Business of Joint Committee (resumed).

We will proceed with correspondence. No. 191 is an Urban Knowledge Network newsletter which we will note. The next item is a European water newsletter which we will also note. No. 193 is an environmental newsletter and No. 194 is a homelessness newsletter and we will note these.

No. 195 is a letter from the Chief Fire Officers' Association expressing concern about the views expressed at the meeting of the joint committee with the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, on 26 February 2008 regarding the Bray Fire Service. Do members have comments on this or will we note it? Members of the families and friends of the deceased came before the committee and they were more than harsh in what they stated about named individuals who were not here to protect themselves. I had to stop the line of debate being taken by the people. The Chief Fire Officers' Association has examined the text of the meeting and is unhappy with what was stated.

The gist of the letter is that people holding the rank of chief fire officer are not even at director of service level within the public service and local authorities. The public think a chief fire officer is an extremely senior person in a local authority but in fact he or she is several steps down from the county manager. People tend to blame a chief fire officer when several people above him or her make crucial decisions with regard to the allocation of resources and facilities.

I read the correspondence and it is a serious letter. The association has been very forthright in its comments on the content of the meeting in February. Could we get a report for a future meeting on the outcome of the meeting in February with regard to improving facilities for the protection of our citizens in Bray and see whether the concerns expressed by the families at the time have been taken on board? Perhaps we could get correspondence on this.

We will write to them.

We should not just note the contents of the letter from the Chief Fire Officers' Association. We should get a report from the Department about the line of communication within the local authority so we do not ignore the fact that we were sent a very serious letter.

What are the Department and the Minister doing with regard to the call to have a full-time fire service in Bray?

We will ask for an update from the Department.

I thank the Chairman.

I concur with what Deputy Hogan and Senator Cassidy stated. As members are aware, an intensive discussion took place in the Dáil during Private Members' time last autumn on the fire services in general. This issue has three aspects I will outline. What is happening in Bray with regard to putting in place a full-time fire service in the area? Where are we with regard to the Farrell Grant Sparks report which was published several years ago and gave clear direction on how the fire services should be developed? When it was previously debated the report was cherry-picked by the Minister and only certain aspects were implemented. Critically, following the debate during Private Members' business, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, who has the lead responsibility for this area stated he would review the situation. This was almost a year ago.

I would be very keen to find out his position on the Farrell Grant Sparks report, given that he is a year into his ministerial role. A lot of the issues that we discussed that afternoon, the concerns outlined in the correspondence and the tragedy which unfolded in Bray, stem from the failure to enact the recommendations of the aforementioned report. The Minister must give us an update on whether he intends to do that.

We will write to the Minister enclosing a copy of the letter from the Chief Fire Officers' Association and seek a detailed response to the points made in that letter.

The next item is a report from the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which we will note. The following item is a list of proposals from the EU legislation committee, which is only for our information. There is nothing contained therein for our consideration. Item No. 198 is the statutory instrument on fuel economy and CO2 emissions for cars, of which members will already be aware. The next item is a newsletter from Globe Europe, which we will note. Item No. 200 refers to payments due from Kildare County Council to contractors and is a reply to matters raised by Deputy Fitzpatrick. Perhaps the Deputy would like to comment on the reply, which was received very recently.

I received additional correspondence from the clerk today on the matter. I raised this issue originally in an attempt to protect jobs. We have been dealing with this matter for three months and have not achieved anything to date. I said originally that I was not happy with the approach adopted by Kildare County Council. While some officials were happy enough to deal with the matter and to try to find a solution, the county manager is adamant that the matter goes to arbitration. When a manager is determined to force an issue to arbitration, there is very little anyone can do. I believe there are other ways of dealing with this matter. Ideally, the parties should get together and have a one-to-one conversation in an attempt to resolve the problem.

I wrote to the county manager again yesterday, appealing to him to meet, either alone or with an official, representatives of the firm to try to resolve the matter. I have had substantial involvement in business and community development over many years and have always found that the best way to address difficulties is to talk about them. I do not know what more this committee can do on this matter. It is a serious issue that affects between 120 and 160 jobs in County Kildare. The local authority is not taking the issue seriously enough or making sufficient efforts to bring it to a successful conclusion.

Thank you. Members will see from the correspondence that has been received--

I have correspondence on the matter other than that supplied to this committee. I spoke to one of the parties involved, who feels very hard done by. Both parties agreed to go to arbitration and the arbitrator ruled in favour of the company. Who will carry the cost of this at the end of the day? Will it be the State or Kildare County Council? It will prove extremely expensive to go to arbitration.

We received a letter from the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, which indicated that local authorities are obliged to comply with standard arrangements for the procurement of public works contracts, as determined at central Government level by the Department of Finance. If excessive costs are involved here, it could place an enormous burden on the taxpayers of Kildare. I encourage both parties, particularly the county council, to make efforts to come to an agreement in the interests of jobs in the area. One of the parties involved lives in my constituency and is very unhappy with the manner in which the company is being treated by the county council. Somebody should take responsibility for bringing the two parties together to come up with a satisfactory conclusion in the interests of the workers, who are the victims in this entire saga.

The correspondence makes an interesting claim that 16 projects, each with a capital of in excess of €1 million, are in conciliation or arbitration. A number of difficulties seem to have arisen, therefore, and some of the contractors will face bankruptcy by the time this process is concluded. Is there anything further we can do?

That is what certain people want to happen. When people go into bankruptcy or liquidation, their business is finished and the case is closed. I want to avoid that. I do not say this company faces liquidation but, if it did, the county council would be able to wash its hands of the matter. This is unfair because many of these companies are small or family run and the county councils are spending our money. I understand that if the bill is excessive, the Department of Finance rather than the rate payers will pay it. In light of the issues that arose in Limerick some months ago, perhaps we should investigate who pays the bill.

As a member of the Committee of Public Accounts, I can categorically inform Deputy Fitzpatrick that the taxpayers of Ireland paid €80 million on a contract which originally cost €16 million because the local authority went to conciliation, arbitration and the High Court several times. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government footed the bill, which means that the taxpayer ultimately paid. At the end of the day, the taxpayer pays for all these cases. That is the tragedy.

In this case, both parties agreed to enter conciliation. At the meeting held in June 2007, it was recommended that the company should be paid but the local authority did not accept the ruling of the conciliator. A private company, which is probably family owned, has to fight a local authority which has a bottomless pit of funds. We need some clarity on why it can do this after both parties agree to enter talks.

Where do we go from here?

It is awkward. A public body is involved in this case. Does a limit exist on what the local authority can spend?

No limit.

Has a case ever arisen whereby a person who decided to commence further court proceedings rather than accept arbitration was charged the additional costs? Are such cases noted on the record of local authority managers when they seek reappointment?

It is a ridiculous situation.

I agree. The process commences with conciliation but if the parties do not agree at that stage, they can go to arbitration. At the end of a binding arbitration process, either side can go to court on a point of law. Potentially, this case still has a long way to go. Court proceedings have not started. Several steps are provided for in all standard contracts.

This would arise in many local authorities. Galway City Council faces a similar issue.

The correspondence sets out a list of 16 projects, including Eyre Square in Galway.

The contractor allegedly pulled out of the Eyre Square contract but the court held the council responsible. I do not know how the case will conclude but it may cost more than the original contract. Nobody takes responsibility for that.

I would like to know what lessons are being learned. South Dublin County Council is arguing over the Balgaddy sewerage contract and Offaly, Monaghan and Westmeath county councils are also in dispute with contractors. The Accounting Officer in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should come before the committee to explain why so many disputes have arisen and what lessons have been learned from the settlements reached in previous years. It is possible the local authority believes it is right and the contractor is overcharging.

The person making the decision has nothing to lose because it is the State and the taxpayer who are paying for his bad judgment in going to a further court after the arbitration process.

That is correct.

There should be some accountability in that regard.

I propose we invite in the Accounting Officer of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. That will allow others who have problems at local level, such as Deputy Fitzpatrick and Deputy Bannon, to ask questions.

We have a big list of issues.

We could ask about them all.

Most members have served on local authorities over the years and we often received communications from various directors to the effect that their budgets for local improvement and other housing schemes had been exhausted and no money was available to carry out the necessary works. Where do local authorities get this money from? They do not budget for cases such as this. We should ask the Accounting Officer from where the additional funding comes to take such a case. The amount could be up to €2 million or €3 million, or even limitless.

What happened in the case of the settlement made by Limerick City Council?

Ultimately, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government made taxpayer funds available to pay the full amount.

How many millions of euro were involved?

It ran up to €70 million or €80 million, for something which started off at €20 million.

Does that not set a precedent which local authorities should take into account before going to further litigation?

Without going back on it, I was present at the Committee of Public Accounts when the Accounting Officer attended. He defended every decision made by the relevant department in the local authority. The authority had operated under the best legal advice and the Department was surprised at the judge's decision. It was surprised at the conciliator's decision and shocked at that of the arbitrator. It was shocked at the decision of the High Court and at the result of the appeal. It was shocked all the way along the line and is still shocked.

They would be more surprised if they lost their positions.

It cost them nothing.

It cost them nothing.

There is a familiar ring to this. I was involved in a local authority for many years. When capital projects were being tendered, successful road construction companies would say much more filling was required than they had thought. However, who did the quantity surveying? Who submitted the tender? It is time a lid was put on these practices. I do not advocate another quango but there should be a special body to resolve this matter.

If I tendered to somebody for something it should mean I have done my sums and it would be in my interest for them to have been done correctly. If I had not done them correctly, why should Mary and Seán Taxpayer pay? The only difference between this case and others is the date. It is the same old story and the same debate. It is the same story with a different date and one gets fed up with it. At the end of the day, the third party who pays for the mistake is the taxpayer.

Local authorities employ an enormous number of consultants on a whole range of things and the only reason they do so is so the authorities themselves will not have to make a decision. The consultant makes the decision and the authority runs the project. In this case, conciliation has taken place and the conciliator has made a recommendation, which is to make a settlement with the contractor. Now it will go to arbitration and the manager will have to comply with that decision. That decision will probably be for more than the amount currently due. This could be settled for a figure of between €3 million and €7 million but it will cost much more by the time it is finished. The jobs of the people concerned and the public purse are not being protected.

In light of the individual case highlighted by Deputy Fitzpatrick, which led to a list of between 16 and 18 other cases and more to come, I think we are agreed we should invite the Secretary General, who is the Accounting Officer, of the Department, to come before the committee in the early autumn to discuss this specific case and to find out what lessons have been learned. We can also get the history of the settlements that have been confirmed in recent years, how much they cost and what lessons have been learned. We will proceed on that basis.

No. 201 deals with a conveyance of a waste water treatment system from Mr. Frank Kavanagh of bioCycle Limited and a letter to various Deputies, myself included, regarding the agrément certification for waste water treatment systems. In our meeting last week we specifically agreed that we would write to the Irish Agrément Board, see what it is and how it certifies. This company has a complaint.

We will find out who they are.

We will invite representatives. I do not know who they are, although they seem to have much authority. We will agree to invite representatives and put the various points to them.

I thought it was an excellent meeting last week when we discussed the practical realities of what is occurring locally. If the agrément board has a significant role to play, it would be useful to hear from it.

That is agreed. The next item deals with computer services for the electoral register. We note the correspondence of a company indicating it has expertise in the issue. The final item of correspondence, No. 203, from Cáit Hayes in the Oireachtas communications unit, regards the ploughing championships. We have dealt with that and that concludes the correspondence.

There is one other item before our main business, which is a travel report. A draft report has been circulated on the visit by a delegation of the joint committee to Paris for a conference organised by the French Presidency of the EU entitled Transport and Sustainable Development. Our thanks go to Deputy Bannon for representing the committee. Is it agreed to approve the draft report and lay it before the House? Agreed. It was an excellent report.

Before we bring in the representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, we could set a date for our meeting in September in case people leave during the course of this meeting. The first item we agreed to defer was a meeting with officials from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government regarding all the new housing and mobility grants and how they are working since their introduction.

Is the next meeting in September?

We have no other meeting scheduled for this month and we will not meet in August. When do people want to meet in September? Has the Fine Gael parliamentary party a meeting in the second week of September?

It is the following week.

I think we meet in that week too.

We have a meeting that week in Clonmel.

Is it possible to meet on the Tuesday or the Thursday?

Tuesday, 9 September is okay.

Is it agreed to meet on that date in the afternoon? Agreed. A meeting has been requested with the Minister, Deputy Gormley, to discuss spending limits for the local elections. That is scheduled for 7 October, which is a while away yet. It is intended the housing aid and mobility grants will be the subject of our first meeting. If that does not work, we will have something else lined up.

Sitting suspended at 2.34 p.m. and resumed at 2.35 p.m.