but he is seen and treated as an inconvenience and a problem to our health service because he is different, and difference comes at a cost. Banners around our town in Wexford tell us that it is okay to ask for help, but since my husband passed away I have had to ask for help for the very survival of my family. I have been threatened with foster care, [and was] advised to call the Garda if Evan has a meltdown because the HSE failed to give him the support he needs. When I took issue with these threats I was told that I could be referred to Tusla in the absence of my consent.

A few months ago, when announcing the creation of additional and long-overdue special needs assistant, SNA posts, the Taoiseach said, "Fine Gael in Government is determined to ensure that our recovering economy will pay dividends for all, particularly the most vulnerable".

The Taoiseach added that this announcement reflects the programme for Government commitment to ensure that all children with special needs can maximise their potential.

When the HSE encourages a parent to call gardaí to take into custody an autistic teenager who might develop behavioural problems at a time when the HSE has shut down for the weekend, does that sound as if it might maximise the potential of that child? For the autistic teenager who thrives on routine and who just needed to get out of the house for a few hours in a given week, but could not because the HSE would not provide respite care, does the Taoiseach think the psychological impact of being forcibly restrained and dragged away by untrained, unknown gardaí might maximise the potential of that child? When the parent says he or she will not call the Garda and the HSE manager then threatens to refer him or her to Tusla in the absence of his or her consent, does that sound as it if might maximise the potential of that parent's child? Is it fair on the gardaí who are already under-resourced and, more importantly, untrained in how to handle vulnerable children with special needs?

We have a serious problem with the HSE in Wexford, and the most vulnerable are the people who are being treated the worst. I have put four questions to the Taoiseach. How much potential is there for him to hold the HSE to account on these matters?

The Deputy will appreciate that I am not in a position to comment in the House on individual cases. I do not have any information on this case and even if I did I would be bound to respect the confidentiality of the person concerned. However, I am very sorry to hear about the experience the citizen the Deputy mentioned and the family have had. If the Deputy wishes to pass the information to me, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, or the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, we will have it examined.

The Deputy has acknowledged the significant increases in supports that have been provided in the last year or so for people with disabilities, whether it is the medical card as a right for children with severe disabilities, the 1,000 extra special needs assistants, SNAs, or the fact that we now spend more on special education than on higher education. However, there is always more work to do. The Minister has set up a working group on autism to examine service provision and what is good and bad practice. He expects to receive that report in a few weeks. He is also developing Ireland's first national autism strategy, which every Member of the House will welcome. The budget provided for increased funding for respite care, home care, school leavers and emergency places for 2018 and the details of that will be included in the HSE service plan. In addition, it is also planned to pilot speech and language therapy in schools in 2018 as part of our ongoing efforts to improve services for our citizens with disabilities who need so much support.

Much of the extra money that has been allotted for this area is being swallowed up by private entities. The people trying to rear families that include children with severe autism will be the first to tell the Taoiseach that many of the private institutions that provide care do not represent value for money, although some of them do. In most cases, these entities are getting €24 per hour for this work. The money being allotted to this area could be used much better if the Government was not so obsessed with going to the private sector. This woman has been seeking a business plan for Evan's transition from child to adult services. The HSE will not even communicate with her. How she is being treated by the HSE is unbelievable. I will not name the people with whom she has had such a dysfunctional relationship, but it is not being done properly. The HSE has incredible questions to answer on this area. The Taoiseach says he will ensure that all children with special needs can maximise their potential, but that is not happening. It sounds false to these people. They are frustrated to death with the problems they are facing. Unfortunately, the HSE is a problem, not a solution, for them. Nobody appears to be able to hold it to account.

Our duty is to ensure that all children in the country have the opportunity to grow up to be the best adults they can be and that people with disabilities, in particular, have all the opportunities possible to maximise their potential. We will never reach the point where anyone can say the work is done. There will always be more work to do in this area and more efforts that we must undertake.

The Deputy's fundamental point is correct. The money is not being spent across the disability services as well as it could be. That is not only the case with private sector providers, but also public providers and those in the charity sector. The solution we want to move to is personalised budgets which give people with special needs or disabilities a personal budget which they or their guardians can use in whatever way they decide is in their best interests. That will not be popular among some private or charity sector providers or even the HSE because it will challenge them all to provide a better service or have their service closed. Nevertheless, it is what we want to move to. Pilots have been done and a task force has been established.

In terms of greater accountability on the HSE's part, the Minister has already announced his plans to establish a HSE board. There is no board for the HSE and we believe its creation would improve accountability.

I want to raise the matter of the Paradise Papers and the information which has emerged in regard to Apple's tax arrangements, the facilitation of these arrangements by successive Irish Governments and the considerably negative impact this is having on Ireland's reputation. The central theme running through the Paradise Papers is the relentless quest of the wealthy and powerful, the great and the good, to find ways of avoiding paying tax. We saw this most starkly in the operation of the double Irish and its use by Apple and the subsequent ruling by the European Commission that this favourable treatment constituted state aid. In that regard, it certainly seemed that the facilitation of tax avoidance was an intentional strategy adopted by the Government and its agencies in 1991 and updated in 2007.

It is very hard to understand why the Government, in September of last year, with the full benefit of hindsight, stood over the manner in which the sweetheart deals were done and vouched for their full compliance with the law. The public cannot understand why the Government is now spending considerable additional millions of euro on appealing the European Commission ruling.

The position of the then Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, was very hard to understand. In 2013, he signalled that he intended to close down the double Irish on which the tax avoidance arrangement is based. The impact of this was considerable for Apple's tax liability. We know there was much engagement between Apple and the Department of Finance around this time. We also know, thanks to the Paradise Papers, that Apple went on a jurisdiction shopping spree in search of another tax-dodging deal, and that following the closing of the double Irish, Apple restructured its companies. It registered two of its Cork companies in Jersey and took up tax residency in Ireland for its remaining Cork company, Apple Operations Europe. This, combined with the changes made to the capital allowance regime in 2014, allowed Apple to sell its intellectual property back to the Irish-registered company and avail of the massive tax breaks which this measure facilitated.

Was our capital allowance regime changed to allow Apple to keep its formerly stateless profits entirely untaxed? In other words, was it done to compensate Apple for the loss of the double Irish? Had Apple, or its representatives, requested a change to the capital allowances regime? How much has Apple benefited by this change and how much has the State lost?

The answer to the Deputy's question is "No", or not to my knowledge. She might wish to put the question to the Minister for Finance who might have more information on those matters than I do. I do not have detailed knowledge of any company's tax affairs or, indeed, any individual's tax affairs.

Tax avoidance is an international problem and international problems require international solutions. As we found when it comes to dealing with tax avoidance by large companies, when one country acts, the company will just move to another jurisdiction.

That is why we need an international solution to this problem-----

-----in order to bring about a situation where companies pay their fair share of tax. In that regard, Ireland is an international leader. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, which is based in Paris is the international organisation which deals with taxation issues and ensuring companies are not able to exploit differences in tax law from one jurisdiction to the next. It has designated Ireland as one of only 22 countries, of nearly 200 in the world, which are entirely compliant when it comes to tax transparency. We have also signed up to information sharing. We are going to share information from one country to the next on how much each company is paying in tax in different jurisdictions. That will prove very useful as for the first time we will know how much a big company has paid in tax in Ireland, how much it has paid in France and how much it has paid somewhere else. We did not know that information up until now. The double Irish is gone. Stateless companies are also gone. The Finance Bill 2017 will change the way in which we tax intellectual property. However, we do not accept at all that Ireland was involved in any special arrangement with, or in providing state aid for, Apple. That is why we are fighting the case.

That is the core of the problem.

It is simply not the case that Ireland was involved in providing state aid.

On the Paradise Papers, there are 13 million of them and I doubt that anyone has read them at this stage. I am sure this is still an evolving story. The Revenue Commissioners will examine the papers. The Minister for Finance has already spoken to the chairperson of the Revenue Commissioners about this matter and if further action is required to be taken against any person or company, it will be taken. It is important to point out that the Revenue Commissioners have been very active and effective in this area. In the past couple of years alone they have collected €1 billion in targeting offshore operations by companies.

It is a cop-out to say the issue of tax avoidance needs international solutions alone. Yes, it does need them, but it also needs us in Ireland to close the loopholes which Governments have created, including the double Irish in 1991 and the changes to the capital allowance arrangements which the Taoiseach's Government introduced just last year. This greed fuelled quest to pay no tax is, of course, not victimless, of which the Taoiseach must be aware. The victims are small and medium enterprises - indigenous industries which are tax compliant and which do not have access to the tax avoidance advice available to multinational companies. Compliant taxpayers are also victims. They are denied adequate funding for the provision of public services owing to the reduced revenue base.

The Taoiseach says the intellectual property arrangement has been closed. It has been closed but not before Apple was allowed a ten-year break as a result of the changes made last year. The Comptroller and Auditor General recently noted that the cost of capital allowances had doubled between 2014 and 2015. How much of this was due to Apple's restructuring? How can we allow one company to completely dominate and distort the national accounts? The Taoiseach is answerable for this. He is the leader of the Government and must answer for what his Government has done.

I do not accept that it is a cop-out. It is the case that, if one listens to what the Deputy is saying, she agrees with me. This is an international problem which requires an international solution. If a loophole is closed in one jurisdiction, companies simply move to the next. I do not accept that saying this is a cop-out. It is a statement of fact.

The Government created a new one.

That is why we need an international solution to this international problem. I agree that we must close loopholes domestically. I gave the Deputy two examples of loopholes which we closed in recent years, one being the double Irish-----

It is still operational.

-----and the other being a mechanism which allowed stateless corporations to avoid paying tax, but it is a constant game of cat and mouse. There are very smart tax lawyers who go through legislation looking for loopholes to exploit. It is never going to be the case that there will be no loopholes and we must keep on closing them. The Deputy knows full well that it is not possible to change the law retrospectively. That applies to citizens, as well as to companies. We could not pass a law here today to change the income tax rates four years ago and expect people to pay up. Laws have to be prospective, not retrospective.

Why did Deputy Michael Noonan do it?