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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 23 Sep 2021

Vol. 1011 No. 5

Ceisteanna Eile (Atógáil) - Other Questions (Resumed)

The next questioner is not present, we will move on to Deputy Barry.

Public Sector Pay

Mick Barry


12. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he will consider a Covid-19 bonus for public sector workers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45607/21]

Mick Barry


54. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his views on the call for Covid-19 bonuses in terms of improved pay and conditions for frontline workers and those otherwise negatively impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43773/21]

John Lahart


76. Deputy John Lahart asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if there will be a pandemic bonus for public sector workers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45487/21]

The pandemic showed who the real essential workers in society are. They are not the millionaires or billionnaires but our nurses, healthcare workers, transport workers, retail workers, cleaners and many others. What plans does the Minister have to provide a Covid bonus payment to our front-line workers and when does he intend to pay them?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Following on from my exchange with Deputy Michael Collins, I wish to reiterate the position of the Government. The Government is committed to addressing this issue in the coming weeks and we do not want to allow it to drag on. We have a clear recommendation from the Labour Court, which we intend to abide by, and we will deal with this in the coming weeks. There are a range of factors that we need to take into account. We have a public sector pay deal and that will involve, as the Deputy knows, an increase in public service pay on 1 October. I have put on the record some of the costs involved with the claim that was brought forward by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, and the other healthcare worker union representatives. That includes a minimum cost of €377 million but with the inclusion of overtime and the need to deploy agency staff to fill the particular service gaps that would arise in giving the extra holidays, the cost would probably be over €500 million. That excludes the people the Deputy referred to, including bus drivers; members of the Irish Prison Service; gardaí; members of the Defence Forces; and our civil servants who worked so hard over the period to process emergency payments and so on.

The Government wants to be fair in how it approaches this issue. We have incurred a large increase in our national debt over the course of the pandemic because we have done our best to look after people by way of income supports and to keep businesses going. We are seeing the benefits and fruits of that in the way the economy is rebounding very strongly. We recognise that there is a need to address this, we intend to do so in the coming weeks and we will consult with others as to the best way to do that. We are also examining the approach taken in other countries. A number of other countries have made efforts in this direction and we are looking at what they have done. We need to be fair, balanced and as inclusive as we possibly can be to recognise the efforts that so many made to help our country get through a very dark period in the last 18 months.

Front-line workers died from Covid, which they contracted while working. Many others got sick and some of them got long Covid. All suffered from stress, fatigue and mental health pressures for their services to society. Does the Minister intend to announce details of recognition payments in the budget? The Minister talked about the coming weeks but does he intend to announce it on or before budget day? What year does the Minister expect payments to start? The Minister mentioned costs of €377 million and €500 million. Is he considering the idea of a Covid wealth tax in the budget so that very high earners and corporations that made mega profits during the pandemic will be made to pay for this from the gains they made in the course of the pandemic, rather than any other sector of society paying for it?

There is always a theme of punishment and reward coming from the other side of the House. I trust the Minister on this. I would not rush into it but I do not want that to be misinterpreted as me saying that I am not enthusiastic about this. I support the thrust of it but it could easily end up being quite a divisive issue if it is not handled sensitively. The Minister rightly mentioned the front-line retail workers and I would support any call-out to industry, business and employers, particularly those in the retail space. I am sure many of them have responded in how they look after their employees but we need to get some examples of that. Then there are the unseen who we might not know about and who never get paid anyway. There are carers and SNAs but I trust the Minister and the Government to handle this with sensitivity. If this is handled the wrong way, it could go awry and be very divisive.

Deputy Lahart makes an excellent point. There is a need for us to recognise the extraordinary efforts of so many people, particularly front-line healthcare staff. Nobody has an issue with them being singled out for praise which is richly deserved. If we get this wrong it could be divisive in society. Deputy Lahart touched on carers and the extra burden that fell on them over the course of the pandemic because day services were shut down in the interest of protecting public health. There is a wide range of issues that need to be taken into account. Some private sector employers have already, as Deputy Lahart acknowledged, provided recognition to their workers by increasing the discount percentage on their staff cards, for example, and so on. That has been done in some instances but not in all. A lot of private sector employers are under great pressure and we should not forget that. To answer Deputy Barry's question, I am not committing to a particular date. I am saying that in the coming weeks we need to work through this and get it right. The Deputy is asking about points of detail about exactly when it will be paid and so on. That is the subject of consideration and I want to consult with colleagues on that.

Writing in the Irish Examiner on Monday, Daniel McConnell wrote "a key question is whether the Government can get private sector buy-in". It is a key question. Given that the Minister agrees that private sector front-line workers such as those he mentioned, including retail workers, cleaners and many others, deserve a Covid bonus, what steps has the Minister taken and what steps does he intend to take to ensure they get it?

I said that I trust the Minister on this. My experience of any bonuses offered is that they end up being taxed and so the bonus that comes into an individual's hand is minor. I do not want that to be interpreted as a lack of enthusiasm for this. I am really enthusiastic, as the Minister clearly is, to recognise some of the real heroes in the early days of Covid. If we remember them, and it is so easy to forget, some of the real heroes include those who were stacking the shelves and who kept food on the table when we thought there were going to be rushes and panic buying etc. It also includes those who collected our waste. Bonuses get taxed and people may end up with very little and there are many ways of marking, including financially, the extraordinarily heroic efforts people made. That heroism needs to be marked in many ways and in a lasting way. I support bonuses but one gets a bonus and then it is gone. Society needs to look at ways of seriously symbolically marking how everyone contributed, whether it was in a small or big way. I am not a capitalist but those big employers kept this economy going right through the pandemic. They continue to do so and that ensured we had significant and sufficient revenues for the State to be able to fulfil its side of the contract it has with its citizens.

It is important to make the point there is no uniformity in how the Covid pandemic impacted on businesses across different sectors in the private sector economy. It was wide and varied. Some businesses closed while others thrived. Many others are struggling and others are staying afloat because of Government supports. I do not agree with the approach that the Government should seek to compel or force the private sector to do certain things to recognise the efforts of workers over the pandemic period, but the Government can, and will, provide leadership on this issue. Even in the course of the past few minutes, we have got a sense of the complexity of this issue. Many issues need to be considered. More than 5,000 people, to date, have lost their lives due to Covid-19 and it is not over. Covid has not gone away; it is still here. We all have to continue to be vigilant and recognise that reality. There can be no declaration of victory that we are at an end point - we are not. All the issues raised by colleagues are being actively considered and we are determined to deal with this issue in the next few weeks.

I ask the Minister to comply with the rules on time so we can get as many Deputies in as we can.

National Monuments

Jennifer Murnane O'Connor


11. Deputy Jennifer Murnane O'Connor asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the progress of the Office of Public Works project at Carlow Castle; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45070/21]

When I met the Minister of State on Tuesday in Kilkenny at Granagh Castle, I spoke about Carlow Castle. I visited the castle in Carlow town yesterday and was delighted to see works going on there. Can the Minister of State tell me about the progress of the Office of Public Works project at Carlow Castle?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As she is aware, on the night of 8 and 9 February 2020, extensive damage was caused to Carlow Castle following Storm Ciara. Subsequent investigations led to the discovery that the base of the collapse was constructed on clay foundations. This had major consequences for the safe repair and reconstruction of this section of the wall. The Office of Public Works is in the final stages of rebuilding the collapsed area of the tower. Once the steelwork is down, the OPW can complete the rebuild and repair of the part of the tower that collapsed. It is expected that there is approximately three to five weeks' work remaining.

As I said to the Deputy when I met her the other day in south Kilkenny, with Deputy Phelan, I hope to be back in Carlow-Kilkenny within the next month and I hope to meet her then. There are a number of different projects in Carlow town and the surrounding areas. I hope to visit Carlow Castle, with my officials in the OPW to get an update on the works under way and the progress that is being made. This issue is of interest not only to the Deputy and other public representatives, but to Carlow County Council and the tourism community in Carlow.

I am heartened to hear the project is progressing and I am thrilled with the good news that the Minister of State will be coming to Carlow. We have many projects to show him. To give him some background, Carlow served as the administrative capital of the lordship of Ireland under King Edward III from 1361 to 1374, so it can be said with confidence that we were once the capital of this fair land. Carlow Castle had survived largely intact until an attempt to remodel it as an asylum in 1814, which demolished all but the west wall and towers. As the Minster of State said, in February 2020, masonry collapse resulted in disintegration of a large part of one the castle's turrets. The site is being discussed by Carlow County Council as part of an ambitious plan under the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF. It is very important we get these works done and I welcome that. I understand the new phase involves surveys and archaeological investigation at the base of the structure to assess its current condition. What is the timeframe for that?

As I said in a previous response to Deputy Stanton, I met yesterday with the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, to discuss the issue of properties for which the OPW is responsible. These are owned by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage but we have responsibility for managing their maintenance and preservation. I have opened discussions with the Minister and I hope to engage with Fáilte Ireland and the Local Government Management Agency, which are the agencies with ultimate responsibility along with what we would traditionally call the county managers. There is a local interest in these monuments that has to be brought to the fore. The Department of Rural and Community Development, through the town and village renewal fund, is a critical driver of what I would call the second and third division monuments in some of our larger and smaller towns. We want people to visit what are, possibly, the lesser-known monuments that have a wealth of stories to be told and will help to drive the tourism industry in towns like Carlow, and other provincial towns in places like Carlow-Kilkenny.

That is important. A Carlow town forum group has been set up that works in conjunction with Carlow County Council. A subgroup has particularly focused on the castle and the tourism potential of it. Gerry, Bobby, Audrey and Carmel are part of that and are excellent. Members of these groups have been working for years to promote Carlow Castle because the bigger picture here is the tourism potential of it. It will be the hub and centre of a tourist attraction for Carlow. We are trying to make Carlow similar to the medieval mile in Kilkenny. That is what we have. Carlow has so many historical buildings and sites and we need Carlow Castle as a tourist attraction. We also need the funding that goes into that. We have a castle that can give so much to Carlow. It offers so much to people and tourists who visit it. I ask for a commitment from the Minister of State that the funding will be there to make Carlow Castle a tourist attraction, which will filter throughout Carlow town. Again, it is just one excellent tourist attraction we have.

My contribution is in a very similar vein to Deputy Murnane O'Connor's. In the Clare constituency, and the Minister has been to see it, Clare Abbey, an Augustinian abbey built in the 12th century, possibly by Domnall "The Great" O'Brien, King of Munster, has been roofless since the 1600s and its inner yard is a burial ground. The graves are being desecrated, smashed with bottles and broken in half. The Minister of State very kindly visited the abbey recently along with some of his staff, Deputies and councillors. The Slattery grave there has been desecrated on three occasions. We are looking for some form of CCTV camera. We hope the Minister of State can accede to that.

I am sure Deputy Murnane O'Connor will acknowledge that we made a significant investment recently in County Carlow through the dolmen project, which I am glad has finally been finished. I hope to be able to see it when I go there within the next few weeks. Every Deputy in the House performed a tour de force recently in looking for money from my senior colleague, the Minister, Deputy McGrath. I may as well do so now on behalf of the OPW. I ask for any assistance he can give me to find money for Deputy Murnane O'Connor and every Deputy in the House that will come begging for money from me, including the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, who I am sure has a list of OPW projects in Galway. Every shilling the Minister can give me from his good colleague in the OPW, we will only be too glad to spend.

Deputy Crowe is correct that there is a particular problem at Clare Abbey. We have engaged with An Garda Síochána and Clare County Council, which is ultimately the statutory authority that has responsibility for CCTV there. If it could provide that sort of assistance to catch the people responsible for this, I am sure it would be strongly welcomed by the local community.

Departmental Expenditure

Colm Burke


13. Deputy Colm Burke asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he will consider instituting a change in the tendering process which would facilitate further submissions to be made after a closing date, similar to the recent changes in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45570/21]

My question is on the tendering process and when a tender is submitted, where there is a variation between tenders one and five and a 16% gap in the amount being tendered. There is no process or provision for further engagement if there is a sudden increase in the cost of delivering a project between the time the tender is submitted and the time it is accepted by a Department. Can the regulations dealing with tendering be changed to accommodate that?

Public procurement is governed by EU legislation and national rules and guidelines with the aim of promoting an open, competitive and non-discriminatory public procurement regime which delivers best value for money. The EU public procurement regime is set out in a suite of EU procurement directives.

Article 56(3) of the principal directive governing procurement rules for public bodies gives contracting authorities discretion as to whether to accept further submission of documentation after the closing date of a tendering process providing this is done in compliance with the principles of transparency and equal treatment. This provision enables errors or omissions in tender submissions to be remedied where in accordance with the principles of equal treatment and transparency. For example, it might allow for the further submission of licences, insurance documentation and so on, if omitted in error in the tender competition.

Any additional information or clarification provided cannot materially alter the substance of the tender submission. The provision in the directive is not intended to admit additional tenders to competitions once the submission date and time for tenders under the competition rules has passed or to allow for material changes in tender submissions, such as changes to specifications or price.

Procurement procedures in Northern Ireland were regulated up to the end of 2020 by the same directive and are now covered by the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. In that context, it is expected that procedures operating in Northern Ireland will be analogous to the EU rules.

It is a complex area. The Office of Government Procurement is happy to engage with the Deputy on the details. Of course, in any normal competition, there is a deadline. If the deadline is changed for one of the participants, that could lead to an unfair situation. We must consider the matter within that context. There is a legal framework that allows for submissions after deadline in specific circumstances.