Skip to main content
Normal View

Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 1 Jun 2022

Vol. 285 No. 11

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Health and Safety

I welcome to the House the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and I thank him for being here.

The Minister is very welcome. This is an issue known to every employer in the construction industry in the country. Safe Pass has become the quintessential example of bureaucratic red tape. It is a system that has become engorged on self-importance and is now treated as a prerequisite for even thinking about entering a building site. The Safe Pass system was introduced at the turn of the millennium and was championed by trade unions as something that will save lives. This has not proven to be the case in the past 20 years. Since its inception the programme has largely been run by retired trade unionists who organise day-long courses that teach basic on-site safety. It is content that all apprentices know a week into their course. It is content such as lift from the knees and not from the back, do not do a two-person job solo and do not walk under machines. It is the stuff most people would not even need to be told.

The course costs approximately €200, which is paid by the employer. At this price we would expect the administration to be top notch but apparently it is not. I spoke to an employer who said the cards are printed in eastern Europe and some workers sit around for months waiting for the plastic rectangle that will allow them to get on the job. Of course this would be much too handy a gig to only get one shot at each worker so SOLAS put an expiry date on the card of four years, after which people have to do a retraining course. It is a constant money mill.

Employers are exempt from the requirement to have a card but almost all of them get one anyway. Otherwise they are subjected to too much hassle trying to get past security on sites. Sometimes the security staff are not aware of the exemption for the employer. These men and women running our construction companies end up sitting through the course just to save time in the long run.

If it were just the Safe Pass perhaps it could be let slide but it seems that every year new safety courses are dreamt up and new cards are required to do anything on site, from manual handling certificates to aerial lift training, green business certificates and American Concrete Institute certificates. One employer told me he saw a young worker with so many cards he needed to carry one of the old-style American fold-out wallets that flip down. He had reams of them.

This system has barely been updated since its inception. There is something very wrong with it. It is simultaneously the laughing stock of the construction industry and the bane of its existence. To think a seasoned construction worker needs to be reminded of safety fundamentals every four years is absurd. If the Minister insists on testing these workers at least let them take it online where a pass would automatically refresh their card, rather than having the nation's workers march off to a function room every few years to watch the same old PowerPoint as on the previous occasion.

In a case taken by Mr. Fergal O'Connor we saw that infinite reassessment was never the plan for the construction industry. What is being done to implement this ruling? When can we expect to see the meaningful change needed in this area for quite some time?

I thank Senator Keogan for raising this important and timely matter. Before I get into the substance let me be very clear that we do need an overhaul of the construction licensing system. We intend to bring forward legislation on this matter shortly. It will give Members of the House and the Senator an opportunity to contribute to ensure we have a modern fit-for-purpose safety system when it comes to licensing of the construction sector.

The Government recognises that changes are required to the broader construction safety arrangements. This is under way and relates to the construction skills certification scheme, the quarries skills certification scheme and the Safe Pass. Safe Pass, as the Senator has said, is a one-day health and safety awareness programme delivered by SOLAS-approved training organisations and tutors. These are delivered by private providers. Under the construction safety, health and welfare at work regulations of 2013, all construction workers in Ireland, including apprentices and trainees, are legally bound to hold a valid Safe Pass registration card.

The aim of the programme is to raise the standard of safety awareness in the construction industry and to ensure all site personnel undergo basic health and safety awareness training to enable them to work on site without being a risk to themselves or others who might be affected by their acts or omissions. Candidates who successfully complete the programme will receive a Safe Pass registration card, which is valid for four years.

As the Commencement matter relates to, in April 2017, Mr. Justice Richard Humphreys granted a declaration that SOLAS was not entitled to impose certain conditions of the renewal of construction skills certification scheme, CSCS, and-or quarrying skills certification scheme, QSCS, registration cards. Safe Pass was not encompassed in this specific order and related to the other two registration cards. The key distinction between Safe Pass and the other two cards is that the latter two carry Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, certification. As such, Mr. Justice Humphreys ruled that they were not dependent on post-award ongoing experience, self-certification, auditing or continuing assessment. They already had an accredited qualification.

Later this year, we will move the Safe Pass renewal process online for the first time.

The move will be very welcome and I am the first to admit that it is long overdue. Moving the process online will make a significant difference to people and will be a practical way to help them to go about their business. We want people on-site as quickly as possible and we all know that is important. We need to do so in a safe manner and I think that having an online renewal process will help in that regard.

I believe the Senator will also be pleased to know that I intend to bring to Government a new planned licensing model for construction, quarrying and related activities in Ireland within the next two weeks.

On enactment, the proposed licensing of construction activities Bill will replace and amend present legislative provisions, in particular elements of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Quarries) Regulations 2008, and the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Construction) Regulations 2013 as regards the technical competence and safety awareness of personnel performing regulated functions.

The new licensing model intends to replace the current qualification system that exists for the QSCS, CSCS and the Safe Pass schemes. This proposed licensing model will put a formal renewal process in place to ensure workers in construction, and construction-related disciplines, are continuously kept up to date with their health and safety practices. It will provide a very useful opportunity for the Senator, Seanad Éireann and the sector to have an input, thus making sure that we get fit-for-purpose modern legislation to achieve the right balance between making sure that safety at work is paramount but also making sure that it is done in a way that is not overly bureaucratic, overly administrative and uses new technology to provide courses online.

I look forward to bringing these proposals to Cabinet within the next fortnight. I also look forward to myself and my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, engaging on this matter in the House in the coming weeks and months.

Both the Minister and the Minister of State have been extremely progressive when it comes to legislation and programmes that concern training and retraining. They are probably the two finest Minsters in their respective portfolios and I congratulate them.

Today, we are discussing an important matter as we try to get the construction industry back up and running. Encountering bureaucratic red tape stifles the construction industry. Can the Minister confirm when the courses will be online? I await the legislation on this issue that he proposes to bring before the House.

I thank the Senator. She has shown a great interest in this matter, apprenticeships and the like since becoming a Member.

My best guesstimate is around the month of October but certainly before the end of the year. We are working to make sure that the Safe Pass registration process fully transitions online by the end of the year. I know that the initiative will be very welcome having spoken to representatives of the industry, education providers and people undertaking these courses. In addition, we will bring proposals to overhaul the legislation to Cabinet in the next two weeks. Subject to the timetable of committees in these Houses, we will begin to move through that legislation later this year.

There is an opportunity to modernise by moving the current system online this year and starting to overhaul the legislation this year. We look forward to working with the Senator on the matter. Once we have published the legislation in two weeks, we will be very pleased to give her a full briefing and engage with industry partners on this matter.

Student Universal Support Ireland Grant

I thank the Minister for coming to the House for what I feel is a very important Commencement matter, which is the eligibility of students for the SUSI grant if they take on additional work during the summer period.

As he will be aware, many students rely heavily on the SUSI grant to assist them in getting through college. I commend him on the changes that he has brought forward, which mean that from September all student grants will increase by €200 and the non-adjacent rate will reduce to 30 km, meaning that many students will see their grant increase by 30%. He has also increased the income eligibility thresholds to ensure that more students qualify. It is this very point that I want to elaborate on as part of my Commencement matter.

Under the current rules for assessing income from employment for a SUSI grant, students can earn a maximum of €4,500 holiday earnings for outside of term-time employment. However, the hotel, tourism and hospitality sectors face acute staffing challenges, particularly this summer. The anecdotal evidence that I have received from these sectors reveal that students are telling employers that they cannot work additional hours during the summer for fear of losing their SUSI grant for the 2023-24 academic year. That is a perfectly legitimate fear for students who rely on the grant to assist them to get through college. With the arbitrary income disregard for students being set at €4,500, we have created a perverse disincentive to take on additional work this summer when the survival of many businesses rely on these very same students.

Rather than penalise students who take on additional working hours during holiday periods, we should reward them by exempting income earned during college holiday periods like summer and Christmas. At the very least, the income disregard should be increased considerably from €4,500 to take account of the wage increases that have happened in recent years, inflation and the acute staff shortages in the economy that I have referenced. Students should not fear taking on additional work during the busy summer period because it may affect their grant in subsequent years.

I genuinely believe my proposal is realistic and sensible, and I was delighted to bring it to a recent meeting of our Fine Gael parliamentary party. I thank the Minister for his work on this matter and for taking my proposal seriously. He has engaged widely with students' unions and business representative organisations around this matter. I also know that he is actively working with his officials on this proposal. However, I stress the importance of not only an early decision but a communications and PR campaign around changes that may be made so that students, and employers, are aware of them now because today is 1 June 1 and the summer is upon us.

I believe that flexibility on this matter would be a win-win for all concerned. It would encourage students to take on additional work that, in turn, would support the tourism and hospitality sectors. Most importantly, the initiative would put more money in the pockets of students without them having to worry about how additional work would affect their eligibility for a SUSI grant in future academic years.

I thank my colleague for his work on this matter. It is a good example of common-sense politics where one identifies an issue and bring forward proposals to fix the issue. I thank him for tabling this proposal at a meeting of our parliamentary party and for engaging with me on same. The proposal is good for students, local businesses and families. In addition, there is the concept that one should reward work and never penalise it.

As the Senator rightly said, the main financial scheme available to students is the student grant scheme. We have made a number of improvements to the scheme that will kick in from September. We have increased the amount of the grant for the first time in ten years, we have increased the income threshold for the first time in ten years and we have also changed the adjacency rate for the first time in ten years so more students will qualify for a higher rate of grant.

This is a scheme where household income from all sources, including the income from a student’s employment, is taken into consideration. However, as the Senator stated, income from a student, which represents holiday earnings outside of term time, can be deducted up to the sum of €4,500. The rationale for this approach is to mitigate against students working so much during their tertiary education because full-time students want to focus on their education. The approach also recognises that students work during the summer, and they often need to work as well. This balance was highlighted by a recent review of the student grant scheme.

In 2016, the holiday earnings deduction amount was increased from €3,809 and is now €4,500.

I wish to clearly point out something to students who are following this debate. When applying for a SUSI grant a person is assessed on his or her previous year's income and we will make the change this summer. The provision will mean that students who work this year will be able to deduct any income against the grant in 12 months. Therefore, a grant is calculated based on the income 12 months previously.

The world has changed quite significantly. The cost of living has obviously increased. The situation is a real challenge for every student, family and person in this country.

Also, we have pubs, hotels, restaurants, shops - you name it - right across this country in need of people today to help them out in their work. In that context of the cost-of-living crisis and the acute labour shortages in towns and villages throughout this country, I am working closely with my officials to see how we can amend this scheme so that students could have a higher level of holiday earnings deduction. As I say, we increased it to €4,500 in 2016. I believe it should now be increased further.

It is now evident from independent research, although independent research is not needed to tell you this, that many students work throughout the year to meet the rising cost of living. I want to see whether there is merit in tweaking that so that it is not only holiday time, that we recognise a student might a have job in a bar, a hotel, a restaurant or a shop at the weekend as well during term time, and whether that income could be disregarded as well. That is something I will look at.

We all accept we need to strike a balance between recognising the reality of students working while also making sure any change in policy does not in any way disrupt a student's full-time academic work. As I have said, given the rising cost of living, the measures proposed by Senator Cummins would be progressive. They would be student-friendly and business-friendly. They would be welcomed by many sectors of the economy and by society. They would also be welcomed by many families across Ireland. I intend to bottom-out on this issue over the course of the next few weeks and then communicate these changes loudly and clearly to students.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply and for taking this proposal, seeing the benefits of it and, as he stated at the outset, seeing it for what it is - a common-sense proposal that will benefit students and employers and help to assist in addressing the staff shortages we have in the economy at present.

I welcome that the Minister stated he will make this change but I stress again the importance of an early decision on this. We are now in the summer, and notwithstanding that it has no impact on the next academic year, 2022-2023, students look forward to the academic year of 2023-2024, on which this summer's earnings will have an impact.

Striking that balance is important. We cannot disrupt the education of full-time students but at the same time we must recognise that students should work during the summer. As a State, we should reward them for doing so and not put a penalty in place, in effect, for taking up employment.

I welcome the changes the Minister is to make and I stress the urgency of bringing them forward as early as possible.

I largely agree with everything the Senator said. When it was set as the income level in 2016, €4,500 was worth a different amount in real terms. The world has changed, including in the context of inflation and in terms of minimum wage changes.

This is a common-sense proposal the Senator is bringing forward but I often find common sense is not that common. It is important when we have a good idea that we recognise it and try to move on it.

I have yet to work through with my officials and with colleagues in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform the appropriate level at which to set it but it would have to be at least at a level that recognises the change in terms of the real value of €4,500 and what that would be today, and any minimum wage changes that have taken place.

I appreciate the urgency of doing this quickly and I am endeavouring to do so as quickly as possible. I thank the Senator again for his proposal.

International Agreements

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton. This is not the first time I have raised this issue of the Energy Charter Treaty and the modernisation process, Ireland's position is on that treaty and when Ireland will cut its losses and walk away from it.

The Energy Charter Treaty was ratified in the 1990s by Ireland with no debate and it has been lingering around like a bad smell ever since. It is an international treaty that protects fossil fuel companies from any risk to their profits or future profits. The investor provisions in the Energy Charter Treaty are of the most archaic form of investor-state dispute settlement, ISDS. ISDS is a legal system that is based on the neocolonial mindset that we cannot trust new democracies or foreign countries for investors and, therefore, investors must have the protection of a private court system for corporations. This is despite the fact the OECD and another academic meta-analysis of all of the investment protections within treaties found that the effect of ISDS in promoting investment into countries is so small as to be considered zero.

What we have seen in recent years is a significant escalation in the number of ISDS cases that are being taken by corporations, especially since 2013. What is most concerning is the use of ISDS in the Energy Charter Treaty to stymie climate action, so much so that the Energy Charter Treaty was flagged in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, Working Group III report. That report could not have been any clearer. It stated that agreements such as the Energy Charter Treaty with their investment protections are being used by fossil fuel companies to block national legislation aimed at phasing out the use of their assets.

So far, fossil fuel companies have commenced or threatened legal action to the value of €2.15 trillion against countries and their governments for taking climate action. For example, the Corrib gas field is one of the ones that was flagged as most likely where companies have threatened legal action against Ireland in the past but, that we know of, we have never been taken to court.

In 2018, the then EU Commissioner for Trade, Dr. Cecilia Malmström, declared that ISDS was dead, and yet under the current modernisation of the Energy Charter Treaty the EU has not even put ISDS on the table for reform or modernisation. This is despite the fact an EU court ruling found that ISDS and the Energy Charter Treaty is contrary to EU law.

The last time I asked the question of a Minister, we were over in the convention centre and I was told the modernisation process was ongoing and we would wait and see how it went. To be honest, we know it is going nowhere. The fact the most insidious part of the agreement is not even on the table for reform means we are wasting valuable time in tackling climate action by remaining a party to this dinosaur agreement.

Climate change has fundamentally changed the world. We woke up only this morning to hear the news that not only will Ireland not meet its climate emission targets this year but they are actually going up. My question for the Minister of State is, at what point do we face the reality that the Energy Charter Treaty cannot be reformed, it is not fit for purpose and it does not belong in a world system where we are facing planetary breakdown from climate change?

The Energy Charter Treaty is a political declaration on international energy co-operation with 53 signatories and contracting parties, including all EU member states, except Italy. It was signed in 1994 and entered into legal force in 1998. Since then, the Energy Charter Treaty has provided a multilateral framework for energy co-operation. It promotes energy security through the operation of more open and competitive energy markets, while respecting the principles of sustainable development and sovereignty over energy resources.

The treaty's provisions focus on four broad areas: the protection of foreign investments, based on the extension of national treatment or most favoured nation treatment, whichever is more favourable, and protection against key non-commercial risks; non-discriminatory conditions for trade in energy materials, products and energy-related equipment based on WTO rules, and provisions to ensure reliable cross-border energy transit flows through pipelines, grids and other means of transportation; the resolution of disputes between participating states and, in the case of investments, between investors and host states; and the promotion of energy efficiency and attempts to minimise the environmental impact of energy production and use. The treaty is, therefore, designed to promote energy security through the operation of more open and competitive energy markets while respecting the principles of sustainable development and sovereignty over energy resources.

While the treaty has worked well for many years, situations and circumstances have changed over time, as they always do. It has been recognised for a number of years that it is necessary to update and modernise the treaty, in particular to take account of the objectives of the Paris Agreement. In 2017, therefore, the Energy Charter Conference decided to modernise the treaty.

The modernisation of the treaty aims to address developments in the energy sector, especially in light of the rapid changes that have occurred in recent years and that have brought new opportunities and challenges for the sector. Its modernisation is key to ensuring the treaty fulfils its potential to strengthen long-term co-operation in the energy field and to contribute to enhancing energy security.

The negotiations for this modernisation, when concerning more than 50 different countries, have naturally taken time. I am pleased, however, that they are reaching their conclusion. The most recent round of negotiations, held in May, indicate that the contracting parties are close to reaching agreement on the key reforms. Following a final round of negotiations planned for next week, it is possible that an agreement, in principle, can be announced at the ECT conference at the end of this month.

Ireland's position remains to support the treaty and the benefits to international energy security that it can provide, especially at a time energy security has been threatened, while also supporting the modernisation process to align the treaty with the objectives of the Paris Agreement. Ireland, therefore, awaits the outcome of the final rounds of negotiations planned for this month, while reserving the option to support a co-ordinated withdrawal from the treaty, should these efforts ultimately fail and if such a course of action is considered appropriate by Government to achieve our national renewable energy and climate ambitions.

It is deeply disappointing to hear the Minister of State say that Ireland supports this treaty and that it has worked well or in any way protects energy security. The only thing this treaty protects is the profits of fossil fuel companies. They are looking at ways to bail themselves out before the transition to a decarbonised future. The ISDS is not part of the modernisation process and no matter what conclusions are made next month, it will not address the biggest issue with this treaty.

Ireland is looking at introducing seven temporary gas-fired power plants and there is potentially planning permission in for an LNG terminal in Shannon. They will all be protected by ISDS for years. These are huge projects and they are not temporary. If a future Government decides that it wants to phase out those fossil-fuel facilities, it will be on the hook to cover the profits of those fossil fuel investors. That is exactly what happened to the Dutch Government when it tried to phase out temporary, coal-fired power stations. It now faces litigation in a private corporate court for billions of euro because the court found that it was not doing enough on climate action and it chose to try to close down coal-fired fossil fuel plants. The fact that we are four years into negotiations and still trying to fix this treaty is deeply disappointing. It does not bode well for us meeting our climate targets.

The modernisation of the treaty was initiated to respond to a world where the importance of renewables was paramount and to the policy objectives of the EU and non-EU countries to phase out fossil fuels in favour of renewables. That is essential. The Government's position is, therefore, that the best outcome of the treaty-modernisation negotiations is to align the treaty with the Paris Agreement and the European Green Deal, while maintaining the energy security framework provided by the treaty.

While the option to withdraw from the treaty is reserved, the Senator will be familiar with the sunset clause that would apply in this case, recent CJEU rulings notwithstanding. Given the agreement, in principle, is now considered possible at the ECT conference at the end of this month, considerations of withdrawal should be deferred until at least this event has had the opportunity to deliver agreement.

Recent rulings by the CJEU have determined that the arbitration system under the ECT cannot be used to claim compensation in intra-EU disputes. The court confirmed that despite the multilateral character of the ECT and the fact that it also governs relationships with non-EU countries, the preservation of the autonomy and specific character of EU law precludes the ECT from being able to impose the same obligations on the member states among themselves. Since the ruling would likely not preclude the use of the treaty arbitration process in intra-EU cases held elsewhere in the world, there have been further calls from several member states for a co-ordinated withdrawal from the treaty. It should be noted, however, that in terms of a 20-year sunset clause under which treaty terms would continue to apply, a co-ordinated withdrawal would, therefore, need to manage this risk.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 11.05 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 11.30 a.m.
Sitting suspended at 11.05 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.