Commencement Matter

Skills Shortages

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy John Halligan, to the House. I have enormous regard for him. He has a very fundamental understanding of his brief and realises the importance of skills as well as education, and of training and apprenticeships as well as academics. We have not been good at realising that importance throughout the history of this country, to be quite frank about it. I have tabled this matter because I am contacted regularly by people in the hospitality industry who express their frustration about trying to get chefs. Our tourism industry is going exceptionally well. We have seen enormous growth in recent years. It provided an essential cushion as we were emerging out of recession, particularly in my area in County Clare. Young people were able to get jobs in the hospitality, restaurant and tourism industries when they could not get jobs anywhere else because people, thankfully, continued to visit Ireland. Some 650,000 people visited the Cliffs of Moher, which are 7 miles up the road from where I live, in 2013. They had 1.5 million visitors in 2017. I have no doubt that 2018 will see an even greater increase.

With that prosperity comes challenges. Many restaurants, particularly in my area, are finding it enormously difficult to get chefs. I know of one hotel in my area the owner of which was a chef himself. That is how he started out his professional life. He is near enough to retiring but has not retired because he has had to go back in to help out in the kitchen. That is how bad it is. Can we bring back the Council for Education, Recruitment and Training, CERT? CERT was good in its day. If we cannot, can we introduce something like it? There are many people who have cooking skills or a flair for baking and who want to become creative. If they were trained from the ground up through a traditional CERT-type operation, it could help deal with this problem or at least go some way towards doing so. One restaurateur told me that it is now easier to get a brain surgeon in Ireland than to get a chef. That is how challenging it is. Perhaps something could also be done to allow people from abroad to get work permits more easily that they have been able to up to now. I have no doubt that the Minister of State is fully aware of the challenges from speaking to the people he himself deals with in Waterford and other parts of the south east. I am sure this issue is not unique to counties Clare, Kerry and Limerick.

It is a big issue in County Kerry anyway.

Absolutely. As politicians we are presented with problems and our job is to find solutions. Working together, we have to become a little bit more creative than we have been to deal with this particular problem.

I thank Senator Martin Conway for his very important question and his very kind words. The hospitality sector is very important to the Irish economy. It is estimated to be worth approximately €3 billion a year to the Irish economy and to employ approximately 148,000 people. There are approximately 7,000 establishments in Ireland which serve food and require chefs and cooks. In 2015, the expert group on future skills needs conducted a study on the future needs of the hospitality sector, including skill needs for chefs and cooks. Its report, published in 2015, provided a set of recommendations designed to address the needs of the sector right up to 2020. They included recommendations on boosting skill supply but also on creating sustainable and rewarding career opportunities in the sector in order to reduce the level of staff turnover. As the Senator will know, there is a big problem with staff turnover in the hospitality industry. A key recommendation was the establishment of a national oversight and advisory group comprising key hospitality stakeholders, Departments and Government agencies and education and training providers to provide a forum for ongoing collaboration, to support the needs of the sector and to oversee the implementation of the expert group's recommendations.

That group was established in 2016 and chaired by SOLAS for the first year, and is currently chaired by the Irish Hotels Federation, which I think was a good move. Senator Conway might know Michael Vaughan.

I know him well.

The group identified five priority areas. Significant progress has been made and a lot more has to be done. I refer to the promotion of careers in the sector; an audit of hospitality-related courses and facilities in both higher education and further education and training sectors; the development of apprenticeship and traineeship programmes; the launch of a dedicated Skillnets programme for the hospitality industry, which we have done; and making employment connections.

The group published its first progress report update last year. This is available on the website. Work is currently under way on the second progress update. More than 6,000 students are enrolled annually on hospitality-related courses in further and higher education, of which just under 2,500 are on courses to train as chefs and cooks. We are committed to expanding the number of registrations on apprenticeship and traineeship programmes to 50,000 by 2020. To date, 11 new apprenticeship programmes have been developed, following the Apprenticeship Council's first call for proposals in 2015, including a new commis chef apprenticeship, led by the Irish Hotels Federation and the Restaurants Association of Ireland working with Kerry ETB. The programme commenced last year with an initial enrolment of 25. This year the enrolment has increased to 41. That is working reasonably successfully but there is a turnover on programmes as people come and go. It can be difficult. Work is at an advanced stage on the development of a chef de partie apprenticeship, led by the same organisation. A number of groups around the country are involved, for example, Crumlin College and colleges in Kerry, Cork, Galway and Cavan, among others. It is expected that approximately 48 apprentices will enrol on that course. Work is also under way to develop an apprenticeship for sous chefs which is intended to be rolled out in 2019.

There are difficulties attached to being a chef. I refer to working conditions and unsavoury hours and it can be very difficult to get people into the industry. That is the reason the consortium was put together. We want to see what we can do to deliver apprenticeships for commis chefs and in related areas.

There is interest in this area. For instance, we provided hospitality level 5 and level 6 courses last year and we had more than 100 trainees enrolled in the programmes, which was good. Would we have liked more? Yes, we would, but it is not the case that we had not put a call out for those programmes. A call out goes out every so often and we had 100 trainees. The generation of interest among secondary school students in careers in the sector is also very important. The NCCA recently published a draft new specification for junior certificate home economics with a strong emphasis on culinary skills. There is an effort in all areas of education to deal with the problem of chef recruitment. In terms of the delivery of the programme we have the involvement of Crumlin College in Dublin, Coláiste Íde College of Further Education in Finglas, Kerry ETB, Cork ETB and ETB centres in Galway, Roscommon, Cavan and Monaghan, and Limerick, among other areas. We are beginning to roll out the programme.

I would never be untruthful in what I say to the Senator. I accept that it is difficult to attract people into the industry. I hope the body that was set up will continue to report back and come up with innovative ideas that might make it easier for people to come into the industry. There is a definite increase in the take-up of positions as chefs in recent years.

I acknowledge that those programmes are very important. I commend the Minister of State on his comprehensive reply. We will see how we get on. Other Departments have a role in this area, in particular in the granting of permits for chefs to come from abroad. That is another avenue that I can explore in the future. I thank the Minister of State.

If Senator Conway wants to meet me personally I can meet him at any stage or I can arrange a meeting if he wants to meet Michael Vaughan. The issue is of great interest to me. Apprenticeships and skills play an important part in the development of the sustainability of the economy and allow us to drive forward in the future. As the Leas-Chathaoirleach said, the hospitality industry in this country is very important and given that we regularly have tourists coming here we must ensure that all restaurants are at the top of their game in terms of chefs. Senator Conway is welcome to meet me or anybody from my Department.

Schools Building Contractors

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, for coming to the House. I am a bit disappointed that the Minister for Education and Skills is not here but I understand he is busy. I have a very serious issue to raise this morning which relates to my home town of Carlow. Two nights ago I met with very concerned subcontractors in Carlow who had worked on the construction of Tyndall College and the college of further education on the outskirts of Carlow town. Some subcontractors were there also from some of the six other schools that were built by the same group.

I remember the day the sod was turned on this multi-million euro investment in the Kilkenny and Carlow Education and Training Board, Carlow campus. It was a great day for local jobs and the local economy. This investment promised a much needed new post-primary school for 1,000 students and a new 1,000 place facility for the Carlow Institute of Further Education and Training on the Kilkenny Road, with a shared sports hall and accompanying fitness room at a cost of around €30 million. They revealed an exciting target date for completion of September 2017, but in May 2018 there is no school and good workers are down in pay and out of a job. Because Sammon went into examinership the business cannot continue trading and the High Court protection of creditors means debts cannot be enforced before the appointment of an examiner. The contractors are small businesses, many of whom are family businesses, with entire families depending on their wages. They cannot absorb the losses.

I have previously been in contact with the Minister on the issue but I was not happy with his response to my parliamentary question. When Carillion collapsed earlier this year the company it hired in Ireland, namely, Sammon, went into examinership and the contractors were not paid. They deserve good pay for good work. They worked hard and they should not have lost out. The Minister for Education and Skills told me that Sammon was paid what was due under its contract. He also told me that the payment of the subcontractors is a matter for themselves and that he could not intervene. Why should they be out of pocket for the work that was done in good faith?

I wish to ask the Minister questions on behalf of the contractors. How much time remains in the examinership period for the Sammon Group? Currently, the process protects Sammon from having to pay what is due to the contractors. The contractors have also asked me to find out exactly how much has been paid to the Sammon Group by Carillion for each school, and specifically, Tyndall College in Carlow, which is in my area. Schools all around the country are idle and unfinished. Parents and students wonder if they will ever see the doors of those fabulous facilities open. The students, staff, parents and management deserve answers. They deserve the schools they were promised.

What is the status of Tyndall College and the college of further education and training? I understand a tender went out. If it is processed will the contractors lose out? They were promised pay and work and now they have neither. The contractors are in an awkward position. They did the work, they got their certification but they did not get paid, yet Revenue seeks to be paid and they have no money to pay it. Could the Minister intervene? A special fund should be provided to pay contractors. I am very annoyed that this situation has been allowed to drag on for months.

There are subcontractors out there who need to pay bills. They have families, they have mortgages and they have not been paid. A subcontractor or contractor who has to apply for a C2 certificate has to pay Revenue and cannot tender for other projects without that certificate. The schools are built on lands owned by the State, which is paid for out of taxpayers' money. The Minister has a duty to ensure that these subcontractors get paid. Will the Minister meet with the subcontractors? When a major contractor does not pay its subcontractors, there should be legislation barring it from tendering for further projects. I am very disappointed to be standing here while many subcontractors I know - and whose families I know - are not being paid, which is very upsetting for them.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. Unfortunately, the Minister for Education and Skills is unavailable this morning and he has asked me to respond on his behalf. I welcome the opportunity to inform the Seanad of the current position regarding the examinership of Sammon and with respect to payments under the schools bundle 5 public private partnership, PPP, contract.

As the Senator will be aware, examinership is a process in Irish law whereby the protection of the court is obtained to assist in the survival of a company. The Sammon Group petitioned the High Court on 5 April last to enter into examinership. The application was successful. The matter came before the High Court again on 16 April last and an examiner was appointed for an initial period of 35 days. The examiner will next be before the High Court on 8 May when he can request an extension of up to 70 days if he still believes there is a realistic chance that a restructuring of the Sammon Group can occur. This is the up-to-date position with the examinership as the Department of Education and Skills understands it.

The Senator will be aware that the schools bundle 5 PPP project encompasses five school buildings and one further education college across four sites in Bray, Wexford, Kells and Carlow. The programme will provide for two new education facilities in Carlow: Tyndall College will obtain a 1,000 pupil new post-primary building and Carlow Institute of Further Education will be provided with a new further education college building providing capacity for up to 1,000 students. The buildings are being provided under a PPP contract between the Department of Education and Skills and the company Inspiredspaces. Under this contract, Inspiredspaces is responsible for the design, build, finance and maintenance of the buildings in exchange for which it will receive a monthly unitary charge payment from the Department once the buildings are operational. The National Development Finance Agency, NDFA, which is part of the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, led the procurement of the project on behalf of the Department and is monitoring the delivery phase.

On the private side of the PPP arrangement, Inspiredspaces had a construction works contract with Carillion Construction Limited. Sammon Contracting Ireland Limited was, in turn, subcontracted by Carillion Construction Limited to carry out the building work. Sammon Contracting Ireland Limited then entered into further subcontracts with various contractors and suppliers. Carillion Construction Limited went into liquidation in January. As a consequence of this, the construction works contract relating to the PPP project is being retendered. The tender process in this respect is being undertaken by the Dutch Infrastructure Fund, DIF, on behalf of Inspiredspaces and this is ongoing. It is important to note that Inspiredspaces is not in liquidation. DIF is a shareholder in Inspiredspaces and represents it in that context.

I will now deal with the specific question in respect of payments to Sammon Contracting Ireland Limited. Under the PPP structure, responsibility for payments to Sammon Contracting Ireland Limited lay with Carillion Construction Limited. In its progress report to the NDFA at the end of December 2017, Inspiredspaces provided confirmation from Carillion Construction Limited that Sammon Contracting Ireland Limited had been paid in full in accordance with their subcontract to that point and that there were no issues arising. The amount due and paid to that point was €85.3 million, out of a total contract sum of €87 million. As all six buildings are being delivered under one PPP contract, the Department does not have visibility on how much specifically was paid by Carillion Construction Limited to Sammon Contracting Ireland Limited in respect of works at Tyndall College, Carlow. The Department of Education and Skills will only commence unitary charge payments to Inspiredspaces once the school buildings are operational. The only payment made to Inspiredspaces to date is €4.4 million, primarily for off-site works that were completed in accordance with the project agreement.

Ultimately, the Department of Education and Skills is not party to the construction or other subcontracts relating to the schools bundle 5 PPP project and does not have any authority to intervene in same. The Department will continue to liaise closely with the NDFA regarding the completion works for the schools bundle 5 PPP project, which is our priority. In that regard, officials from the Department are keeping management representatives of relevant schools informed of developments. School principals and chairs of boards of management have also attended a number of meetings with the Department and NDFA officials at which they have been fully briefed on developments. DIF has targeted, and is working towards, the delivery of all school buildings by the coming school year.

I will return to some of the issues the Senator raised after she has spoken.

I will allow a brief supplementary.

Having heard the Minister of State's reply, I am not better off than I was in the aftermath of having a parliamentary question on the matter tabled to the Minister for Education and Skills on my behalf. It is good to know that the responsibility for payment to Sammon Contracting Ireland Limited lay with Carillion Construction Limited but the subcontractors are seeking a meeting with the NDFA and we will be working on that. When people have done work and are awaiting payments that will protect their livelihoods and those of their families and that enable them to pay their mortgages but where no one is accountable, it is a very serious matter. They do the work and obtain their certificates but they do not get paid. That does not make sense and it does not matter who has to intervene. There has to be accountability regarding the subcontractors who have done their work and who need their money in order to survive. Putting the blame on one party or another is not good enough. The Minister of State mentioned DIF, the NDFA, etc., but what about the students waiting to go into the schools? I am not happy with the answer and I will not let this go. I will seek to meet with the Minister again.

There is a legal process involved.

I understand the Senator's concerns about this.

The response suggests that there will be further court cases.

I have dealt with issues relating to subcontractors in my own role. A chain of command needs to be put in place. In light of the concerns raised by the Senator, however, I will bring this back to the Minister. He is really sorry that he cannot be here today but I will make sure that a response is given to the Senator in person.

Health and Social Care Professionals

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to discuss this very important issue. I have been contacted by the Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists, which has concerns regarding the review last year of a statutory instrument that is currently being drawn up and that will include a list of health professionals entitled to refer individuals for X-rays. The statutory instrument in question is in draft format at present. Across Europe and the world, physiotherapists have the right to refer people for X-rays and this is in keeping with best international practice. However, physiotherapists in Ireland are not allowed to do so and they are included on the list to which I refer.

The aim of the physiotherapists is to optimise the accurate diagnosis and clinical interventions they provide to people. It is in line with advanced physiotherapy practitioners internationally. The Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists, ISCP, was very disappointed that it was not invited to participate in the consultative practice that was held in June 2017. I understand the society has written to the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and to the Department and that the Minister referred the matter to Dr. Tony Holohan, the chief medical officer, for examination. I understand that a meeting is to take place shortly in respect of considering this matter. At present, people who attend a physiotherapist and who need an X-ray must be sent back to their doctors, who must then refer them for the X-ray. This is about time and better patient outcomes because the patient is at the centre of this process, after all. Physiotherapists do not refer people for an X-ray lightly. It is only if they have a concern and are not quite sure what the injury is. It quickens up the process as well in terms of the treatment the patient will receive at the other end. I am interested in hearing the Minister of State's thoughts.

I thank Senator Maria Byrne. I apologise on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Harris, who unfortunately cannot be here. He has asked me to reply to the Senator on this matter.

The matter relates to the transposition of medical provisions for the basic safety standards directive by the Department of Health and whether physiotherapists will be designated as referrers in the transposing regulations. The basic safety standards directive, for which the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment has overall responsibility, is important European legislation. It aims to protect the public, patients, workers and others from all forms of ionising radiation. While ionising radiation has had beneficial applications, as the use of ionising radiation increases so does the potential for health hazards if not properly used or contained. The directive enhances and strengthens a number of concepts in radiological protection. The directive stresses the need for a high level of competency and a clear definition of the responsibilities and tasks among all professionals involved in medical exposure. This is to ensure the adequate protection of patients undergoing medical radiodiagnostic and radiotherapeutic procedures. In transposing the medical provisions of the directive, the Department of Health sought the advice of the medical exposure radiation unit, MERU, in the HSE and a group it established to inform the transposition process. The Department conducted a consultation exercise in June 2017 on certain provisions of the directive. The consultation was posted on the Department's website and notified to likely stakeholders. The Department also made arrangements to ensure that licenceholders of ionising radiation equipment were notified of the consultation process. The directive defines referrers and practitioners with certain roles and responsibilities attached to the roles. The statutory instrument transposing the directive will designate some who may refer from radiological tests and in this regard, it is proposed to designate nurses, doctors, dentists and radiographers as appropriate.

The Physiotherapists Registration Board, established under CORU, opened its register in 2016. The two-year transition period ends in September 2018, when all existing physiotherapists must register, after which time only those registered can practise as a physiotherapist and use the protected title of physiotherapist. Physiotherapists are not registered as referred in the current regulations, Sl 478 of 2002, and it is not proposed to designate them in the new regulations. Not all regulated professions will be designated as referrers in the new regulations. It would not be appropriate to consider this matter in the context of the directive alone.

While there are no current plans to extend the scope of practice of physiotherapists, the Minister for Health launched the national strategic framework for health and social care workforce planning in November 2017. It is intended that the framework will support the recruitment and retention of the right mix of health workers across the health system to meet planned and projected service need. In that context it is envisaged that in due course, matters relating to health and social care professionals such as physiotherapists, including scope of practice, will be considered through the framework structure currently being established. The Department of Health is working to finalise the transposition of the medical provisions of the basic safety standards directive in the coming weeks.

I thank the Minister of State. It is disappointing in one way that physiotherapists are currently not included and that there are no plans. I acknowledge it is up for consideration but they have the support of many organisations such as the triage steering group, the national clinical programme for rheumatology and the national clinical programme for trauma and orthopaedic surgery. Basically, physiotherapists play a crucial role in people's health and in people coming back to health. They are fully trained and have their practice and experience behind them. I hope the Minister of State will be able to bring to the notice of the Minister, Deputy Harris, that he might be in a position to reconsider it in terms of the review and what he is currently examining.

I note the Senator's concerns in this regard and what she said about physiotherapists not being included. I will raise the issue again on the Senator's behalf with the Minister but there will be further consideration in the framework and as stated in the reply, until those structures have been established I cannot give the Senator any further information.

I thank the Minister of State.

Water and Sewerage Schemes Funding

The Minister of State is very welcome to the House this morning. I thank her for her presence here.

I again raise the issue of the funding of Milltown group sewerage scheme. Those concerned await an announcement from the Department on the amount of funding and a start date. I have raised this issue here a few times previously with the responsible Minister of State at the time, Deputy English, and then with his replacement in November 2017. For the information of the Minister of State, Milltown group water scheme is a scheme of approximately 30 septic tanks that lie outside the periphery of Monaghan town. Unfortunately, septic tanks are causing a pollution and environmental issue and we are all very keen to get the matter addressed. The scheme did apply for funding and was successful, under the group sewage scheme, that is, the fund that was announced for 2016 to 2018. The group was one of six successful applicants and it has been waiting since on the go-ahead from the Department regarding the amount of money required. In order for this project to go ahead it is essential that this group get 90% of the funding. The Department and the Minister have accepted that and all we are waiting for is the announcement date. It is important that I pay tribute to and praise the work of the local community of Milltown in pulling all this together and putting in the application. I praise the hard-working committee, which had a lot of work to do to pull this together and make sure the application went in. Again I thank Monaghan County Council for its assistance in this regard. All we are waiting for now is good news from the Minister of State and I hope she will be in a position this morning to give us that.

I wish to ask two brief questions. The multi-annual programme we are discussing this morning was for 2016 to 2018. That has since expired and I hope the Minister of State has news today as to what are the Government's plans for the next phase in the future.

Unfortunately only six applicants in the country were successful. That means only two per year were funded, which I am sure the Minister of State will agree is a very disappointing number. When it is announced this year, I hope that more groups will be eligible to apply because the fund will be much bigger.

The group schemes and the multi-annual programme need to be looked at. Considerable responsibility is placed on citizens to put an application together. For example, they must form a company, which needs directors with all the responsibility that goes with that. They have to hire an accountant and prepare accounts every year. They need legal representation. They need to collect money from the public. There is considerable work for people who do not necessarily have qualifications in any of those areas, which is unfair. I believe successful local authorities should be given a fund and they should lead the project, rather than expecting citizens in the local community to do it.

I thank Senator Gallagher for bringing up this issue, which I understand he has raised previously in this House. On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, I acknowledge his continued interest in the matter.

The Multi-annual Rural Water Programme 2016-2018 operated under the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government includes the funding of group sewerage schemes through what is known as measure 4(d). This is where the clustering of households on individual septic tanks is not a viable option, particularly from an environmental perspective.

In December 2015, the Department received sanction from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to increase the maximum grant per house from €6,500 to €6,750 to cover a limited number of new demonstration group sewerage schemes, specifically two per year. In addition, sanction was also given for these new demonstration group sewerage schemes, in exceptional circumstances, to avail of a supplemental grant, subject to the approval of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, where the project represents the most economically advantageous option.

Where a supplemental grant is approved, the overall level of funding from the rural water programme is limited to 90% of the cost per house subject to a minimum household contribution of €2,250 per house. In January 2016 local authorities were invited to submit bids for consideration by the Department under the new multi-annual programme. In total, 83 bids were received from 17 local authorities for funding under measure 4(d) of the new programme.

A proposed Milltown group sewerage scheme was included by Monaghan County Council in its funding bids under the measure. The proposed scheme, with a then estimated cost of €280,000, was expected to cover 32 houses and have a unit cost of €8,750 per house. I understand that Milltown group sewerage scheme proceeded to tender stage in 2016 with an estimated overall cost of €358,000 to cover 30 houses giving a unit cost of €11,933 per house.

Under the new multi-annual funding framework for the rural water programme, an expert panel was convened by the Department to examine the 2016 bids from local authorities for projects under a number of the programme’s measures, including measure 4(d), and to make recommendations to the Department on funding. The panel recommended a priority list to the Department under this measure, including the Milltown scheme at priority number five of the six schemes identified. The recommendations were accepted in full when approving schemes under the new programme in 2016.

As only two demonstration group sewerage schemes can be advanced in any given year, funding was not available to Monaghan County Council for the Milltown scheme in 2016 or 2017. Interim funding allocations under the programme were made to local authorities earlier this year. While decisions on the 2018 allocations are yet to be made, the Milltown scheme will be included in this year’s allocations, which are currently being finalised. It is expected that this process will be concluded later this month. Monaghan County Council will be advised on the funding allocation for the Milltown scheme for 2018 at that point.

While we are talking about a specific scheme here, it should be noted that the Government is committed to supporting the funding of rural water services. Under the national development plan, €95 million has been identified for investment in the rural water programme over the period 2018 to 2021. The annual provision will increase by €5 million from €20 million to €25 million in 2019 and this enhanced level of investment will be maintained up to 2021. This significant 25% increase in funding for the programme demonstrates the Government’s commitment to invest in this valuable and relevant resource.

I again thank the Senator for raising the matter again. I have taken notes. I acknowledge I did not answer some of his questions and will ask the Minister to come back to him on the two questions he raised.

I thank the Minister of State for her contribution this morning. If I am reading her correctly, I welcome that Monaghan County Council will be notified by the end of this month as to whether that scheme has the go-ahead. I welcome that the scheme will be reopened. I ask that the points I made in my contribution be taken on board.

I have a note. I do not need to come back in again.

The Minister of State has made it clear.