Business of Joint Committee.

Apologies have been received from Deputies Lynch and Tuffy. I ask members to ensure their mobile phones are turned off completely and not left in silent mode; otherwise the vibrations when telephone calls are received will affect the broadcasting transmission adversely. That is news to me, but I will lead by example.

The minutes of the meetings of 8 and 23 April have been circulated. Are they agreed? Agreed.

The next item on our agenda is correspondence received by the joint committee and circulated since the last meeting. It is a while since we had a joint committee meeting and there is a considerable amount of correspondence. We will try to go through it promptly.

No. 104 is a follow-up letter from the Minister, following his attendance at the committee, regarding the Bray action group which attended the committee some time ago. Is it agreed to note the letter? Agreed.

No. 105 is a listing from the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny. Is it agreed to note the list? Agreed. No. 106 is a request from the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny that this committee comment on proposals for legislation to revise and merge directives on industrial emissions. I suggest we write to the Department requesting an update on the matter. When we have received the update, we will consider the proposals. Is that agreed? Agreed.

No. 107 is SI 854 of 2007, Building (Amendment) Regulations 2007. I suggest we note this correspondence. No. 108 is SI 670 of 2007, Housing (Adaptation Grants for Older People and for People with a Disability) Regulations 2007. Members are familiar with this statutory instrument through local authorities. We will note the correspondence.

No. 109 is a policy update —GLOBE Europe, the European climate policy newsletter. We will note the correspondence. No. 110 is a press release from the Department on the Sugarloaf Mountain special amenity order. We will note the correspondence.

No. 111 is a press release from the Department on resourcing the planning system. I suggest we note the correspondence and include the issue of resourcing the planning system in our work programme. It is linked to our local government remit because it involves the funding of certain local government activities and functions, including the planning service. We will include the issue in our consideration of local government reform.

No. 112 is the spring 2008 newsletter of the European Water Partnership. We will note the correspondence. The newsletter is available to Members of the Oireachtas.

No. 113 is an invitation to attend a one day conference, "In Search of Global Green Policies", in Brussels on 4 June. Deputy Bannon has indicated an interest in attending. It is within the terms of reference of the committee to study environmental matters. Is it agreed that the committee be represented at the conference? Agreed. If a member from the Government side wishes to attend, I ask him or her to contact the Government convener.

No. 114 is correspondence from the Oireachtas representative in Brussels regarding COM (2007) 51 on protecting the environment through criminal law. No. 115 also is correspondence from the Oireachtas representative in Brussels regarding COM (2005) 667 on waste. We will note the correspondence.

No. 116 is a press release from the Department on a survey of car owners on the new VRT-motor tax system. We will note the correspondence. No. 117 is the Green Paper on local government reform. Discussion of the Green Paper can be included in the select committee's discussion of local government reform at its meeting next week. The committee may then make a formal submission on the subject and meet the Minister in due course. Some time ago the Minister proposed the election of mayors in certain local authorities. The committee needs to discuss the Green Paper before we examine it in further detail with the Minister. I believe each member has received a copy of the Green Paper.

No. 118 is a housing policy report from Focus Ireland. We note the correspondence. No. 119 is a press release from the Department on affordable housing. We will note the correspondence. No. 120 is a newsletter from the trade commissioner for Canada dealing with environmental issues. We will note the correspondence.

The Oireachtas representative in Brussels has informed the joint committee of a conference on transport and sustainable development in Paris on 10 July 2008. I will refer it to the convenors and if members are interested in attending, they should contact the convenors who will let the clerk know and we will consider it at a subsequent meeting.

No. 122 is a press release from the Department on allocations for national housing programmes, which we have all seen at local level. No. 123 is a press release from the Department on the Viking age national monument at Woodstown, which we have noted. No. 124 is a reply from the private secretary to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the letter sent from the joint committee on 10 April 2008 concerning an issue raised by Deputy Fitzpatrick.

We should look at this correspondence in detail. Deputy Fitzpatrick wrote to the joint committee about a case involving a major contract in Kildare, where on the completion of the works the matter went to conciliation. The council did not accept the outcome of conciliation and the issue has gone to arbitration. In the meantime the contractor has not been paid and this has compromised the financial viability of the company. He had to let staff go and he has not been in a position to take on further contracts while this matter is in dispute.

In our letter to the Minister we asked how many local authority contracts go to conciliation, how many having gone to conciliation ultimately go to arbitration, and how many outcomes from arbitration are not accepted by the local authority and then proceed to legal proceedings. On a related issue, the outcome of a major case between the local authority and a contractor on a drainage contract in Limerick city which went through the process of conciliation and arbitration, which the council rejected, and finally to legal proceedings was before the Committee of Public Accounts. The cost ultimately to the taxpayer was a staggering multiple of the original estimate. Deputy Fitzpatrick's correspondence is on a related issue. Does the Deputy wish to comment?

I do not wish to put an additional cost on the Department. The process is now changing and different criteria will be used in awarding contracts. I agree that we should send this to the Department of Transport, which has responsibility for roads, for its observations and to examine the report of the conciliator in both cases to see if Kildare County Council is fair and reasonable. I contend that what it is doing is not fair and reasonable because the complainant has put his case to conciliation and the conciliator has made his report. I know this conciliator has had 100% success in resolving these cases except with the two cases in County Kildare.

I have spoken to officials who are adamant that they want the matter to go to arbitration. I believe officials are doing this to get themselves off the hook. They believe that if the case goes to arbitration, even if it costs double the amount, they have gone through a process and their hands are clean and they have not made a wrong decision.

The Department of Transport is the appropriate body to examine this issue. We should forward this case to the Department, outline the circumstances and ask it to come back to the joint committee with a report. I ask the Department to contact Kildare County Council with a view to resolving the issue. The amount of money in this case is reasonably small and the maximum figure involved is in the region of €7 million. The contractor is prepared to settle because he has serious concerns about the viability of the company. Staff have been laid off. We are trying to save jobs and create extra employment. I ask that we pass this matter to the Department of Transport with a request that it examines the matter.

The proposal from the Deputy is that now that responsibility for local roads has moved from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the Department of Transport since the last election, that I write to the Department of Transport asking it to review the matter and to revert to the joint committee. I suggest that we write also to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government stating that we reserve the right to re-examine the broader issue rather than the particular case.

In its letter responding to our request for details of major projects that had gone to conciliation, arbitration and possibly to court, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government stated that significant administrative resources would be required for the compilation of the data. What that tells me is that the Department does not have a handle on the issue. The reason we wrote to the Department was to try to get a handle on it and by its response the Department is inadvertently telling the joint committee it has no idea of what is going on. It is of major concern to me that the Department does not seem to have a handle on what is happening in local authorities around the country.

This problem is not unique to Kildare County Council. The problem is that other contractors who find themselves in this position would be very slow to take on the paymaster of the county council or the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. There is a wider issue to be addressed. In order that contractors who are doing this valuable work survive in business, there must be a mechanism to have their cases heard without accruing massive costs. It would be worthwhile to get a report on this issue from the Department responsible for it.

The Deputy has suggested that we should try to get a handle on the issue.

It is a wider issue than the single case raised by Deputy Fitzpatrick. I know of several cases, some bigger and some smaller, and more than one local authority is involved.

Contracts for water and sewerage schemes, housing and roads, which are now under the Department of Transport, are covered. With the introduction of fixed price contracts, it is suggested that these situations will not arise in the future. However, contracts signed under the old arrangement up to last year will take several years to wash through the system. The matter is of relevance for some time yet.

It would be worthwhile to investigate the matter further.

We will ask the Department to provide whatever information it is in a position to provide on contracts that have gone to conciliation and arbitration and ultimately to legal proceedings on a preliminary basis, without a detailed survey. When we see that we might seek further information.

The problem is that in many cases the contractors would not have done anything and have walked away from the situation where they would have thought they had no chance against the bigger boys.

I do not know what we can do if they walked away.

It is a problem and I assure the Chairman it has happened in the past.

I have no doubt it will happen again, even with the new contract.

Probably. We will have to——

We will ask the officials for a preliminary report, without a detailed survey, on the information currently available to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It would be interesting to see it. We will refer the case of Kildare County Council to the Department of Transport for examination and ask it to give us its views on the matter.

The decisions of the conciliator in both cases have come into my possession. Would it be useful to the committee's case if I were to hand them to the Chairman in order to be helpful?

It would. We will pass the information directly to the Department of Transport. We have discussed the issue at length and know what we are doing about it.

The next item of correspondence — No. 125 — is the Minister's acceptance of our invitation to discuss the report on the electoral register, which we published some time ago. The Minister has agreed to attend the committee's meeting on Wednesday, 18 June to discuss it.

No. 126 is the proposal of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny on greenhouse gas emissions. The committee has asked us to produce a report on the matter. We will ask for an update from the Department. As always, we will reserve the option of bringing in an official from the Department.

The next item of correspondence is the European Water News newsletter. No. 128 is a press release from the GAA on the climate change measures it is taking at Croke Park. No. 129 is a press release on the polling day for the referendum on the Lisbon treaty.

No. 130 is a request from the UK Society for General Microbiology to make a presentation to the joint committee. I do not know who the members of the society are. That is the truth.

Did the society indicate what it wanted to discuss?

Yes. I am trying to find the documentation. The society points out that microbiological research has a significant impact on the environment. It appears that Professor McConnell of Trinity College Dublin recommended to the society that it should contact the committee regarding the organisation of an Irish parliamentary microbiology event. The Irish branch of the society wishes to hold such an event in Dublin in October. It would like to make a short presentation to parliamentarians and staff, perhaps as a lunchtime event, to highlight the importance of microbiological research in Ireland. We will agree to attend such an event, in principle. The arrangements can be made at a later stage. It seems there will be an international conference here at the same time.

No. 131 is a list of meetings which was sent to the committee by the Oireachtas interparliamentary unit. No. 132 is a press release about the launch of a report on the status of EU protected habitats and species. We can agree to note the report. No. 133 relates to the award of green flags to schools.

The next item is a request from the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland to meet the committee to discuss the Green Paper on local government reform. Members of my party met representatives of the association a few days ago. I am not sure whether the other parties have met the group.

I understand the association has met representatives of all the various groupings in the Oireachtas. It is important that the joint committee should do likewise. The association is the national umbrella body for all the urban authorities, including the large borough and town councils, which used to be known as town commissions and urban district councils.

We will agree to meet the association. I do not think the meeting will be too long. It is obvious that the association has met all the groups individually. I think its members would like to make a formal presentation to the committee.

Does the Chairman have any idea when such a meeting will take place?

I will ask the clerk to arrange a suitable date. We will do it before the summer break.

I thank the Chairman.

The next item is a press release from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on housing grants for older people. The final item of correspondence is the 2006 annual report of the Private Residential Tenancies Board, which we will note.

I would like to refer to a few more matters before we invite the delegation from the Irish Rural Dwellers Association to address the committee. A draft travel report on the visit by a delegation from the committee to a waste management conference has been circulated. I thank Deputies Bannon and Fitzpatrick for representing the committee at the conference which was held in Edmonton earlier this month. Is it agreed to approve the draft report and lay it before the Houses of the Oireachtas? Agreed.

Members may be aware that the research service available to them through the Oireachtas Library has been expanded significantly in the last two years. New teams of researchers are now in place to assist Deputies and Senators with their parliamentary activities. The Oireachtas Library is offering to undertake one major piece of research for each joint committee to promote awareness of the enhanced service. The committee is, therefore, required to choose an area within its remit to be the subject of this major research. The clerk has circulated the relevant details. Perhaps we will ask the Oireachtas Library to compile a research paper on one of the major items listed in our work programme for the year. We can decide on the topic at a later stage. I have no proposal in mind. We will keep the matter on the agenda for future meetings. Is that agreed? Agreed.