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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 24 Feb 2022

Vol. 283 No. 3

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Public Transport

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, to the House and thank him for attending.

Before I address the matter I planned to raise, I want to express solidarity with the people of Ukraine. We all woke up to the horrifying news that an invasion had occurred overnight. I send my solidarity to the Ukrainian ambassador, all Ukrainian nationals living in Ireland and everyone living in Ukraine, including Irish people who are still within the country's borders.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to address my Commencement matter. I had directed it at the Department of Transport but I understand it was transferred to the Department of Justice for a response. A feasibility study on a dedicated transport police service needs to be carried out by the Department of Transport because it is an integral part of how we move forward with sustainable transport options. Intimidation and violence on our public transport services are widespread, in particular in Dublin, unfortunately. There have been various high-profile incidents. One in north Dublin springs to mind.

Unions representing transport workers have called for a dedicated transport police service for years because their workers feel intimidated while driving buses and trains. Over half of Irish women avoid public transport after dark and fear for their safety. The Travelling in a Woman's Shoes report found that women felt heavily responsible for their own safety while on public transport. These feelings are pushing women into cars and unsustainable transport modes or are keeping them away from travel and accessing health, education and social and cultural opportunities. That is highly regrettable. As we move forward, make Ireland a more sustainable place to live and provide sustainable transport options to all communities, a feasibility study needs to begin so that we can plan to ensure that all members of society feel safe and comfortable travelling on public transport.

Women in Dublin, in particular, feel very vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault while travelling on public transport. That is borne out by the findings of the Travelling in a Woman's Shoes report. Women are particularly vulnerable to verbal harassment and they have witnessed violent behaviour while on public transport. This issue will only get bigger and bigger as our population grows.

As I said, trade unions are in favour of having a transport police service to ensure everybody, including workers and those travelling on public transport, are safe. We are building housing, including apartment dwellings, with limited car parking spaces. People will not have the option to use private transport. We need to examine this issue in a holistic way. I know the work the Department of Justice is undertaking to make this country safer for women, which includes examining every aspect of that. I would appreciate if the Minister of State could give thought to this matter and include it in his deliberations prior to putting together a safety plan for women. I also ask him to liaise with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on the matter.

I thank Senator Clifford-Lee for raising the important matter of the feasibility of the establishment of a dedicated transport police service. On behalf of the Minister for Justice, Deputy Helen McEntee, I express her thanks to the Senator for raising this important matter. Senator Clifford-Lee has raised this issue on numerous occasions in the House and behind the scenes with various Departments that have responsibility for this area.

Unfortunately, I cannot speak on behalf of the Department of Transport, but I will address the matter from the perspective of the Department of Justice. The Senator will appreciate that the Garda Commissioner is, by law, responsible for the management and control of An Garda Síochána and the effective and efficient use of Garda resources to combat crime and keep our communities safe. As the Senator is aware, the Minister for Justice is unable to intervene in these independent operational and policing matters.

The Minister is assured by the Garda Commissioner that the management keeps the distribution of resources, including Garda members and units, under continual review in the context of policing priorities and crime trends, to ensure their optimum use. The Minister has been informed by the Garda Commissioner and Garda authorities that it is not proposed to establish a specialist or dedicated public transport policing unit at this time.

However, I can assure the Senator that gardaí employ a range of policing tools to respond to incidents involving antisocial behaviour on our public transport network. Most recently, in January of this year the assistant commissioner of the Dublin metropolitan region, DMR, launched Operation Saul to provide a safe environment for commuters utilising public transport services in the DMR, together with reassuring residents, visitors and the business community in Dublin that it is a safe place to visit, socialise, conduct business and enjoy amenities. Operation Saul currently operates in DMR south central, north central and south divisions, but plans are ongoing to extend this operation to all of the DMR region. The aim of Operation Saul is to co-ordinate and manage all working resources in each Garda division to deliver both an overt and covert policing presence around the environs of Luas, DART and bus services in Dublin on a regular and, where necessary, a daily basis.

As at 15 February more than 130 overt and covert patrols have been conducted on various public transport in the DMR since the inception of Operation Saul. These patrols have resulted in a number of detections and ongoing investigations under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977, as amended, the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001, the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997, as amended, and under the Criminal Justice Public Order Act 1994, as amended.

Each chief superintendent in the DMR ensures regular collaboration under Operation Saul with partner agencies in order to ensure success and sustainability of the initiative. Operation Saul is also subject to a performance and assurance review by the assistant commissioner of the DMR and her senior management team to identity any trends or issues that may require effective correction as soon as possible. I am also informed that a range of regional and local operations are also in place to prevent and detect antisocial incidents arising. One such example is Operation Twin Track which was a community engagement and rail safety policing initiative conducted by gardaí in partnership with other public transportation stakeholders with the purpose of providing high visibility policing of rail and light rail transport within the DMR and nationwide, and to deliver crime prevention advice. A multiagency review was conducted to examine the effectiveness of this operation and it was agreed that An Garda Síochána will continue to proactively engage with public transportation stakeholders and providers to conduct further similar operations.

That is positive to hear but I still believe a feasibility study should be undertaken in conjunction with the Minister of State's Department and the Department of Transport. It is not acceptable that workers and people using public transport are being attacked and feel vulnerable and that women are avoiding public transport. It needs to be a safe space for women. You are particularly vulnerable if you are on a bus or in a carriage on a DART and something kicks off, especially when you take into account that Irish Rail has unmanned railway stations throughout the country, including in Dublin. If something occurs, there is nobody in the station to raise the alarm with the gardaí. It is a very worrying situation but I hope the Minister of State will take this message and incorporate it into the plan that his Department is developing, and liaise with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

I again thank Senator Clifford-Lee for bringing up this important matter. I will, of course, bring her concerns to the attention of both the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, and the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, in my own Department. On behalf of the Minister, Deputy McEntee, I thank the Senator for raising this important issue.

I understand that Garda management engages extensively on an ongoing basis with the transport operators, including the National Transport Authority, Irish Rail and TransDev Ireland which operates Luas, and provides a high visibility presence through a co-ordinated approach. Of course budget 2022 reflects this commitment with an unprecedented allocation of more than €2 billion in Garda funding for the coming year. This funding will include provision for an additional 800 new garda recruits and 400 garda staff which will help continue the actions of An Garda Síochána towards the civilianisation of An Garda Síochána and moving gardaí from desk duty back onto front line services.

Coast Guard Service

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, for coming to the House. As she comes from a coastal county, as I do, she is appreciative of the work of the Coast Guard right around the country. From seeing it in action, I know the work of the Courtown-Arklow Coast Guard. The Coast Guard group based in Courtown Harbour is unusual in that it actually covers parts of two counties. It covers the area from Brittas Bay in County Wicklow down as far as Cahore, so it is a large area of sea. There is a crew of about 22 who are male and female. They have given good service to our community over a long period of time. The challenge is the Coast Guard building in which they are operating. It is a small rocket house type building that was constructed during the 1920s. It is a single room with no toilet or welfare facilities.

As I said it is a mixed, male and female, crew. They all have to change within the one facility. You will appreciate the difficulty, particularly if they have gone out on a mission at sea and have come back in wet, tired and, in many cases, they must bring some of their equipment and so on back home. They have no toilet so they have to use the public toilet facilities in Courtown Harbour which are a little bit away from where the rocket house is located.

This has been a long-running issue around trying to get new facilities for the Coast Guard. As I am sure the Minister of State is aware from her Department, efforts were made with Wexford County Council and potential county council sites were identified. Some of the sites were found to be unsuitable while in regard to other sites, the council decided to make use of them itself. Recently, a potential private site was identified by the Coast Guard to the Office of Public Works, OPW.

I am raising this as a Commencement matter today, and this reflects my frustration and that of the Coast Guard locally, because, in spite of several efforts to get answers around progress from the OPW as to where this is at, we have not been able to find out. We have much sea-based activity going on and the north Wexford area is rapidly growing in terms of population. Significant numbers of people come into our community for holiday purposes and, unfortunately, that means occasionally we see incidents at sea. The Coast Guard is essential in keeping all of us safe in our waters.

I ask that this be regarded as a matter of urgency. If the Minister of State has good news for me today, I will be very grateful but at the very least, we would appreciate an update.

I thank Senator Byrne for raising this issue. As he knows, the Department of Transport is responsible for the Irish Coast Guard building programme, essentially aimed at ensuring Coast Guard units along the coast are fit for purpose. The programme is managed through the Office of Public Works from planning and design to build and ongoing maintenance, with legal assistance as necessary from the Chief State Solicitor's Office. The programme is funded from the Department of Transport Vote. Medium-sized build projects of more than €750,000 are managed by OPW property management section and are overseen by an OPW senior architect. Smaller upgrading and renovation projects are managed by the OPW property management section. Day-to-day maintenance contracts are organised and managed by the OPW and funded by the Department. The Chief State Solicitor's Office guides and assists the IRCG with its building regularisation programme.

The capital envelope in Project 2040 includes increased funding for the IRCG towards the building and renovation costs of Coast Guard stations throughout the country, replacement and upgrade of search and rescue related equipment in the units and in the rescue centres, development of new IT systems to assist Coast Guard operations to deliver its service more effectively and efficiently, and the procurement of pollution prevention and other equipment relating to the Coast Guard remit.

This capital envelope has gradually increased over recent years from €5 million in 2018 to €8 million in 2022 and should cater for additional one-off capital investments in coastguard stations around the country, commencing with Greystones and Westport.

Some of the existing buildings called rocket houses, as the Senator has alluded to, date back to the 19th century and do not provide the necessary accommodation to house 24-7 response units. The Senator has outlined that point clearly today. Therefore, the new builds are urgently required in terms of health and safety issues. Some of the factors that are taken into account include: the suitability of existing stations for modernisation and enlargement; the availability of suitable State-owned land for a new build; the legal and planning issues involved in developing brownfield or greenfield sites in high-visibility coastal amenity locations; the urgency of the works required in terms of health and safety or other issues; and the funds available to the Department each year. The OPW is currently working on building projects in Greystones and Westport, with both projects due to start construction this year. Planning permission has also been granted for Bonmahon, which will soon progress to construction phase. Other projects that have commenced include Castlefreke, which is in the planning phase, and Kilmore Quay and Cleggan, which are both at preplanning stage. Subject to planning permission, these projects could be advanced to construction stage. The reason the Senator is raising the matter today is the Courtown Coast Guard station, which is currently on the Irish Coast Guard building programme priority list. Wexford County Council had originally identified a suitable site for the proposed station in the Courtown Harbour area. Unfortunately, it is no longer in a position to offer this site to the Irish Coast Guard as it has a major economic stimulus project planned for the harbour area. It has offered to work with the Irish Coast Guard and the OPW to help identify alternative sites, some of which have been recently identified. Six possible sites have now been identified as suitable for a new station for Courtown Coast Guard. The OPW has commenced preliminary investigative work on these potential sites and will update us as these investigations progress. I am happy to come back to the Seanad to update the Senator in relation to the investigative works by the OPW.

That is some good news for Senator Malcolm Byrne.

It is but at the same time, this has been a really long process. For the crew that is operating there, it is about looking for basic facilities that the rest of us would take for granted. It is particularly the case because these people are going out and saving lives. I invite the Minister of State to visit Courtown Harbour and to inspect the facilities. The Minister of State said the station is on the priority list. However, there is always the question of how long the list is and how long it is going to take. I have been engaging with the Coast Guard for a decade in this campaign to get the update. We have not seen much progress. We will see progress when we see the site purchased or handed over and the OPW going in to work. There is only so much investigation that can be done over a decade. I ask that the matter is given priority this year and that we at least get a start date for construction on whatever site is finally agreed.

It has been prioritised as a coastguard station, and one of the stations that is in most need of new facilities. It is on the building programme priority list. The Irish Coast Guard and the OPW are fully committed to providing a unit with a fully functioning coastguard station in that area. The OPW has already commenced the preliminary investigative works in respect of the six possible sites that have been identified for the new coastguard station. As I said, I am happy to come back to the House and update the Senator. We will keep in touch in relation to progress because I am aware that the facilities are needed and required. It is on the priority list. Let us work together to ensure that adequate progress is made.

Wildlife Protection

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I am sure that at this point the Minister of State is aware of the existence of two separate reports outlining where the OPW has clearly breached wildlife protection laws, in both Emo Court, County Laois and Barryscourt Castle, County Cork, by disturbing bat roosts without the proper derogation licence. Before I get into the details of the Emo Court case in particular, which is a case I have been working on for a number of months now, I must say that the manner in which I have been treated by the Department in trying to get to the bottom of the issue has been a disgrace. It started off with flat denials from the Department in November 2021, when it stated: "The OPW has not been involved in the destruction of a bat roost at Emo Court House." The Department stated that the works were being carried out under a derogation licence. When I sought that licence from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, first I found out that licences are not publically available and must be requested. When I requested the licences for the works that were being carried out on Emo Court, I was sent a licence dated for September 2020. I know that the works were carried out in December 2019. When I followed up and asked if I could have the derogation licence that covered the works of December 2019, I was met with radio silence. I am still waiting on a response. I then submitted a freedom of information request. I have to hand some of what I received, if the Minister of State wants to pay attention.

This is what I received from the Department.

The Minister of State was taking notes.

I will not have anyone say that about me in the House. I am taking notes. I ask the Senator to have a bit of respect.

I have the respect to show the Minister of State what I received when I put in a freedom of information request.

Sorry, Senator. It is very unfortunate that we are having this with a Commencement matter. It never happens. It is a very important procedure that we have open to us. I ask the Senator and the Minister of State to proceed with the Commencement matter. In fairness, I was watching the Minister of State and he was taking notes.

I will proceed.

However, as I said, the freedom of information request was heavily redacted. We know that the facts are that in 2019, an ecologist report was produced on the works that were requested to be done on Emo Court. The report stated that the works could not go ahead because the mitigation could not ensure the safety of the bat roost. Despite that report, the OPW carried on with the works. I have to hand a photograph that was taken by ecologists in November 2019, which clearly shows that there were bats present and that works were taking place where the bats were roosting. In January 2020, the National Parks and Wildlife Service sent a ranger to investigate what was going on in the basement of Emo Court. The ranger stated that the only evidence of bats found was bat droppings that had been swept up and a dead bat. We know that the National Parks and Wildlife Service produced a report. Will the report into the findings of what took place in the basement of Emo Court, along with the recommendations, be released?

Will the Minister of State confirm that a prosecution was not recommended in this case arising from what took place in Emo Court?

I thank Senator Boylan for raising this matter and providing me with the opportunity to address it on behalf of the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan, who sends his apologies. I may not be able to answer some of the specific questions but I will refer them to the Minister of State. This is a very specific case.

Emo Court is a neoclassical mansion designed by architect James Gandon and is a protected structure under RPS 412 of County Laois. It is recognised as one of Ireland's finest historical houses. Emo Court is a rare example of a late 18th century Irish Palladian mansion, whose grand columns and imposing facades have absorbed the colour and vitality of the rich mid-19th century decoration and additions. The house sits in a picturesque landscape park setting which, to a great extent, reflects the late 18th century vision of the owners and their chosen designers, but retains elements of an earlier landscape design. As with the house, the 19th century additions to the landscape add richness, as does the presence of a number of exceptional specimen and veteran trees. A notable wealth of documentary evidence associated with the place adds further to the importance of Emo Court, where history and heritage can be experienced with recourse to a higher than common level of authenticity.

Arising from this combination of integrity and authenticity, Emo Court and Park are considered of exceptional significance. The site is hugely popular and is just off the M7 in the middle of the country. More than 500,000 visitors use the grounds and it is a haven of biodiversity. The Office of Public Works, OPW, leads on educating visitors on the flora and fauna of the estate. The OPW is committed to carefully conserving our native species and fighting biodiversity loss. The organisation works to the national biodiversity action plan and in 2021 developed an organisation-wide biodiversity strategy to ensure an all-of-organisation approach to meeting its obligations under the national plan. This action strategy will be launched in the coming weeks.

The OPW takes its responsibilities very seriously regarding the protection of wild flora and fauna. It has won awards for specific biodiversity initiatives, including the first ever all-Ireland pollinator award at the Victorian walled garden in the Phoenix Park and later at Castletown House for its pollinator meadow. The OPW is engaged in an initiative to support the population of native barn owls at 12 national monument sites nationwide with BirdWatch Ireland. The OPW has for years implemented a swift box initiative at some of Dublin's historical buildings in its care and in 2020, it undertook a year-long biodiversity study and audit at Áras an Uachtaráin.

At Emo Court, the OPW has cared for and continues to care for the significant bat roost there in line with wildlife and habitats legislation. The bat roost is fully intact and active. It was not disturbed or damaged in any way during recent works and the bat populations at Emo Court are stable.

Emo Court is in much need of investment to upgrade the roof, replace dangerous electrical installations and install new heating systems. In 2019, the OPW secured funding under the rural regeneration and development fund of €1.2 million to undertake refurbishment and conservation works in the house and gardens in order to expand the visitor experience at the property and ensure this important heritage site delivers for the local tourism, employment, amenity and rural development agendas.

In 2019, the OPW carried out critical electrical and fire upgrades and a refurbishment of rooms for the Fr. Brown exhibition. This project provided access to visitors to the first floor of the house for the first time in 25 years. There was wonderful visitor feedback on the enhanced heritage on offer and the reputation and visibility of the house increased. Laois County Council is extremely happy with the increase in tourism potential.

In the autumn of last year, essential electrical works that were carried out constituted urgent immediate action, taken on foot of genuine escalating concerns for the safety of staff, external security and fire protection personnel and the main house at Emo Court. Urgent minimal electrical upgrading work took place in the electrical switch room and back west stairs area of the basement. This is not located near the bat roost room, which is in the round cellar under the central rotunda. The bat roost was not disturbed or impacted and the OPW understands that as emergency works, these did not require a derogation licence.

It should be noted that Bat Conservation Ireland undertook three separate surveys at Emo Court in 2021 and the surveying records indicate a stable population of bats in line with levels recorded in previous years in the period 2012-2020. In 2022, Bat Conservation Ireland will carry out three further systematic counts to monitor the continued health of the roost in Emo Court.

I reaffirm the OPW's commitment to conserving and enhancing our national biodiversity. The bat roost in Emo Court is active and is being managed proactively by the OPW. It is monitored regularly by an independent third party. Data collected by Bat Conservation Ireland since 2008 indicate that biannual counts have been taking place since 2012 and were increased to three counts per year in 2019. These counts over a period of more than a decade show that the number of bats at Emo is stable. I thank the Acting Chairman for showing me some discretion.

I gave the Minister of State an extra two minutes because it was important to get the full response on the record of the House.

I thank the Minister of State for his lengthy response. I disagree with him. This is not specific to Emo Court. Barryscourt Castle is in the same position in that works were carried out there in 2016 but a bat expert was not hired until 2020. With all due respect to the Minister of State, the timelines do not add up. The works in 2019 were not emergency works. At the time the works were applied for, a bat expert said they could not go ahead because the mitigation was insufficient to protect the bats. The OPW then applied for a retrospective licence. The Minister of State can read a statement indicating the bat roosts are fine and stable or whatever but the reality is that works were carried out by the OPW without the necessary licence. Will he give a commitment that the report carried out by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in the first half of 2020 did not make a recommendation that the OPW be prosecuted under the habitats directive and the Wildlife Act?

I again thank Senator Boylan for her remarks. The content of the information I was given from the OPW points clearly to the independent surveys that were carried out. I must revert to the Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW for the information sought by the Senator - I do not have it to hand - with regard to the recommendation regarding a prosecution. I will ask the Minister of State to revert to the Senator directly with that information.

Shared Services

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber and thank him for taking this Commencement matter. It is appreciated.

Many good people work in local authorities. They are very proud to work in them and they give great service to the State. When negative comments are made, either in these Houses or elsewhere, about local authorities and public servants and what they do, it tarnishes all those who work in the public service. I have spoken to a number of people working at different levels in local authorities across the country seeking their views on what the Government can do to support them. I will set out essentially what they came back to me with.

Difficult workers exist and that is as true in the private sector as it is in the public sector. The difficulty in local authorities is that it is extremely difficult to sanction an employee. The disciplinary procedure is so cumbersome and ineffective that it is only used in the most clear-cut cases such as those involving gross misconduct.

What are much more common are the ongoing and more difficult-to-detect issues, such as those associated with bullying behaviour, disrupters, leaders who lead in a very negative way, manipulators and general underperformance. It is no secret that many of the most difficult employees in local authorities receive a great deal of support from their unions. Unions have their purposes but one of those should be to work with HR departments to tackle bullying, underperformance and other behaviours that undermine the efforts to deliver effective and efficient local authority services. Their role should not be to defend cases of bullying and underperformance because that affects those who make a complaint because they feel they have been bullied or that there has been underperformance.

These issues can continue generally unchecked. When other workers see the behaviours in question are allowed, it affects morale and performance across the board. It is the responsibility of the line managers, in the first instance, to address these issues, but most line managers now know that this is a waste of time, that they are unlikely to get any support from HR and that if they do manage to get a warning added to someone’s record, it is removed within 12 months. Most of the really troublesome individuals are discreet in their actions and smart enough to navigate the disciplinary procedure.

I have many examples of where managers have not been able to do anything. The likely outcome of their actions is arrival of a mediator a few weeks later. They go through the motions and, a few months later, nothing has changed.

A simple thing that could be done but which the unions would probably be against and would not like would be to allow line managers to move staff within their organisation. This would give some control back. The very threat of being moved would be significantly effective.

HR departments have a very difficult job. I know of cases where they put in an awful lot of effort with intent to dismiss only for the employee’s legal representatives to pick holes in some procedural inconsistencies between one local authority and another, the result being that the cases ultimately got dropped. This is exceedingly demoralising for HR departments.

I see merit in a central HR task force whose role would be to monitor the performance of HR departments nationwide and tackle, at national level, roadblocks to progress, such as unions supporting people who have been accused of bullying or of not performing well. It would also take the most difficult cases from local authority HR departments. Many of the staff in the HR sections of local authorities know the individuals they are dealing with very well. It is extremely difficult for the HR staff to manage these cases at local level. Legal professionals could be part of the task force, their function being to offer HR-specific legal advice to local authorities.

These are requests from people in local authorities who are demoralised because they are being lumped in with people who are underperforming. It is very unfair. The Government needs to be able to support those who are performing so they can have a good profession in the service they like.

I thank Senator Ahearn for raising this important issue and for his support for our local authorities. He rightly pointed out the great work they have done throughout the pandemic. It was a privilege to be in Tipperary County Council with the Senator to meet the management team and staff and note the vital work he is supporting in Tipperary to unlock the potential in many of its towns. Against the backdrop of the restart grants and outdoor spaces schemes to respond to the pandemic, in addition to the Community Call to protect the most vulnerable, the councils have done significant work. I thank the Senator for acknowledging and supporting it.

It is important to note that, under section 159 of the Local Government Act 2001, the chief executive is responsible for the staffing and organisational arrangements necessary for carrying out the functions of the local authority. Each local authority is an independent legal entity that acts as the legal employer of staff, and each will have its own HR department dealing with recruitment, performance, training, industrial relations and so on.

Under Building Momentum, the local authority sector has committed to moving continuously towards the greater use of shared and common services. This shared usage, to which the Senator was referring, is important. The local authorities already employ a shared services model to deliver payroll and superannuation payments for the local government sector. This shared service, known as MyPay, is located in Portlaoise and constitutes a business unit of Laois County Council, which acts as the lead authority on behalf of the sector. MyPay currently employs 84 persons to perform its shared services function. From its establishment to the end of 2021, it made payments totalling more than €5 billion.

While certain functions lend themselves to greater efficiencies, as the Senator has pointed out, it is clear that a local authority is best placed to manage its own staff and already has the necessary procedures and policies in place to do so in line with best practice across the public service. However, as the Senator also said, we must have a shared goal in this area.

In addition, local authorities have customer service charters outlining their commitment to providing high-quality customer services and customer-service action plans outlining standards for monitoring and improving customer service. A people strategy is also in place for the local authority sector. It aims to enable and empower a motivated, committed workforce to provide quality services to citizens.

Chief executives are responsible for staffing matters in local authorities and are supported in this role by the Local Government Management Agency, which provides expert advice on the full range of human resource issues. I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. There will always be scope for improvement in the provision of shared services and how we respond to the needs and demands of our citizens and community in delivering those services through our local authorities.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. He is correct that the work of the staff of Tipperary County Council during the pandemic has been phenomenal. They are very much to be credited for that.

The Minister of State made the good point that local authorities already have shared services. My argument is that what I propose should be part of these. If you ask chief executives privately, they will tell you they do not want to be dealing with the sorts of staffing issues in question. They are best placed to understand them but that does not necessarily mean they are best placed to solve them. What we need is a system whereby people who underperform do not take it for granted that just because they are in a local authority, they are certain to be working in it for 40 years. That is the problem we have. There is an assumption among the public that people who work for a local authority are there for life, no matter what they do. Ninety-nine percent of people who work for a local authority are doing so because they believe in what they do and want to serve the public, but a small percentage, who are not held to account and who do not live up to those standards, are affecting every good, decent local authority employee. It is not good enough that we have representatives in this House and elsewhere who just stand up and say local authorities are absolutely hopeless. We need a system in place so the brilliant people who work in local authorities are not held back by a small number who are not held to account. I recognise there is a system in place to deal with the latter but it is not really effective. The Minister of State has been in local government and politics long enough to know we all know of people who have not been dealt with.

Again, I thank Senator Ahearn for his support for local authorities and for raising this important issue. A legacy of benchmarking was that every citizen who worked for a local authority or agency of the State got incremental rises that were not directly linked to productivity. That legacy has been tackled only in recent years, whereby the progressive social agreements with the Government have really built in productivity. On the Senator’s general point, on dealing with disciplinary issues and ensuring everyone gets the opportunity and support to excel in delivering services to citizens, I absolutely see merit in his proposal. I will raise the matter again with the Department and revert to the Senator on it.

I thank all the Senators and Ministers of State who have been with us this morning. I also thank the staff.

It is lovely to see young people here, during their mid-term break, to hear part of our debate this morning. They are very welcome. I believe I know who they are. I hope they enjoy the rest of their day.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 11.20 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 12 meán lae.
Sitting suspended at 11.20 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.