Adjournment Debate.

Youth Diversion Projects.

I welcome the opportunity of raising this scandalous matter. It is an issue I raised on the Adjournment almost two years ago on Thursday, 23 June 2005. On that occasion, the project in question, a Bris project under the Garda's youth diversion programme, had just been suspended peremptorily without explanation. Matters have worsened since then. I know I only have five minutes and I am anxious to give the basis for my raising the matter.

The Bris project was located in the deprived Westside area of Galway city. One day gardaí arrived and took the equipment from the project, without explaining why, casting a shadow over the project and the community worker who was running it. After that, an internal inquiry was conducted. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform stated he would not publish the results and that it was being examined by the Garda Síochána.

The local organisation, Le Chéile, funded by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, was sued before a rights commissioner for the difference between the minimum statutory redundancy and what was a reasonable payment to the community worker. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform refused to pay up. I raised this issue as recently as yesterday with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Ministers of State, and was told recently that for several weeks the file was on the desk of the Secretary General of the Department. I received a letter suggesting the Department was taking legal opinion as to whether or not it would pay the community worker. I sought legal opinion which stated the Department has a clear duty to pay and should have done so.

The letters that have been sent by the Department in the course of this matter are incredible. A letter dated 18 August 2006 stated:

Dear Deputy,

In the absence of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, I wish to refer further to your correspondence in relation to Parliamentary Question No. 538 of 6 July 2006.

The Bris project has been the subject of an independent evaluation report. It is not proposed to publish this report. The report is currently being examined by the Garda Authorities and will be forwarded to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform together with recommendations.

Until the Minister has received and examined the final report and recommendations of the Garda authorities, it would be inappropriate for him to comment further.

The reason for ending the project has not been explained and shadows have been left hanging over it. In addition, a report was commissioned almost two years ago and it has been suggested that report will not be published. Furthermore, an evaluation was to be carried out and a tender process established for a replacement project.

Cutting to the chase, this project involved the VEC and voluntary workers and involved organising a football tournament, all of which was suddenly ended without explanation. It was initially suggested that another group might take over from the group originally engaged by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

It is interesting and most shameful that after Ms Janet Hughes, the rights commissioner, had given an award to John Middleton, the former community worker, the Garda Síochána wrote to say it had no responsibility in this matter as it was not the employer, pointing out that it was a matter for the agency, Le Chéile. The Garda Síochána sought to wash its hands of the matter. Le Chéile wrote to the union who represented Mr. Middleton stating:

Further to our telephone conversation, I am writing to confirm that Le Chéile Westside Limited has referred the recommendation of the rights commissioner, Janet Hughes, in this matter to the Department of Justice through Galway Gardaí.

As you are aware, Le Chéile facilitated the Department by putting Mr. Middleton on its payroll to keep PAYE and PRSI in order but at all times the Gardaí controlled the finances. Le Chéile is a voluntary community group with no assets.

I trust this clarifies the situation for you.

The Department and the Minister have left the project unfunded, the people of the Westside without a project, the community worker without satisfaction and now refuse to pay an award made against them by a rights commissioner. What a shameful performance by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

I thank Deputy Michael D. Higgins for raising this issue on the Adjournment.

Garda youth diversion projects are a vital and integral part of our youth justice system and operate as community-based, multi-agency crime prevention initiatives. They seek to divert young people from becoming involved, or further involved, in anti-social or criminal behaviour. The projects provide activities to facilitate personal development, promote civic responsibility and improve the prospects of employment for the participants. Apart from the direct benefits to the participants, the projects also contribute to improving the quality of life within communities and enhancing the relationship between the Garda Síochána and local communities.

The projects are funded by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Their overall administration is the responsibility of the community relations section of the Garda Síochána. The individual projects are run by a number of service providers which directly employ the project co-ordinator and are responsible for programming, staffing and day-to-day operation of their project.

The projects are established by the Garda Síochána, following a process of consultation with local community interests and youth service providers, in response to local crime problems. They have the objective of giving local communities some degree of ownership of a solution to the problems facing their areas. The management committees, therefore, seek to represent the various interests involved, including the community. Participation in the projects is voluntary.

Guidelines for the operation of the projects deal with their establishment, their ongoing operation, setting up of management structures, administration procedures, financial controls and accountability mechanisms, and the monitoring and evaluation process and must be adhered to in all cases.

Since 1991 when they were first established, the number of projects has grown to 84, with the announcement of ten new projects on 4 January. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is committed to the development and expansion of the diversion programme and has set a target of 100 projects by the end of this year. A demonstration of the commitment of this Government to the diversion projects is the fact that the total amount of funding for them in 2007 is €9.8 million. This represents an increase of 48% over funding allocated to the projects in 2006. This funding is part of an overall funding of €120 million which has been secured under the National Development Plan 2007-2013 for the development and expansion of the diversion programme. This funding will allow for the expansion of the number of projects to 130 during the lifetime of the plan.

Alongside the expansion process, a system of evaluation will be developed and implemented by the youth justice service of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to measure the effectiveness of the programme. The remit of the service is the management and development of all services relating to young people who offend.

Turning to the specific issue that is the subject of the Deputy's request, it is important to outline some of the history of the project in question. The project was established on 14 May 2001. The voluntary organisation referred to by the Deputy agreed to become the employer of the project staff. As such, it was responsible for all issues regarding contract of employment, salary and supervisory management.

I quoted Le Chéile stating that the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform controlled the finances at all stages.

The activities of the project were overseen by a committee comprising representatives of the employing organisation, the Garda Síochána, Galway City Council, local clergy and the local VEC. The individual to whom the Deputy refers was employed by the voluntary organisation as project co-ordinator.

The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform was informed by the Garda authorities that the employing organisation had written to them on 25 April 2005 stating that, as a result of a number of operational and staffing difficulties which they detailed, they effectively had to withdraw from the project. The project was terminated on 31 May 2005. It was the understanding of the Garda authorities that the project co-ordinator had been offered a severance package by the employing organisation.

Which, of course, he was not.

The Minister further understands that, following the termination of the project, the former project co-ordinator raised the amount of the redundancy sum paid to him by the employing organisation with the Labour Relations Commission and the matter was heard by the rights commissioner in February 2006. It is important to point out that the Minister, the Department and the Garda authorities were not parties to this hearing. A copy of the determination of the rights commissioner had not been forwarded to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform or to the Garda Síochána at that time.

I have respect for the Minister of State but I doubt this. It was available if the Minister wanted to consult the ruling.

Upon becoming aware of this determination, a copy of it was sought and was received in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in late June 2006. That determination recommended that the former project co-ordinator receive a redundancy payment above the statutory redundancy payment he received from the employing agency. The recommendation clearly stated that this payment should be made by the employing agency itself.

The Minister is unaware of what, if any, correspondence or dealings the former co-ordinator has had since then with the employing agency to secure this enhanced redundancy payment but it is apparent from representations made on behalf of the former co-ordinator that, to date, no such payment has been made.

The Minister obtained preliminary legal advice on this matter today to which he will give his urgent consideration and he will keep the Deputy informed of any developments in this regard.

It has taken two years so far.

The value of these projects to the participants and the local community is without question. The Minister has recently received the recommendation of the Garda Commissioner about the need for a new project in the area. The Minister, in conjunction with the Garda Commissioner, will consider the establishment of an alternative project in the Galway area as part of the next phase of expansion of the projects. This is due to be announced within the next two months.

I concur with Deputy Higgins that a project is required in the area. I am anxious that we secure approval to commence a new project in Westside and would be delighted to have the Deputy's co-operation in the establishment of this project.

Child Care Services.

St. Muirin's crèche has operated in the Avonbeg area of Tallaght for the past 16 years. It is based in a building that is due to be demolished and refurbished as part of an overall programme for the area. The crèche has room for approximately 24 children and has 12 staff all of whom are on the community employment scheme. They all love their work and seem to be very popular with the children and their parents. We were contacted earlier this week and advised of its imminent closure. There is disbelief locally. People cannot believe that in a time when we need to increase the number of crèche facilities we could be closing a community-run crèche. It does not make sense.

Some of the women on the scheme are in their 50s and my understanding of the scheme is that they would normally have worked for between six and seven years. There are also women in their 40s with up to three years and women in their 30s with two to two and a half years. It does not make sense to take the women from this facility. It is reasonably priced. Many of the people with children at the crèche are on low incomes. Some of them are in employment and others are in full-time education. Their difficulty is that there is no alternative. They will not be able to afford private sector child care and they are at a loss as to why any State body would close a crèche in this day and age.

One of the workers was told in a supermarket that the crèche would close. The workers received a phone call from someone in FÁS, but they have not received anything officially in writing. There is disbelief and confusion locally. We have been asked to report back to staff on Monday, hopefully with some reasonable explanation as to why the crèche will close. The Departments responsible need to wake up to the crisis that will face the families in the area. While we are all in favour of people moving on to education etc., if we do not have the facilities in place, that education will fall by the wayside. I hope the Minister of State has answers for us. There is a crisis in the area and people do not know where to go. Some of the women who are in their 50s will find it difficult to move on. They love their work and want to continue at it. Some time next year I believe the site of the existing facility will become a €1.5 million community centre. A youth and ladies club will operate at the new St. Muirin's community centre. In the meantime if this crèche closes the community will face a crisis and everyone wants to know why.

I welcome the opportunity to raise this issue along with my fellow Tallaght-based colleague, Deputy Crowe. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing us to raise this important issue on a day when he clearly had many items on his desk. I acknowledge the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ahern, and I hope he has answers for us.

As Deputy Crowe has outlined, this crèche has been operating for 16 years and has 24 children currently. Many devastated parents have contacted us in the past week since Thursday's edition of The Echo broke the story. With other colleagues I was in St. Muirin’s House yesterday — it was not the first time I visited the facility — and I sat down with the children who were drawing, painting and having a good time in a very safe environment. It is easy to understand how successful the crèche has been. I have had a long-term contact with that project. When I was first elected to the council for Tallaght-Central in 1999, St. Muirin’s featured as an issue being brought to our attention. As Deputy Crowe said there was a campaign for a new facility and I am glad that we, as members of the council, were present to see it to fruition. I hope that next year we will see the new facility built and opened.

Meanwhile today's crisis is the crèche. The committee and workers met executives of FÁS last night. Despite that meeting and certain statements from FÁS, the workers' situation remains unclear. We want absolute clarification and I hope FÁS has fully briefed the Minister of State. We need to be able to go back to the workers and advise them how safe their jobs are and confirm absolutely that the crèche will continue to operate. It is a vital service locally. It is Government policy based on social inclusion criteria to help people get back to the workplace. I do not want to make a political point. There are jobs and, thank God, in recent years Tallaght has benefited from employment opportunities. As my colleague has said while we want people to take work we cannot provide crèche places. In this case what appears to be a very happy and safe crèche is being jeopardised because of what appears to be FÁS red tape. If the Minister of State wants to correct me on that presumption, I will stand corrected.

I received a large number of calls on this important issue over the weekend. I went to the crèche yesterday and saw the position for myself. I spoke to people who gave me testimonials. One lady said she has tremendous experience from working in the FÁS finance project and she does not want to leave. Another trainee told me she had asked if she could do a training course and her supervisor told her no money was available to her and that she should write to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to ask for the money. I did not hear that FÁS had problems in that regard and did not hear FÁS being challenged in that regard.

I look forward to the statement of the Minister of State. I will certainly make contact with the Minister in the next few days. I hope that by the time we meet the parents again next Monday we can give them an absolute guarantee that this project is safe, that the children will have their crèche places and everything will be normal.

Community employment is an active labour market programme designed to provide eligible long-term unemployed people and other disadvantaged persons with an opportunity to engage in useful work within their communities on a temporary basis. Community employment helps unemployed people to re-enter the open labour market by breaking their experience of unemployment through a return to work routine and by assisting them to develop their technical and personal skills.

Community employment as an active labour market programme has the emphasis on progression into employment. The programme is managed to this end with primary regard to the needs of participants and the community. In addition, this programme with its focus on the needs of disadvantaged persons, forms a major response by FÁS to tackling the social exclusion of such groups as persons with a disability, lone parents, long-term unemployed and drug mis-users with a view to their re-integration into the labour market.

In July 2006 my Department published its sectoral plan under the Disability Act 2005. One of the key highlights of this plan is to increase participation rates of people with disabilities on community employment over the period of the plan and to raise the community employment participation limits for people with disabilities. In order to provide additional training to assist progression to employment for people with disabilities under 55 years of age, the participation limit has been raised by one year from three to four years, and for people with disabilities over 55 years of age, the participation limit has also been raised by one year from six to seven years.

FÁS is continuing to develop the content of the community employment programme. The new approach involves the introduction of an "individual learner planning process" which is focusing on meeting the learning needs of participants. The individual learner plan is providing for the planning, organising and recording of the work experience, training and development that each participant receives while working on community employment. It also includes further training and development for supervisors, a new application process and quality assurance procedures.

Support for this individualised approach is the hallmark of the Education and Qualifications Act 1999, with its focus on individual access, transfer and progression towards accredited and quality assured learning. Under the Act, FÁS has proposed new FETAC awards relevant to community employment and JI learners. The two awards are a certificate in personal and social employment skills and a certificate in vocational employment skills. These new awards will facilitate all the planned learning completed on community employment or JI by each participant being rolled up into the achievement of a FETAC award. This will provide added value to the learner and will support their progression onto further training or employment.

Funding for community employment in 2007 has been provided with a view to maintaining overall numbers on FÁS schemes at 2006 levels. There are more than 22,000 people employed on community employment schemes nationally, a figure which has been maintained throughout 2006. It is anticipated that FÁS will utilise its full allocation in this area during 2007.

Operationally, in delivering these places, FÁS operates flexibly in the management of this allocation in order to maximise progression to the labour market while at the same time facilitating the support of community services. This provision of places is managed through a standardised application process between regional FÁS offices and local sponsor-community organisations and any issues regarding the allocation of places are dealt with in this context. FÁS makes every effort to ensure differing levels of demand between neighbouring schemes are equalised.

I am informed by FÁS that the position in relation to St. Muirin's House crèche, Avonbeg, Tallaght, Dublin is that FÁS and the local management committee have agreed to keep the crèche running until a new creche facility is provided in the area early next year.

An acting supervisor will be appointed and local people, in conjunction with FÁS and South Dublin County Council, will initiate a temporary refurbishment of the current crèche and concentrated efforts will be made to improve the surrounding area.

After many years I am glad to be able to give good news on an Adjournment debate.

State Airports.

I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, has good news for me also.

Last Friday I met workers from the airport and was shocked at the way in which they reacted to what is happening. They feel let down, demoralised and wronged by what is happening with regard to the cost-cutting measures. They feel particularly let down by the Government and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen. Many of our local Fianna Fáil representatives, and the Taoiseach, criticise the cuts made by the Dublin Airport Authority and local management at Shannon when it was the Government who appointed the Dublin Airport Authority with the task in the first place.

Apart from this, what is happening at Shannon is that a profit-cutting exercise has become a cost-cutting exercise. Last September the Marsh Bar, the only public bar at Shannon Airport, was closed. This had the effect of reducing revenues and profits. In other words, the move has increased costs. It has also meant the loss of a venue at Shannon Airport particularly for the non-travelling public. Every time I pass those closed doors I see the sign, "Closed until further notice. We apologise for any inconvenience caused." If the Dublin Airport Authority is so apologetic, why does it not reopen the bar? Given that the Taoiseach described the move as petty I ask him to intervene and restore Shannon Airport to its former state. Some time later the Estuary restaurant had its hours curtailed, now closing at 3 p.m. I invite the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, and Mr. Collier to Shannon Airport any day of the week to explain to customers at 3.05 p.m. the reason no hot food is available. At present workers on the ground have to apologise for the lack of service. This is another example of revenue and profit cutting and increasing costs. Last week 23 staff members got notice that Londis in Shannon will close and also that the Estuary restaurant could close. A few years ago the tourism board warned that the fáilte was disappearing from Irish life and this would have a negative effect on tourism. I can see no better example of this than what is happening at Shannon Airport.

Shannon is synonymous with catering, friendliness and good food and staff do their utmost to accommodate the needs of passengers. In the past workers have gone beyond the call of duty. They are proud of their jobs, Shannon Airport and the role it plays in the mid-west. Into the atmosphere of goodwill has come the swinging and demoralising cuts. This is because talks concluded with the management. The management went on local radio last week and said the time for talking is over. The time for talking is never over in these disputes. Is it any wonder the offer from the management was turned down by an overwhelming majority of staff who did not just see their jobs at stake but a whole life at Shannon Airport and a unique asset?

I have asked the Minister for Transport to intervene previously. I ask him again now. Just because out-sourcing appears to be the buzzword it does not necessarily mean a better business model. It does not serve the customer better and it does not create a better airport.

We all know about the rip off prices from the fast food outlets at other airports which the travelling public experience from time to time. We in the mid-west do not want a yellow pack airport as some of the other airports in Continental Europe have become. Shannon has a vibrant and profitable catering business and valuable in-flight catering contracts. We realise Shannon has to be put on a competitive footing and the workers are willing to negotiate. They have adopted this approach previously and will do so again if allowed enter talks as partners and not already on the back foot.

On the issue of competitors, I ask the Minister if the Government is planning for another U-turn in its commitment that Shannon's debt be absorbed by the Dublin Airport Authority as it did with Cork Airport last week.

I turn to the economic and tourism development plan for the airport and the region. The Minister ignored the recommendation of the Sorensen and Dukes report and calls for an economic impact study on the effect of Open Skies on Shannon. What he has promised is an economic and tourism development plan but we have heard little about this plan since its launch in June 2006. In October 2006 the Minister stated that preparation of this plan was at an advanced staged and the various submissions were being considered. Four months later I would appreciate if the Minister of State would enlighten me as to the state of progress on the plan and when it will be implemented.

The mid-west needs Shannon Airport to continue as a major gateway and a hub for the region. With this in mind I ask the Government to take its responsibility seriously for balanced regional development and to convey these sentiments to the Minister. I hope there will be a move tomorrow in the Labour Relations Commission and that Shannon Airport can be protected. We do not want another situation that will damage the airport for the forthcoming summer season.

Gabhaim buíochas don Teachta Breen as ucht na deise a thabhairt dom an cheist seo a phlé. If Shannon Airport is to develop as a successful and sustainable business, it is clear that one of the issues which must be addressed in its business plan is the airport's uncompetitive cost base. When that obstacle is overcome, the airport has a real opportunity to develop new markets and attract the airline customers it needs for its commercial future.

While industrial relations at Shannon Airport are a matter for the Dublin Airport Authority and local management, I understand that the company, under the auspices of the Labour Relations Commission, LRC, has made substantial efforts over a long period to find agreement with the trade unions involved on how the airport could operate efficiently and in a sustainable manner. Unfortunately, even though the process had the assistance of the LRC, I understand that it has not been possible so far to find agreement on the way forward. I am sure Deputy Pat Breen will join with me in hoping that the right climate to initiate meaningful negotiations between the parties may emerge as soon as possible so that the issues around the sustainability of Shannon Airport can be addressed once and for all.

The Deputy referred to the proposed tourism and economic development plan. It is important to state that this plan was initiated in the context of the ongoing EU-US open skies negotiations. In preparing the plan, the Department of Transport has consulted with the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Department of Finance. A separate liaison group established by the Mid West Regional Authority has also submitted a report on the development of the Shannon region for consideration. It is hoped to bring the tourism and economic development plan to fruition in the context of the finalisation of the ongoing EU-US open skies negotiations, which will include transitional arrangements for Shannon.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.50 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 28 February 2007.