The first matter is Senator Bacik's for the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I congratulate the Minister on his elevation and wish him every luck and success. As no nicer gentleman could have achieved the promotion, I wish him well.
Disability Support Services Provision
This matter is in my name and that of my colleague, Senator Ó Ríordáin. We are delighted to see the Minister here and he is very welcome. I also extend the congratulations of the Labour Party group to the Minister on his new post. I thank him for taking this matter.
The question we have raised, on foot of representations to both Senator Ó Ríordáin and me, is to ask the Minister for Education and Skills to inform the House why children with Down's syndrome are excluded from the July provision scheme administered by his Department and if he will explain the rationale behind the specific criteria being applied by the Department for this exclusion. The Minister may be aware that this is of serious concern to many parents throughout Ireland who have children with Down's syndrome. There is an online petition on the issue of July provision which has been signed by about 5,000 parents to date. The issue they raise is what seems to be an irrational exclusion of children with Down's syndrome from a scheme of July provision which provides supports to children with certain intellectual disabilities over the summer months. July provision is not available to children with Down's syndrome who have a mild or moderate intellectual disability. This seems strange, given that children with the same level of intellectual disability with different conditions are able to access the programme.
The parents who have come to us have told us eloquently how their children would benefit greatly from the programme for many reasons, in particular that the summer holidays are very long, their children crave routine and structure and are unable to participate in the majority of mainstream summer camps. They fall behind in their schoolwork and their educational development as a result of not having access, through the July provision scheme, to educational supports in the summer months. Their children also tend to be absent more often than other children during the teaching terms and they miss valuable learning time during those months which could be made up during the summer when they tend to be at their healthiest.
Letters have been sent to the Minister's Department and officials and there does not seem to be any rational basis offered for the exclusion of children with Down's syndrome from the July provision scheme. They should be provided with support and would definitely benefit from it. The Minister of State with responsibility for disability issues, Deputy Finian McGrath, has also been approached on this issue, as was the previous Minister for Education and Skills.
We are seeking some explanation from the Minister as to the basis on which children with Down's syndrome are not given access to this important programme which would give so much benefit to them and their parents and families.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach as ucht a chuid focal. I thank Senators Bacik and Ó Ríordáin for raising this matter. I assure the House that ensuring all children with special educational needs are supported and given the opportunity to reach their full potential is a key priority for the Government. Funding for special education provision in 2018 will amount to €1.75 billion, up 43% since 2011 and equivalent to almost 19% of the Department's overall budget.
The July provision scheme provides funding for an extended school year for students with severe or profound intellectual disabilities and students with autism spectrum disorders. The scheme was developed to reduce potential regression in learning associated with these specific categories of special educational needs over the summer holidays. The scheme does not make provision for children with other categories of special educational needs.
The National Council for Special Education's policy advice on education provision for children with autism spectrum disorders was published in July 2016.
In the course of preparing the advice the NCSE consulted widely with a range of stakeholders, including parents, teachers, academics, experts, psychologists, HSE officials and others. The NCSE also reviewed relevant national and international research.
The policy advice which is available on the NCSE's website includes a review of the July provision scheme. The NCSE review has found that in general parents value the July provision scheme because it provides daytime respite care for families and a structured day for students. However, the review has found a number of problems with the scheme as currently organised. They include concerns that the scheme may be inequitable because it is not provided for all students with complex special educational needs. The NCSE has advised that in general the scheme is not meeting its original objective which was to reduce possible regression in academic learning. The council recommended that the relevant Departments consider how an equitable national day activity scheme could be developed for all students with complex special educational needs. The proposed scheme would provide a structured, safe social environment for all students with complex special educational needs, which might include some children with Down's syndrome.
My Department has convened an implementation group with representatives of the NCSE, the NEPS, the inspectorate and other Departments and agencies to ensure the report's recommendations are fully and appropriately considered. There are no plans to change the July provision scheme coverage until this work is complete.
I thank the Minister for his response. Similar answers have been given to individual parents who contacted the office of his predecessor.
It still appears that there is no rational basis for the continued exclusion of children with Down's syndrome from the scheme. It appears that the policy is indirectly discriminatory as between different conditions or disabilities, particularly in the inclusion of children with ASD, whatever the level of learning disability. That is a key issue. Issues may arise in that regard under the European Social Charter and it certainly appears to many parents that it is inequitable.
I take issue with one aspect of the Minister's response where he states the NCSE review found "parents value the July provision scheme because it provides daytime respite cre for families". The parents who contacted Senator Ó Ríordáin and me have made it very clear that this is not about respite care but about ensuring their children do not fall behind in their educational and intellectual development over the precious summer months. For them, it is about meeting the educational needs of the students. That is a very important point to make.
I ask the Minister again whether there is any rational reason children with a mild to moderate learning disability who have Down's syndrome cannot be included in a scheme that includes all children with certain other diagnoses, particularly ASD. I ask him for a response.
I do not have information on the decision-making involved in this matter. The NCSE makes its decisions based on evidence in its own research.
I am informing myself in my new brief and will be happy to take on board the Senator's recommendations, suggestions and observations. I note, in particular, that she is voicing the concerns of up to 5,000 parents who have signed an online petition.
I hope the implementation group which is considering the recommendations of the NCSE will soon complete its work. However, I do not have a timeframe for completion. There is a suggestion the implementation group will also consider the issue of children with Down's syndrome. I will seek to inform myself about the issue the Senator raises about the reasons for the exclusion in the first place. I note that the focus of summertime provision was to prevent regression in education. From my earlier work with people with special needs, disabilities and different challenges, I am aware that any forum for providing any education, formally or informally, is good and important for their continued engagement with education. I thank the Senator for raising this issue.
School Accommodation Provision
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire nua. Go n-éirí leis sa phost nua tábhachtach seo atá aige.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House to take this matter. The lack of secondary school places in Rush and Skerries is a huge concern for parents. Fingal is one of the fastest growing parts of the country, if not in Europe. It has a very large young population and this is not changing, rather it is likely to rise. We find ourselves in the extraordinary situation where children in both villages, or towns as they are now with a population in excess of 10,000 each, cannot be guaranteed a place in the secondary school in their own town.
St. Joseph's is the only secondary school in Rush and has a student population of approximately 740. It opened its doors to new students and 220 people turned up on the day. As a consequence, we have 102 children on a waiting list and 102 families terrified about their child and not knowing what to do. There is a similar situation with a long waiting list to get into the secondary school in Skerries. They are all in one catchment area. Not only can they not now go to school in their own town, they cannot go to school in the next town over. They will be forced to go to God knows where. It is not satisfactory.
We have known that this growth has been taking place and that more houses are planned, yet we are in this situation. For the next five years, St. Joseph's secondary school will have to limit the intake of new students to 120 when it is receiving in excess of 200 applications. Some 89% of the 102 on the waiting list are from Rush. As I said, the trend will continue for at least five years. There are not alternatives in the immediate area.
I have a formal request for a meeting with officials from the Department of Education and Skills to meet members of the board of St. Joseph's secondary school to progress the purchase of approximately 14 acres for a new school and playing pitches in Rush. Will the Minister arrange that meeting next month because the school site needs to be bought now? The road access will be resolved in early December when the compulsory purchase order, CPO, is completed. Two weeks ago, the board put in a formal application for emergency accommodation in order that we can accommodate as many of these young people as possible, yet we have had no response.
As I pointed dout, Skerries community college has encountered the same problem. We are receiving emails from frantic, worried parents in Skerries who cannot get their kids into school in their own town. This never happened before. The problem has been highlighted in the local newspaper, the Skerries News, and it is causing turmoil. People are very worried and we need to have this new emergency accommodation put in place as soon as possible to give people some certainty. They do not know where they are going to send their kids next year and that is not good enough. The community college has planning permission for a permanent extension of five classrooms and other key facilities granted by Fingal County Council in 2017.
This problem is not going away. We need to get this temporary accommodation put in place in Rush; we need the prefabs for Skerries community college and we need an outline of the future for both schools. This problem is only going to get worse. We have the best of teachers giving the best of education to young people, preparing them for the world, in surroundings that are utterly unsatisfactory in the case of Rush and which provide utter uncertainty for parents, which is grossly unfair.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teach as an seans labhairt leis na Seanadóirí inniu agus táim buíoch as na focail cineálta fosta. Tá an ceart ag an Seanadóir. Tá sé iontach tábhachtach don todhchaí, is léir go mbeidh daonra ollmhór i gceantar Fhine Gall, agus táim sásta an freagra seo a bhaint amach.
I thank the Senator for raising the matter as it provides me with the opportunity to clarify the current position on my Department's plans to meet the demand for school places in St. Joseph's secondary school in Rush and in Skerries community college in the Fingal area. As the Senator may be aware, my predecessor, Deputy Bruton, announced plans for the establishment of 42 new schools in the next four years, 2019 to 2022, inclusive.
The announcement follows nationwide demographic exercises carried out by my Department to assess the future need for primary and post-primary schools across the country. The four-year horizon will enable increased lead-in times for planning and delivery of the necessary infrastructure.
The announcement includes three new post-primary schools to be established in the Fingal area, as follows: a new 1,000 pupil post-primary school to serve the Donaghmede, Howth and Dublin 13 school planning area, to be established in 2019; a new 800 pupil post-primary school to serve the Blanchardstown West, Dublin 15, and Blanchardstown, Dublin 15, school planning areas as a regional solution, to be established in 2020; and a new 800 pupil post-primary school to serve the Donaghmede, Howth and Dublin 13 school planning area, to be established in 2021.
In addition to the new schools announced, my Department’s capital investment programme also provides for devolved funding for additional classrooms in existing schools where an immediate enrolment need has been identified. The requirement for new schools will be kept under ongoing review and, in particular, have regard to the increased roll-out of housing provision, as outlined in Project Ireland 2040.
With regard to St. Joseph’s secondary school, Rush, my Department recently received an application from the school for additional accommodation. The application is being assessed and a decision will issue directly to the school shortly. I will make sure it is kept very firmly on the radar. The Senator will also be aware that a major building project to provide a new replacement school building at St. Joseph’s secondary school is included in my Department’s six-year construction programme. A site is required for this purpose and currently being pursued.
In addition, the Senator will be aware that in September 2013 my Department established a new 1,000 pupil multi-denominational post-primary school, Lusk community college, under the patronage of Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board, to serve the Rush and Lusk school planning area.
With regard to Skerries community college, my Department has been liaising with the school’s patron, Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board, on the applicant level for school places. I understand the school has indicated that it has been unable to offer a place to all applicants in September 2018. I advise the Senator that, in response to an application for additional accommodation from the ETB, my Department approved in principle the provision of additional permanent accommodation consisting of three general classrooms, one science laboratory, one art room and three special education teaching rooms. I am aware that the provision of additional accommodation on the site must be carefully planned, considering the limitations of the site. In that regard, my Department’s professional and technical staff will shortly be visiting the school site to determine how the project can be advanced. As an interim arrangement, my Department has approved the rental of temporary accommodation to the school, pending the delivery of the permanent accommodation solution. My Department will continue to work with the ETB to address the school’s interim and long-term accommodation needs.
I thank the Minister for his response. However, as whoever wrote it speaks about Howth and Donaghmede and places miles away from the area I am addressing, I will say no more about it. The bottom line is that additional accommodation has been approved for one portacabin in Skerries when three are badly needed. That is what the school applied for. I am glad to hear that a more permanent solution will be forthcoming.
In regard to St. Joseph's secondary school, we have been pursuing the site at Rush for some time. All that is required is for the Department to instruct Fingal County Council to purchase the site. It happily does this on a regular basis for the Department on the basis of shared facilities after school hours. It needs to be done. The CPO to open up the road and the lands is to be completed in December. However, we are facing a delay because there was a misunderstanding between CEIST, EDUCENA and the Department about who was going to purchase the land. CEIST and EDUCENA made it very clear they were not in a position to do it; therefore, it falls to the Department.
With regard to Lusk community college, it is very welcome that we will have a secondary school, the second half of which is being built, but it is very clear to all concerned that it will not be able to accommodate the increased demand for places from pupils in both Skerries and Rush. It just will not wash. I am told by Councillor O'Leary who is in the Visitors Gallery and many constituents that all of the local crèches are full and that the problem will just keep building.
We need a serious signal from the Department that it is going to take action in purchasing a site for St. Joseph's secondary school which has been identified for well over a couple of years. The school is just waiting for the order from the Department to enable the local council to act. I appeal to the Minister as I know that parents in both schools are extremely upset and very angry.
While the next academic year, 2019-20, may seem a long way away, they have applied for places and been declined. What the Minister's Department - the Department more than the Minister - will face if it does not act is a slew of section 29 appeals which it will not be able to handle. As we discuss this matter, these children have no school places for next year.
I ask the Minister to be brief as we are over time.
I will be brief. I take very seriously the issues the Senator raised. There are obviously concerns in very heavily populated areas. I get the concern of parents and understand the need to progress matters as quickly as we possibly can. I am also conscious, however, that we have been dealing even today and over the weekend with legacy issues of schools having been fast-tracked over too short a period. We learned many lessons from that. We are looking at longer lead-in terms, but this cannot be used as an excuse for not dealing with the immediate pressures. I get the Senator's concerns. As I said, a request for additional accommodation has been submitted. We will make a decision on it and ensure the officials are proactive in that regard. As for the Senator's observation on the inclusion of Donaghmede and in defence of the officials who prepared this answer, the first part of the question referred to Fingal, although I acknowledge the Senator's interest was in the two areas to which he referred.
Walking the corridors of this House and bumping into colleagues from every constituency, I am finding out about the increasing pressures, demands and populations in their areas. These are issues, but the only way we can do this properly is to have a trajectory of a long-term plan. For this reason, the Government has provided funding of €8.4 billion in the ten-year capital plan. It is the first time in the State we are working on a ten-year plan. I understand news of ten-year plans is no good to parents whose children are going to school today, but we must manage this issue. In raising the matter today the Senator has highlighted the need to deliver as speedily as possible, while adhering to new policies and guidelines which are also necessary to provide the right solutions and buildings.
National Parks and Wildlife Service
The Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, is waiting anxiously and patiently in the wings. Cuirim fáilte roimhe. As we are running a little late, I ask Senator Mulherin, without further ado, to proceed with her inquiry to the Minister of State.
I am grateful to the Cathaoirleach for selecting this matter. While I welcome the Minister of State, I was hoping to see the Minister, Deputy Madigan, here. This is a very serious issue which is compromising and crippling development in rural Ireland. The National Parks and Wildlife Service which comes under the aegis of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is charged with the protection and conservation of habitats and species in designated lands around the country. However, there is substantial evidence to show that infrastructure development has been delayed in recent years owing to this environmental designation, especially in the west, where most environmental designation is taking place. I will outline some of this evidence.
In 2010 An Bord Pleanála refused permission for stage 2 of the N26 road project, the road from Mount Falcon to Bohola, the road between Swinford and Ballina. It runs through the River Moy special area of conservation, SAC. Permission for the project was denied on account of over-design and whooper swans. A minor upgrade to the same road has been sought at Cloongullaun to replace the bridge and solutions have been sought on how to overcome the environmental issues since 2012. A sum of €4 million has been spent in that regard. A sum of €5 million was spent on the previous project and we still do not have planning permission. I hope An Bord Pleanála will issue planning permission in the coming weeks. If it does not, the alternative is not one to contemplate.
Consultations on flood defences for Crossmolina town, also in an SAC, have been ongoing since 2013 or 2014. On the positive side for Crossmolina, it is listed as one of the projects to be financed under the flood defences capital programme.
However, there is still no planning permission. Even a more minor job, that of the dredging of the River Deel to protect people's properties in the short term, has been refused permission. One of the reasons cited was the presence of freshwater pearl mussels. The same issue arises at Cloongullaun Bridge. Equally, the much-needed work on Glenisland Bridge on the R312 between Castlebar and Bellacorick has been allocated funding but has been delayed on account of freshwater pearl mussels. On designated lands in Galway, the N59 works between Galway and Clifden have been delayed for years, notwithstanding the 17 or 18 consultations on it. All of these areas fall within the auspices of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS.
We are reaching a point where Government agencies charged with the delivery of vital infrastructural projects are living in fear when proposing them. For example, instead of seeking a major scheme for the worst section of national primary road in the country, namely, the N26, Mayo County Council is seeking a series of minor schemes because it believes it will fall foul of the environmental designation. That is crazy.
The NPWS needs to undertake a major body of work. Other than that, every planning application in a given SAC is dealt with on an ad hoc basis. There is a lack of forward planning and schematic approach, as most SACs do not have management plans. This is key. It means that there has been no examination of the competing interests of conservation and socioeconomic objectives. The need to be able to build bridges and roads and to farm land has not been balanced with the conservation objectives in any formal way.
A case for legitimate development has been identified. Under Project Ireland 2040, there is a plan for 500,000 people in rural areas. If we can get planning permissions, we can get developments through without having to wait years. We have been left very far behind.
I welcome the recruitment steps taken in recent years to plug the science and biodiversity staffing gaps in the NPWS. There was an increase of 15% in this year's budget to €54 million, but that amount covers built heritage, as well as natural heritage. The culture budget has been increased to €190 million. There will be no culture or heritage in rural Ireland unless we get our act together. This situation will impede Project Ireland 2040 and must be taken seriously by the Government. The NPWS must be funded if it is to have a schematic approach to developments in designated SACs where there are already substantial settlements and roads.
I am taking this debate on behalf of the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan. I thank the Senator for raising the issue. I will talk to the Minister about the issues outlined. Reading the answer before Senator Mulherin spoke, it might be approaching the question in a different way than the Senator addressed the matter.
In 2018 the Department allocated €11.982 million to the NPWS, which represents more than a 7% increase on the figure for 2017. In addition, the overall budget for the heritage division in 2018 of €47.146 million increased by 4% from 2017. A further increase in funding of more than €7 million, or 15%, in the overall budget for the division was announced earlier this month as part of budget 2019. This investment represents a significant proportion of the Department's overall budget and reflects the continued commitment to the NPWS.
Some 14% of the terrestrial area of the State is designated. This includes many remote and inaccessible areas. Most of the land in SACs, special protection areas and natural heritage areas is in private ownership. Through the NPWS, the Department directly manages a property portfolio in respect of national parks, nature reserves and other conservation or recreational properties of approximately 87,000 ha. It comprises 69,000 ha of diverse landscape within the six national parks and more than 18,000 ha within the other 80 plus statutory nature reserves and other heritage properties.
Killarney National Park comprises over 10,000 ha. The National Parks and Wildlife Service manages and maintains over 485 km of trails across these properties. Approximately 4 million people visit these sites annually and while 50% of the national parks are in the western region, more than half of all visitors are to the Wicklow Mountains and Killarney National Park.
Staff levels across the Department are kept under regular review in line with emerging business needs and Government policy on public sector pay and staffing as advised by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Of the Department's total staff, approximately 335 work in the area of natural heritage through the National Parks and Wildlife Service. In addition, the Department takes on in the region of 70 seasonal staff during the year to assist the NPWS. Front-line conservation rangers are deployed through a regional structure and assignments are determined in the light of departmental business needs and priorities. As well as more senior regionally based officers of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, there are 62 NPWS conservation rangers stationed around the country who deal with enforcement matters under the Wildlife Acts. As the Senator may be aware, the rangers are involved on a daily basis in a range of enforcement activities. These duties are not based on a county basis. For operational reasons, I cannot provide the House with specific levels of detail of the exact number of rangers in a particular geographic area as such information could serve as an incentive for wildlife crime and compromise us from an operational point of view.
The Department is working towards increasing the overall number of rangers to 84, subject to constraints. Any further appointments will be made across the country taking account of business needs and financial resources to meet pay costs in the context of Government policy on public sector pay and staffing. As I said, staff levels across the Department are kept under regular review in line with emerging business needs and Government policy on public sector pay and staffing, as advised by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The NPWS endeavours to fulfil a comprehensive and valuable role in the conservation and protection of the natural heritage and delivers an excellent service to the public.
Capital funding is allocated by individual project as opposed to specific regions. As the Senator may be aware, the Department entered into a strategic investment partnership with Fáilte Ireland last year. The first project under this partnership is a €2.1 million investment in Wild Nephin-Ballycroy National Park to develop a continuous 53 km walking-cycling trail from Newport to Ballycastle on the Wild Atlantic Way through the national park. This follows on from a number of key strategic investments in Mayo, including the expansion of the Wild Nephin-Ballycroy National Park with the €850,000 purchase of some 1,200 acres at Altnabrockey and the transfer of Coillte's Wild Nephin holdings to the national park. These acquisitions not only consolidate the national park area, they provide excellent opportunities for the future development of the park, including improved access and trails, as well as other significant enhancements to the visitor experience at Wild Nephin on the Wild Atlantic Way. They also build upon the recent designation of the area as Ireland's first gold-tier dark sky park. A gold-tier award is the highest possible accolade, meaning that Mayo is now internationally recognised as one of the best places in the world to view the wonders of the night. Mayo Dark Sky Park is a great example of collaborative projects between communities, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Coillte, GMIT Mayo campus, South West Mayo Development Company and Mayo County Council.
Between 2017 and 2017, the Department invested in excess of €7 million capital in the development of Ireland's network of six national parks and more than 80 nature reserves and other conservation and recreational heritage properties. Under Investing in our Culture, Language and Heritage 2018-2027, capital investment of €50 million has been earmarked for the national parks and nature reserves. This investment ensures long-term protection of the national parks and reserves and the Department is delighted to have the opportunity for investment and implementation of measures to protect habitats, landscapes and wildlife.
The Minister has asked me to assure the House that into 2019 and beyond the Department will continue its ongoing programme of maintenance works to safeguard the continuing management and operation of the national parks and reserves not just in the western region but also nationwide. I acknowledge that the response fails to address the issues raised by the Senator in terms of the necessary staffing levels to ensure infrastructural projects in Mayo can proceed. I will ask the Minister to revert to her in writing with a more pertinent response.
My message is that there is a need for a serious examination by the Minister and the Government of how the National Parks and Wildlife Service responds to infrastructural projects that are needed urgently.
The Minister of State mentioned 14% of the land in the State being designated. It is 55% in Mayo. We cannot build roads or bridges. I am not talking about remote areas that were referred to but about major towns in the county where it is not possible to build roads or bridges because of special areas of conservation. I refer to the freshwater pearl mussel and other wildlife. There has to be a better balance. I ask the Minister of State to impress this on the Minister.
I am sure the Minister of State will get the line Minister to correspond directly with Senator Mulherin.
Last Friday the Authentic Food Company's plant in Dundalk went into interim liquidation. The staff of 180, some of whom have given up to 25 years of loyal service to the factory, look set to lose their jobs. The dogs on the street knew for some time that things were not right. Appeals from staff for clarity about the future intentions of the company fell, unfortunately, on deaf ears in recent months and weeks. The Unite trade union, the representative body of the workers, was conscious that the firm appeared to be in very choppy waters. Local management, unfortunately, appeared to be sidelined and left in the dark. We know there are no jobs in a closed factory and the union knows that also. On that basis, the Unite trade union did the responsible thing and formally contacted the company's parent operation in the UK.
As any responsible trade union would, Unite sought on several occasions to meet the key decision-makers from the company formally. The union sought to establish the nature and extent of the problems at the Dundalk plant and to offer to work with the company if it needed to engage with the union to change course and ensure the survival of the operation. Time and again, however, the union's approaches were rebuffed and stonewalled. The union was, frankly, given the two fingers by the operation. Against this backdrop and as the clock ticked towards the appointment of a provisional liquidator last week, workers at the plant reported the transferring of profitable production lines from the Dundalk facility to the parent company's facilities in the UK.
Given what we know and the Dundalk company's refusal to engage with its staff and the union, I can only conclude that the operation in Dundalk appears to have been deliberately run down. Last week the parent company in the UK pulled its support. The Irish operation is a subsidiary of the UK parent. The Minister of State and, more appropriately, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, need to take a close look at this. The behaviour of the Irish arm of the company and the activities between it and its parent in the UK need to be examined formally and forensically. All too often we have seen workers left on the street as companies hide behind the protection of the courts in deemed insolvencies where fancy footwork and sharp practices are used to put assets beyond the use of redundant workers and other creditors. These are assets that should normally be used to pay decent redundancies and moneys owed to small businesses. We have to be vigilant. After the debacle of Clerys, we said the law would and should change to protect workers better in insolvencies.
The Duffy-Cahill report entitled, Expert examination and review of laws on the protection of employee interests when assets are separated from the operating entity, was brought to the Government in April 2016 but no action has been taken since. Now 180 workers in Dundalk are in a desperately uncertain set of circumstances. They have not formally been made redundant and they are not legally entitled to the 30 day redundancy notice period to allow them work with their trade union on an enhanced or improved redundancy package. They have not earned any money since the plant closed and, despite the great support they have received from officials in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection in the area, without a P45, entitlement to social welfare is moot. They also cannot or will not take up alternative employment because they hope that, somehow, IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland or other State agencies might find an alternative operator for the facility in Dundalk. In the meantime, life goes on, mortgages, rent and bills need to be paid and families fed.
The law needs to be changed. Does the Government intend to change the law as it applies to workers caught up in insolvencies such as this? Will the Minister of State and his colleagues support the workers and the union in their efforts to seek social protection support for the workers and trade union members in that plant in the next short period?
I thank the Senator. I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty.
The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection received notification of the proposed liquidation of TAFC Manufacturing Ireland DAC on 22 October 2018.
The Protection of Employment Act 1977 imposes a number of obligations on employers that are proposing collective redundancies, including an obligation under sections 9 and 10 to engage in an information and consultation process with employee representatives and to provide certain information on the proposed redundancies. Section 11A of the Act provides that where an employee believes the employer to be in breach of sections 9 or 10, he or she may pursue a complaint to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. It is an offence under section 11 of the Act for an employer to fail to comply with sections 9 or 10. Following contact from the Department, the joint provisional liquidators of the company have advised that the consultation process with employees began on Friday, 19 October and will continue for 30 days. The Department will continue to engage with the provisional liquidators, as required.
The Social Insurance Fund provides a safety net for the employees in cases of employer insolvency. It is the responsibility of the liquidator to seek, on behalf of employees, payment from the redundancy payments scheme in respect of statutory redundancy and from the insolvency payments scheme in respect of wage-related entitlements. An eligible employee is entitled to a statutory redundancy payment of two weeks' pay for every year of service, plus a bonus week. Compensation is based on the worker's length of reckonable service and reckonable weekly remuneration, subject to a ceiling of €600 per week. In order to qualify for a statutory redundancy payment, an employee must have at least two years of continuous service, be in employment which is insurable under the Social Welfare Acts and be over the age of 16 years. Entitlements covered under the insolvency payments scheme are arrears of wages, holiday pay, sick pay, payment in lieu of minimum notice and certain pension contributions. Payments are calculated by reference to an employee's wages and are subject to a limit of €600 a week. Arrears of wages, sick pay, holiday pay and minimum notice are limited to eight weeks.
The Department will ensure the affected employees receive advice on jobseekers' payments and other income supports that may be available to them. It will provide support for them on returning to work or accessing appropriate education and training and development options. Staff of the north-east division of the Department met employees of the company on Monday, 22 October to give them information on the Intreo services available locally. An information and recruitment event for the workforce will be held in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Dundalk on Thursday, 1 November. This event will be supported by other key service providers. Local employers with job vacancies have also committed to attend. The key message for employees is that the Department will provide redundancy, insolvency and jobseeker payments to which they may be entitled in a timely manner and proactively help them to access available opportunities for employment.
The WRC's customer service section provides information on the rights and obligations of employees and employers under employment rights legislation. WRC information officials are available to meet the staff concerned individually or collectively to discuss their employment rights, including matters related to redundancy.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Many of the details he has given are available to the trade union and the staff. I reiterate my appreciation of the efforts made by the staff of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to assist workers who find themselves in a dreadful position. They were aware for some time that something was not right in this plant. As I said, efforts were made by the union to engage constructively with key decision-makers in the parent company in the UK. It is right that people are deeply suspicious about the circumstances surrounding this. It is incredibly important for the Unite trade union to be represented at the formal liquidation hearing in the courts on 12 November to make sure there is a robust forensic examination of the relationship between the Dundalk company and its parent company in the UK. I have been told by workers and the trade union involved that some of the activities in the plant in recent months have left them very sceptical about the motivations of the company. In the meantime, there is a human cost. People do not have jobs or social welfare payments. They are wondering whether they should find alternative employment. People have bills to pay and children to feed. We are very close to Christmas.
The larger and wider issue at stake is the point at which employment law and company law interact in this country.
Nobody will ever forget the position in which Clerys workers found themselves in June 2015. We swore we would never again allow workers to be thrown on the side of the street without entitlements or security and not knowing what their entitlements were. We would no longer allow companies to use corporate restructuring and fancy footwork to avoid their obligations to employees and get away with this type of activity with absolute impunity. I produced the Duffy Cahill report which proposes some very strong measures, including, for example, to provide for a right to a minimum 30-day period of consultation for workers caught up in insolvencies, regardless of whether the firm was insolvent, and to introduce important sanctions on employers that refuse to comply with their obligations on the 30-day consultation period. Serious sanctions and disincentives need to be levelled at employers who engage in this type of activity. They expect to get away with this scot free and if the law goes unreformed and unamended, they will continue to do so.
The Senator is well over the time limit.
While I understand this is not the Minister of State's policy area or field of expertise, I would like to hear his view on the matter as a legislator and public representative.
The Minister of State's view will have to be limited.
My view will be limited.
If I let everybody go over the limit by three or four minutes, I will set a dangerous precedent.
Nobody wishes to see what happened to the Clerys workers happening again. I am not familiar with the case in Dundalk the Senator is raising. This is a matter for two Departments and the responsibility of the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty. I will raise the issue of the Duffy Cahill report with the former and the substantial issue of the lack of P45s and the fact that certain families do not have any source of income or access to social welfare payments with the latter. I will have the Ministers revert directly to the Senator.