Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Construction Industry

The issue I raise relates to the construction sector. I thank the Minister of State for being here. He will be aware of this because we have spoken of it. I understand the Tánaiste has met with the platform workers. That is a serious issue.

I will discuss the use of State money via our local authorities to support the practice of bogus self-employment. I understand that is not Government policy and do not suggest it is. However, it is happening in the construction sector at the moment in local authority projects. The State is supporting bogus self-employment because these practices are effectively being funded through the finances of the local authorities. We have contractors contracting business from local authorities. They have to look for value for money, and I do not suggest that is not important but it does not have to equate to undermining workers' rights. The practice of bogus self-employment does a number of things, chief among which is to undercut the sector employment order, SEO, rate. We have sectoral employment orders and I understand they are liable to challenge but they are the State saying that this is the minimum. I have payslips, some here and more that I can share with the Minister of State, which show people are not getting their pension, not paying the correct rate of PRSI and, more importantly, where the SEO rate is around €19.37 per hour, they get €10.50 or €10.55 per hour. These are semi-skilled and, in some cases, skilled, workers. There are no checks and balances that I can see in place by the local authorities on the practice of bogus self-employment and undermining the SEO rate. The contractor gets the contract and the money flows from the local authorities.

I want to be constructive, work with the Minister of State and ensure this is stopped. I doubt the Minister of State stands over this practice and I am sure he wants to stamp it out as well. How can we ensure local authorities respect the SEO rate and there are decent terms and conditions? Where the State spends money, it must ensure it uses its spending power to uphold workers' rights and the SEO rate and to deal with instances of bogus self-employment.

Unfortunately, contractors working for local authorities have been advising the chief executives of some of these local authorities of these practices and are not getting any follow-up. If this was being dealt with at local level, I would not be raising it. I raise it because I want to see the State take a greater hand in clamping down on bogus self-employment within the construction sector, ensuring SEO rates are upheld, proper rates of the job, pensions, etc.

There cannot be a hands-off approach to this. It cannot be the case that the local authorities sign the cheque and there is no follow-up on the terms and conditions. Essentially, these people are performing a function on behalf of the State. Where the State directly employs a nurse, carer, doctor or teacher, there is a rate for the job and that rate is respected. There is a pension and that is paid. That is not happening in the construction sector and I am conscious that, as the economy starts to reopen, these practices will become more and more the norm again. I have evidence and can share it with the Minister of State. Some mechanism needs to be in place to ensure the State is doing all it can to stamp out the practice of bogus self-employment. That is not just legislation but following up on where the State is spending money.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. She will have to forgive me because I only had notice she was going to raise bogus self-employment in the construction sector so I have no data or information on local authorities contracts. That was not mentioned in any clarification to us. I am happy to engage with her on that but I will have to speak more generally because that was all that was flagged to us by the Deputy.

I will speak mainly on behalf of the Department of Social Protection, which has most of the enforcement in this area along with the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. The WRC monitors this and construction sites are a key part of its work as well. I would gladly take any evidence or data the Deputy has, discuss it with her and feed it into officials in the various Departments. Of course, we would follow this up and stamp this out because anywhere public money is spent we have to make sure the legislation is followed and that employees are respected and their conditions of employment through the various agreements are protected and honoured.

False or bogus self-employment arises where an employer wilfully or wrongfully treats a worker as an independent contractor in order to avoid tax and social insurance contributions and denies the worker access to other rights which attach to employment. Quantitative data from the labour force survey and elsewhere indicate that the prevalence of false level employment is lower than is perhaps perceived anecdotally. The self-employed made up about 14.1% of total employment in 2020. This is consistent with the average levels of self-employment within the EU and does not, of itself, point to a major problem here.

However, we know there are issues and they are dealt with whenever we have any information to track that and there is ongoing testing as well. It is fair to say there are some employers out there who are exploiting workers, many in lower paid and sometimes precarious jobs, and no level of worker exploitation is acceptable in this country. I could not be any clearer on that note on behalf of the Government and myself.

That is why Ireland has robust enforcement bodies and mechanisms in place for the determination of the employment status of individuals or groups. Where an issue arises in relation to the employment status of an individual, depending on the particular circumstances involved, cases are forwarded to the Department of Social Protection, the Revenue Commissioners or the WRC. All three have a role in any local authority contracts and any site belonging to anybody, regardless of whether it is public or private money.

The scope and employment status investigation units of the Department of Social Protection regularly carry out investigations jointly with the labour inspectorate of the Workplace Relations Commission. The Revenue Commissioners also have a role in identifying such cases and they carry out stand-alone investigations and those in conjunction with the Workplace Relations Commission. They also act on evidence or information that is reported.

The Workplace Relations Commission completed 250 inspections in the construction sector in 2019 and 150 in 2020. Inspections carried out by WRC inspectors operate on a compliance model. This means that an inspector will work with an employer to ensure that the employer fulfils all their statutory obligations and that any outstanding wages or entitlements are given to workers.

Officials within the scope section of the Department of Social Protection determine employment status and the correct class of pay-related social insurance, PRSI. Where misclassification of workers as self-employed is detected, the correct status and class is determined, and social insurance arrears are collected as required under the law.

Under the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, there are specific offences in relation to employment contributions. On conviction, fines or imprisonment can ultimately be imposed. Revenue also has a strong inspection focus on the construction sector. Importantly, the enforcement bodies work closely together carrying out on-site investigations and work to a national code agreed with the social partners. The code of practice for determining employment and self-employment status of individuals has just been updated by an interdepartmental working group consisting of the Department of Social Protection, the Revenue Commissioners and the WRC. It is currently with the social partners for final consideration before anticipated publication in the coming weeks. This revised code will outline the current legal tests used in the determination of employment status and, importantly, incorporates the up-to-date situation.

It is important that we do that, both for the protection of employees but also to make sure that there is fair pricing when it comes to tenders so that businesses that follow all their obligations do not lose out on contracts because somebody else does not. We are very strong on that point.

That is exactly the issue. There are decent employers and they tell me they cannot get State contracts because they are being undercut by employers who - I am trying to think of a diplomatic word to describe them; the Minister of State probably knows the type of word I would use, but I will not use it here - are exploiting their workers via bogus self-employment and undermining the rate while they are doing work on behalf of the State. When the Minister of State says that some employers are undermining workers' rights, they are, but the State is an actor in this. Will he consider engaging with the local authorities to find out what practices or mechanisms, if any, are in place to ensure this is not happening? This is not in every local authority. My read of it is that in some cases the cheque is signed and so long as the work is done, there is very little oversight from the local authority. Local authorities should be proactively ensuring that the rate is respected, that workers are not in a bogus self-employment situation but are in fact contractors where there is an employment relationship that is honoured. That is not happening in every case. I know the Minister of State is not naive enough to think that it is. What I want to establish is whether there are practices in place and instructions coming from the Government to agencies, in this case specifically to local authorities.

I apologise that the reference to local authorities was missing from the original request for the Topical Issue debate. Is there a specific mechanism in place in local authorities to monitor the situation? I do not believe there is. Does the Minister of State agree with me that there should be one? Could he take steps to ensure that happens, so that at the very least when the State is spending money it is making sure that the money is being spent on decent work?

I would love to engage in more detail with the Deputy specifically on local authorities, but for whatever reason the reference was left out of the text as it appeared in the list of Topical Issue matters so I cannot address it. I will certainly gather any information she wants on that space as well. There are agencies with responsibility for this - principally, Revenue, the Department of Social Protection and the WRC, which have specific units to deal with the issue. They work with anybody who issues State contracts. Most importantly, they work on information, feedback and evidence or any suggestion of improper behaviour on a site. Any evidence or data the Deputy has, or if someone has come to her, can be fed into the system and addressed. I am familiar with the work of the bodies, which I have seen on many occasions. I have seen them in operation on sites. The agencies go in together as a team to deal with concerns and they follow up on issues. They cannot track every site or every contract, but they monitor a selection of sites. They most certainly act on information, so I urge the Deputy to bring forward any evidence she may have, and I will have it dealt with as well. In most cases, it is clear whether an individual is employed or self-employed. The Deputy is correct: I am not naive. We know what goes on, but to be fair, the majority of employers are sound and good employers and we must keep reaffirming that. While there will always be some that we are not happy with, we must recognise the majority are decent employers, who stepped up during Covid as well.

Where there is doubt regarding the employment status of an individual, the relevant Department and agencies will have regard to the code of practice for determining his or her status. A great deal of work is under way in this area and the revised code of practice on determining employment status will reflect recent case law. It will help us address other issues outside the construction sector, because there are other areas of concern that we want to deal with as well.

The matter was discussed recently at a meeting of the Labour Employer Economic Forum subgroup on employment and enterprise, which is chaired by the Tánaiste, with the participation of the Department of Social Protection, Revenue and the WRC. At that meeting, the Tánaiste requested that officials continue to explore fully all issues relating to the determination of employment status to better capture the realities of new and legitimate forms of work. As the Deputy will be aware, that is something in which he has a strong interest and he is determined to take any action that is required. That process has commenced and is ongoing.

At EU level, a second phase consultation of social partners on a possible action addressing the challenges relating to working conditions in platform work has been launched. The Government takes all exploitation of workers very seriously. There are robust enforcement bodies working together on the ground, with an agreed code of practice for dealing with complaints of bogus or false self-employment. Any worker, Deputy or colleague who has information or concerns about a person's employment and PRSI status should contact the Department of Social Protection, Revenue or the WRC and the matter will be investigated. I assure the Deputy that if she has any evidence to give me that I will make sure it is investigated.

Environmental Investigations

I thank the Minister of State of taking the matter. I know he is not the line Minister for the Department but I want to draw his attention to the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, catchments report issued this week on the assessment of catchments and the reductions in nitrogen concentrations to achieve water quality objectives. The short synopsis of the document is that we have a problem with nitrogen. We have a problem in particular in the south and the east of the country and our indicators are moving in the wrong direction.

I will quote the key highlights in the report:

Elevated nitrogen concentrations in waters is one of the factors that leads to poor water quality outcomes in all waters. Estuaries and coastal waters, and groundwater drinking water supplies are particularly at risk.

There are a number of key catchments of concern with elevated nitrogen concentrations along the south, southeast and east coasts including the Maigue/Deel, Bandon, Lee, Blackwater, Suir, Nore, Barrow, Slaney, Tolka/Liffey and the Boyne river catchments.

Nitrogen concentrations in waters have been increasing since 2013 - between 2013 and 2019, all but one of the catchments of concern showed increasing trends in the amount, or load, of nitrogen discharging to the sea via our rivers.

The nitrogen load discharging to sea needs to be reduced in the catchments of concern to support healthy aquatic ecosystems. The scale of reduction needed ranged from zero in some years, to just over 8,000 tonnes of nitrogen in the Barrow catchment in 2018.

The data show that in the predominantly rural catchments, more than 85% of the sources of nitrogen in the catchment are from agriculture, from chemical and organic fertilisers.

In the case of the Barrow, the Suir and the Nore rivers, the three sisters as they are referred to, which drain upwards of 9,000 sq. km in the south east in their combined catchment, the figure is above 90%. In contrast, the majority of the nitrogen "in [the] Liffey/Tolka catchment, which incorporates Dublin City, is from urban waste water".

The problem is particularly pronounced in the south east, my area. Taking the most up-to-date figures from the report from 2019 and combining the figures from the Nore, the Suir and the Barrow, the report estimates that just over 20,000 tonnes of nitrogen were discharged. That are 20,000 tonnes flowing out between Hook Head and Dunmore East into what is supposedly a special area of conservation. It is flowing past Woodstown where shellfish fisheries are reporting significant mortalities in their oyster harvest. People living in the estuary all their lives report a steep decline in mussels and other shellfish. However, I would caveat that by pointing out that a number of factors may be at play in this.

I am always conscious of the dangers of conflating causation and correlation. The Farming Independent supplement of the Irish Independent trumpeted in April 2020 that since the abolition of milk quotas in 2015, there has been a 38% increase in cow numbers and 92% of that increase accrued in Munster and Leinster. When combined with the figures in this report, it leads to an almost inescapable conclusion that the intensification of agriculture in the past decade, in particular in the dairy sector, has placed greater pressure on rivers and watercourses.

I wish to stress a point to the Minister of State in the strongest terms. I wish to dispel a lazy anti-farmer narrative often pushed about the Green Party. I do not for one second blame the individual farmer in this. I have family members who farm. I am from a rural parish myself and I understand farmers have a business to run and a living to make. I do not know any farmer who would not like to reduce his input costs and who would not like to get more bang for his buck in terms of the fertiliser he uses on his land. Are we doing enough as a Government to support farmers in allowing them to make a living while taking pressure off river catchments, the effect of which we are seeing in this report?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and for providing an opportunity for the Department to give an overview of the current work being undertaken to address the quality of our water. I apologise to him on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, and the senior Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, who could not attend this evening, but they and their officials will engage with the Deputy again on this issue.

I welcome the report from the Environmental Protection Agency which highlights one of the serious challenges facing Ireland’s water environment. Our water resources are facing complex pressures and increasing demands from population change and expected further growth in the economy, as well as from a changing climate.

On agricultural nutrients, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is working closely with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on effective measures to address these issues through the river basin management plan, the nitrates action programme and the CAP strategic plan. Our policy is to ensure we provide the right measure in the right place. As outlined in the river basin management plan for the years 2018 to 2021, and now in the EPA’s report, the pressures on water quality can vary across different catchments, as outlined so well by the Deputy. As a result, it is clear that one-size-fits-all measures are not always fully effective. For example, a free advisory service is now available to farmers in priority areas where the EPA identifies agriculture as a significant pressure on water quality. Where urban wastewater is causing an impact, Irish Water is investing in improved services and infrastructure through its capital investment plan. The Government has also improved targeted financial supports to help bring domestic septic tanks up to standard.

The programme for Government commits Ireland to producing a new, stronger river basin management plan in 2022. The draft plan will be based on three principles that emerged from the Department’s review of the second cycle. First, there is an increased level of ambition. The third cycle plan will need a high level of ambition in response to water quality trends, something the Deputy will welcome and, indeed, he contributed to making sure it was in the programme for Government. Second, on integrated catchment planning, local catchment management plans will be put in place for each of the 46 catchments. This will provide opportunities for greater public participation and engagement of key stakeholders and sectors at a local and regional level. The Deputy is right that many local stakeholders will be happy to engage in different ways and will be content to be part of the solutions. Third, there will be multiple benefits and many of the measures needed to protect and improve water quality can also deliver benefits for biodiversity and climate change.

Ireland’s nitrates action programme is another key instrument in regard to achieving good water quality. It is designed to prevent pollution of surface waters and groundwater from agricultural sources, and to protect and improve water quality. The current regulations run to the end of 2021 and a new nitrates action programme will be published at the beginning of 2022. A second consultation phase on the review of the nitrates action programme will be published in the coming weeks. This review is being led by the nitrates expert group, which includes scientific experts from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Teagasc and the Environmental Protection Agency. The nitrates expert group will assess the most up-to-date scientific evidence and advise the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the measures that should be included in the next action programme. The expert group is also engaging in bilateral discussions with interested stakeholder groups as part of the review.

This review of the programme also gives us an opportunity to ensure it contributes to achieving biodiversity and climate action objectives, as well as water quality objectives. Policy coherence is a key component of protecting our environment and these areas cannot be successfully tackled in isolation.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is preparing Ireland’s CAP strategic plan, which will also make an important contribution to protecting and restoring water quality.

Across all these areas - the revision of the river basin management plan, the nitrates action programme and CAP – the Department is working closely with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to ensure we see significant improvement in water quality in the years ahead.

I thank the Minister of State. I welcome that response. It is comprehensive and, in fact, I am going to print it out from the Dáil record, keep it in my office and hold the Minister of State to account on it.

Of the things mentioned by the Minister of State, the river basin management plan is pivotal. He is correct that different areas are undergoing different pressures and some of the mapping that is done as part of the report is very useful on that. The other point the Minister of State makes that is very important is the idea of the right measure in the right place. The report points out that the soil type in a particular area very much influences run-off and how we should look at the nitrogen use that is going to be useful and effective on the land. Farmers have to pay big money to spread nitrogen on their land but analysts say only something like 25% of that makes it into the final product and the rest either ends up in our water courses or, more worrying still when we consider climate change, through volatilisation it ends up in our atmosphere, and it is a very potent greenhouse gas, as the Minister of State knows.

These interventions can be low-cost and high-effect, and even by changing the mix or changing the root profile of the grasses that the farmers are growing, we reduce their input costs, and just changing that root profile increases the amount of nitrogen that stays on the land. Setback distances from rivers are also a very low-cost but effective intervention. It even comes down to things like moving to protected urea rather than the usual nitrogen product. There definitely are solutions.

As the Minister of State said, the key stakeholders in all of this, the farmers, are absolutely ready to work with us on this but it is pivotal that we lead on this as a Government. We have seen declining water quality and it has an effect on our marine environments. We need to turn that around in a way that works for the environment and also for the people who are working on our farms.

I thank the Deputy for the debate. I know he is genuinely interested in this area and has a commitment to it. He brings a knowledge to the subject and a willingness to work with all stakeholders. He is right that everybody wants to play their part in this area and that they need leadership and assistance from the Government across all Departments, which is key.

I believe we can meet the challenge of protecting and improving our water quality. We all know that we cannot take a business-as-usual approach. It must be a sincere collective effort to reverse recent water quality decline as the causes and answers are not within the grasp of just a few individual groups or sectors. Everyone needs healthy and well protected water catchments and the Government is working to ensure collective collaboration to the benefit of all.

The EPA’s most recent report highlights the challenges we face as a country and society, yet we also have the policy instruments to find a way forward to address these challenges. If we have a full cross-departmental approach to this through government, we can achieve greater results on the next assessments. I believe the programme for Government sets out a path to achieve that, as referenced earlier.

Building on the work during the current plan, the new river basin management plan will describe the main pressures and activities affecting water status, set out the environmental objectives to be achieved over the period 2022-27 and identify the measures needed to achieve these objectives, including those highlighted by the EPA. The nitrates action programme will also set out objectives to control nutrient loss to our rivers and lakes. As the Deputy said, that comes at a high cost to farmers, who do not want to see this waste either. The majority are well prepared to engage and to work their way through this. With both the review of the nitrates action programme and a draft river basin management plan due to be published shortly for public consultation, I urge all stakeholders to engage in these process to ensure we achieve the best outcomes for our water bodies.

I again thank the Deputy for raising the issue. The Government looks forward to engaging with the House on this issue again as we finalise our river basin management plan for the next six years in the weeks and months ahead.

Employment Support Services

This year, there will be two important developments for the jobs club networks and local employment service networks across the country. One is that we will have an extension of the services to those areas that are not currently covered, which I welcome. We have strong local employment services in our area and we greatly value the contribution they make. I can imagine the gap they would leave if communities did not have them, so I welcome that development.

We will also see the roll-out of a tender scheme for the rest of the country. While there has not been a tender scheme for the best part of 20 years, and I understand from speaking to the Minister that there is no other option but to tender for this service, I have real fears, as do the local employment service operators, that the model that is being used, and the lots that may be allocated, may mean that services are missing from our local communities.

Let me talk the Minister of State through that concern. The Dublin North West Area Partnership operates the local employment service in Rosehill House. People tell me that their fear under the new contract is that it is effectively an “in and out” payment process and it does not take into account the strong and quality work that is done with clients, particularly clients who might be experiencing addiction and who are working into recovery, people who have been long-term unemployed for many years and people who are changing career. A simple entry meeting, exit meeting progression tick is not the normal path for many of those clients.

If we only pay the local employment services based on that model, then we will not get the service that we currently have.

We have the Ballymun Job Club. It predates the local employment service. It was a co-operative established by the community to address some of the social needs in Ballymun many years ago. It has worked with different local partnership companies over the years but it has appeared independently. It is concerned about the lots that will be allocated. I understand that there are currently 11 lots. If there is a reduction in the number of those lots, it will effectively force different local employment services to compete against each other for existing territory. That is not what any of us want to see. We know these organisations are doing a good job and there are mechanisms to make sure that they are and that where organisations are falling down, that can be addressed. We are concerned about the model, the technical guidelines of how they will be paid and the number of lots. The fear is based on what happened with the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP. Everybody in this House knows that genuine mistakes were made with SICAP. Whether one believes that it was an attempt to privatise the service which failed because private operators could not deliver the same service that community operators could or whether one believes that the tender was allocated poorly, we have to learn from the mistake. We have to make sure that the local employment service contracts that are rolled out do not decrease the lots, and capture the quality of work needed from many of these agencies.

I thank Deputy McAuliffe for raising this issue and having this debate. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, sends her apologies. She would like to have engaged with the Deputy directly but could not. She engaged with the committee on the subject yesterday. If Deputy McAuliffe has not received the message yet, the Minister has agreed to meet with him and a delegation to tease through the concerns about this issue and hopefully allay the Deputy's fears. I think she will be able to do that because some of the fears expressed by Deputy McAuliffe and others here are well allayed in my view from my time working in the Department of Social Protection. I am mainly in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment but I also have a leg in the Department of Social Protection and work with it on many issues related to labour activation, with people who are looking for jobs, and directly with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. I am quite confident, from engaging with it, that it has the needs of individuals in mind here. I will return to the formal statement shortly. This model is mainly based on progression, personal development and engagement. I assure that Deputy that it is not just about going in and out. I urge anybody concerned to get involved in the tendering process when it comes their way and to go to the workshops. They will then realise that it is about progression and engagement, which is what the main part of this will be about.

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss matters surrounding the provision of employment services in the State. The Department of Social Protection published a request for tender on 26 May for the procurement of regional employment services in parts of the State where there is currently no employment service. This is a welcome expansion of employment services, announced last year in the July stimulus package. This expansion of services involves tendering for four lots across seven counties in the north west and midlands. Those lots are Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim, Longford and Westmeath, and Laois and Offaly.

The existing contracts of the Department of Social Protection's main contracted employment services providers, including local employment services, job clubs, and JobPath, all expire at the end of this year. Not replacing these contracts would entail a significant reduction in public employment service capacity. Instead, the Department is now increasing its capacity, through the expansion of a new regional employment service model throughout the State. Parties interested in the current tendering process now have until 7 July to prepare tenders. While the procurement is competitive, in line with legal requirements, there are numerous local and community bodies in those counties already supplying similar services on behalf of their communities. They will be well positioned to tender for these new lots and have been fully engaged at various meetings and workshops with the Department over the last couple of years as we prepared for these changes.

The key requirement in the request for tenders is quality of service. That is key, so we can ensure, and will be happy to ensure, that those who are long-term unemployed will receive a high quality employment service. This procurement will ensure the State extends the range of employment services it provides to seven counties, which is a welcome and timely development because those counties did not have the service. I know there is some concern among current service providers as the State moves to an open competitive procurement process and moves on from the "cost met" funding approach of current local employment services and job clubs.

The current contracts operate on an annual basis, provide only partial State coverage and have largely gone unchanged in two decades or longer in some cases. In some cases, they are cumbersome and administratively burdensome for the service providers and the Department and are not procured in a way that is in accordance with national and EU procurement rules. The new funding approach, with payments tied to the actual number of clients supported and weighted towards the client’s engagement and progression with the service, which is key, will be multi-annual, enabling providers to plan how best to meet the needs of their clients across different calendar years.

Phase 2 of the procurement process, which will occur later this year, will see the Department of Social Protection issue requests for tenders to provide employment services nationally. A series of separate requests for tenders will issue to complete the roll-out of the new regional employment service State-wide. It is expected that existing local community providers will be well placed to submit quality tenders for these new regional employment services. The Department recognises that quality that can be found locally. The Department of Social Protection will consider any lessons from the phase 1 procurement process and apply them in the design of the multiple requests for tenders that will be published later this year under phase 2. They review their ongoing work over the last seven or eight years too, with all the changes through the Intreo offices and the expansion of services here. All of that feeds into the changes that are coming through the system this year and next year.

I have heard the Minister of State's contribution here and heard the Minister's yesterday. I welcome that she will meet with a number of Fianna Fáil backbench Deputies about this because we are greatly concerned about it. My local employment service, as with many across the country, issued a press release last week stating that the Government was implementing a for-profit model that would reduce community services. I hear the Minister of State and he is saying that that is not true and that, when the tender comes out, that will not be the case. If the Minister of State knows many of these local employment services, they do not normally engage in that type of vocal political criticism of a Government. If they are doing so, it is because they are concerned. I ask the Minister of State to make sure that local focus happens. He referred to engagement and progression being important. Engagement is the more important of the two. We need to ensure that those local services remain.

I am concerned about the use of the term "regional employment services" as opposed to "local employment services". That comes back to the lot numbers. How many lots will there be in Dublin? With the previous SICAP model, Ballymun lost its local partnership. It did not lose the service. A neighbouring partnership took over that contract and delivered the service but we lost the local focus. We want to make sure that does not happen and that something that is not intended, which the Government does not want, which is the progression of a for-profit model, does not happen by accident because we issued the wrong number of lots and end up with different local organisations competing with each other. I ask the Minister of State to impress on the Minister for Social Protection the concerns raised here tonight. I raised them with her directly. She has been forthcoming and has given us many assurances. Tender processes are rigid and sometimes have unintended consequences and outcomes.

I thank Deputy McAuliffe for raising this and assure him that the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is happy to engage with him to reassure him. I am interested in this area myself from chairing the committee and working in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment on the matter of job creation previously and now again. That is about creating good quality jobs and making sure that everybody has the opportunity to avail of those jobs. There are also other reasons why I am interested in this matter. Being based in the Department of Social Protection, I am familiar with the two local services that the Deputy mentioned and I have engaged with them over the years. I am confident that the Department and Minister understand the importance of engagement and progression. If we are to provide a successful employment service to anybody, whether recently unemployed or long-term unemployed, there has to be engagement which is about a person's personal progression and a specific plan to bring them on that journey. Sometimes they need additional services or time. We are determined to give people the best opportunity.

That is what these contracts will reflect.

I thank the Deputy for his contribution. I would like to reiterate some key points. The recent tender published is the outcome of a lengthy process of engagement and consultation with all employment services. The tender will allow the Department to contract out employment services on a legally sound basis and in line with national and EU procurement rules. It will also increase our capacity to provide a top-class service as soon as people need it because we recognise the pressure that might come on the system in the time ahead.

No existing local employment services will be impacted by this current tender phase, as I am sure the Deputy is aware. There will be time to review that process as we make changes for the second round later in the year. This process – both phases of procurement – is essentially focused on expanding employment services, primarily for the long-term unemployed. The Department is seeking to procure high-quality employment services focused on supporting those individuals, jobseekers and other cohorts, who are furthest from the labour market.

This will be a tailored intensive employment service designed to address the needs of the people who are supported by the service and bids will be evaluated on the basis of their quality and demonstration of how they meet their clients’ specific needs.

Health Services

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach as seasamh isteach dom chun deis a thabhairt dom an cheist seo a ardú. Hesed House provided a valuable counselling service in Inchicore serving more than 80 clients a week. Anybody who knows the area will know of many of the problems that have been visited on not only the Inchicore area but Dublin 8, 10 and 12 in general on top of having just come through a pandemic.

This counselling service served individuals, couples and the local schools. It provided a vital service in the area. There was a waiting list for counselling. There are two full-time therapists, two part-time therapists, a number of volunteers, an administrator and clinical director. Hesed House provided a brilliant service, but it is now in liquidation. I am not here to ask the Minister of State to go into the details of what caused that liquidation. Clearly the HSE or the charity regulator has responsibilities in respect of due diligence if there were questions relating to governance, public funding, oversight or corporate failings. I am raising the issue because there is now no service in place. Anybody who has worked with people who have been in counselling will recognise that continuity of counselling is vital, particularly given the year we have been through.

Can the Minister of State guarantee that the funding the HSE provided to this service in the past will remain for counselling in the area? Can we get some stopgap measure in the first instance to ensure that counselling continues for those who require it? We also need to build up a new counselling service on the same type of model, a free counselling service as needed by many of the families in the area.

The drugs task force in the area has assured me that its portion of the funding from the HSE will remain in the area. I am not sure about the Tusla money. Those were the three streams of funding as well as a small amount of funding the volunteers and therapists managed to raise.

There is a clear demand and the support for such a service in the area from the partnership. I am on the drugs task force. Local schools have been crying out for expansion of the services that were there. The Core Youth Service, Common Ground, St. Michael's family resource centre and many more have stated they were appalled that it was closing. We need to bear in mind that people are losing jobs, some of them after ten or 15 years in employment.

The facility closed on 4 June. Hopefully we will be able to help people to get services in other areas, but I ask for the HSE to step in. This is not additional money. This is the money that is already allocated but it now needs to be diverted to provide a counselling service that up to now was provided by a different company in Hesed House.

It is an area that like many other areas of Dublin has felt the effects of poverty, crime and many other ailments that affect our society. I hope the Minister of State will be able to give me good news today.

I thank Deputy Ó Snodaigh for raising the issue. I welcome this opportunity to update the House on the closure of Hesed House in Inchicore.

I take this opportunity to reaffirm the Government's commitment to implementing the national drugs strategy, and its commitment to a health-led approach to drug use and the development of harm-reduction interventions in all communities. I am very aware of the important role that organisations such as Hesed House played under the drugs strategy in assisting families to cope with addiction issues through family therapy and counselling services.

I understand that Hesed House received €287,000 in public funding in 2020, with €108,000 from HSE addiction services, €132,000 from Canal Communities Drug and Alcohol Local Task Force, and €47,000 from Tusla. As the Deputy said, organisations entrusted and funded by the State to provide services on its behalf are accountable for that funding.

I understand that the HSE notified Hesed House on 1 December 2020 that it would cease funding the organisation at the end of June 2021 due to ongoing concerns over its governance and operation. Unfortunately, attempts by the HSE and the local drug and alcohol task force to contact and engage with the service to explore alternative arrangements for funding were unsuccessful.

All section 39 agencies part-funded by the Government are accountable to the State. Therefore, standards of governance, accountability, compliance and regulatory structures must be adhered to. The section 39 sector provides vital services for thousands of people throughout Ireland. I am very grateful for the work that is carried out by these providers on behalf of the HSE.

Sadly, the board of management of the service made a decision in May 2021 to close the service on 4 June 2021. I understand that the HSE became aware of this through Hesed House staff on 3 June.

A review of the service in 2018 highlighted the very small proportion of individuals attending Hesed House who were receiving care for addiction-related issues. As Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, I intend to do all that I can to ensure that the closure of Hesed House does not have a significant impact on people in Dublin 8, 10 and 12 accessing appropriate care, as the Deputy articulated very well.

I welcome the assurance by the HSE that a number of projects within the Dublin 8, 10 and 12 areas provide counselling and that any gaps in service provision will be addressed through these services. I have asked the drug's policy unit in my Department to liaise with the HSE with the aim of ensuring all service users of Hesed House gain access to alternative appropriate care in their area.

If any issues are outstanding, I ask the Deputy to email them to me and I will try to raise them within the Department. We are concerned about care and also about staff. If we can be of assistance on any issues at this difficult time, I would be only too happy to help.

I thank the Minister of State for the reassurance regarding ongoing issues. It is still raw because the service has only just closed. Indeed, the closing date was brought forward. There was a creditors' meeting at which no answers were given. I am glad the Minister of State has given the assurance that the HSE will ensure that the Dublin 8, 10 and 12 areas will be provided with counselling and that any gaps in service provision will be addressed through those services.

Those who have now been left without counselling services in the community, the young people and families with whom Hesed House, which has been there for 28 years, has worked in the past, are now in a vulnerable position. They have been assured, insofar as is possible, that services will be available. The service grew out of the community. All of the local organisations were able to access it. Schools in particular, which in other areas are often crying out for services, had one here. Young people in particular could turn up at the doorstep and be looked after. It also stood up to the mark during the pandemic. Given where we are as a society with regard to mental health and what we have experienced over the pandemic of the last two years, never mind all of the additional pressures faced by people living in those areas, it is vital that a service which can last, rather than a stopgap measure, be put in place as soon as possible. I am happy that the Minister of State has assured us that the drugs policy unit in his Department will liaise with the HSE to ensure that a service is put in place and, if at all possible, that all the community stakeholders will work together to ensure that this service is put in place as quickly as possible so that there will not be a break in counselling or therapy for those most in need.

I thank Deputy Ó Snodaigh for the opportunity to update him on the closure of Hesed House in Inchicore. As he rightly said, 28 years is a long time. This service came out of the needs of the community. I reiterate my commitment, as Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, to do all I can to ensure the decision of the board of management of Hesed House to close the service will not have a significant impact on the ability of the people of Dublin 8, Dublin 10 and Dublin 12 to access appropriate care.

I also acknowledge the identified need for counselling services for families and individuals with regard to both mental health and addiction. The Department of Health and the HSE are dedicated to ensuring that service of the highest quality is available to all of those who require it. Once again, I welcome the assurance of the HSE that there are a number of projects within the Dublin 8, Dublin 10 and Dublin 12 areas that provide counselling. Any gaps in service provision will be addressed via these services. I am pleased to learn that a meeting took place today between the liquidator appointed to Hesed House and the HSE. I hope this has brought greater clarity to the situation.

As I have said, we are very fortunate to have the HSE addiction services, the Canal Communities Local Drug and Alcohol Task Force and Tusla. I will heap tremendous praise on the local task force. Its workers are the people on the ground who work with all the various stakeholders, which the Deputy has rightly identified. These are the people working in addiction services in the interests of the community. We are very fortunate to have such a professional, dedicated and strong team in the Canal Communities Local Drug and Alcohol Task Force. I look forward to working with them in the future.