Adjournment Debate

Job Creation

The announcement of the labour activation fund was accompanied by great fanfare when it was announced by the Minister last March. At that time we were told it would go a long way towards redressing our grave concerns about the number of people unemployed and in particular, the number of young people who have been forced to join the live register. It was envisaged that this fund would provide myriad schemes to enable young people and others to avail of opportunities for reskilling and upskilling. Unemployment is currently at record levels with more than 450,000 people on the live register, most of whom are young people. The most recent live register figures issued show there has been a slight decline in the number of people signing on. However, we all know through interaction with friends, family and neighbours and in our constituencies, that young people graduating from school and university are opting to leave the country in search of better opportunities overseas.

It is clear that the State needs to take action and this fund was to provide some hope and some significant investment in people who have been unfortunate to find themselves out of work so they will be better placed to gain employment in the future. In response to my recent parliamentary question the Minister confirmed that €32 million has been allocated to the labour market activation fund but to date, only €8.4 million has been drawn down. Considering the urgent need to re-educate people and to retrain and upskill people for economic activities in other sectors which have prospects for the future, this is very disappointing.

In my first parliamentary question to the Minister a number of weeks ago he was unable to give me any figures regarding the number of people who have benefited from the scheme but, miraculously, I have received a reply as a result of tabling this Adjournment matter. However, it is still extremely unclear and I hope the Minister in his response will be able to shed some light on the numbers of people whom it is envisaged will benefit from this scheme, how many have benefited to date and how many have benefited from further education placements and reskilling and retraining.

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Seán Haughey, Minister of State with responsibility for lifelong learning. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it gives me the opportunity to outline to the House the position regarding the labour market activation fund.

As part of budget 2010, the Government announced the creation of a €20 million labour market activation fund, intended to deliver 3,500 places on training and education programmes for the unemployed. Its objective is to stimulate innovation in the provision of training and activation measures for jobseekers seeking to upskill and get back into work. The fund is being targeted to specific priority groups among the unemployed — the low skilled, and those formerly employed in declining sectors — construction, retail and manufacturing sectors — with particular emphasis on the under-35s and the long-term unemployed.

In order to leverage to maximum effect the potential of the market for efficient and value-for-money delivery of full-time or part-time education and training provision for the unemployed, an open tender competition was launched in March 2010. Some 370 tenders were received from public, private, voluntary and not-for-profit organisations, demonstrating a level of response and quality of proposals that exceeded the most optimistic expectations. Offers of funding were initially made to 26 organisations. On 5 August, an additional allocation of €12 million was made available by the Department of Education and Skills, enabling funding to be offered to 33 additional projects. This brought total funding to €32 million for 59 projects proposing to provide up to 12,000 education and training places for the unemployed.

The initial phase of the labour market activation fund comprised 26 projects aiming to provide more than 6,500 education and training places in all geographical regions. The successful tenderers for this project were spread among 13 public bodies, eight private training and education providers, and five not-for-profit organisations. Places offered to unemployed people included courses that range from higher education programmes to upskilling courses with accreditation up to level eight available to participants. In the main, these projects are meeting their interim targets. As of mid-October, some 3,441 or 52% of phase one places were already filled, with further courses coming on stream between November 2010 and January 2011. On the basis of current information, it appears that the targets for places to be provided as set out in tenders by projects can largely be met. A total of 33 projects aiming to provide some 5,400 places in all geographic regions benefited from the second tranche of funding allocated in August. Many projects are still in the process of recruiting participants and success in attaining the numbers of participants will be reviewed when progress reports are received as required by the contracts. Projects will be contractually obliged to provide detailed progress reports by December 2010 at the latest on actual activity levels.

The level of uptake by participants in projects to date is very encouraging and indicates the strong labour market relevance of the successful projects. Feedback from participants has been very positive, indicating strong support for the innovative and employment-oriented range of education and training measures, which are being provided through the fund.

The Department has embarked on a comprehensive monitoring and financial control exercise, including visits to the locations of education and training programmes throughout the country, to ensure that programmes are being delivered as contracted for; that required documentary evidence is being maintained of programme activity, including details of course participation, logs of course activities, and records of inputs-time by project personnel; that appropriate accounts of all receipts and expenditure are being kept on site, and can be produced on demand; that projects show evidence of adhering to the quality assurance standards set down by the accrediting authorities; and that participants will be consulted directly concerning various aspects of the programmes to ensure that all project stakeholders are heard.

As of end-October 2010, €8.4 million had been paid to projects. It is anticipated that by year's end some €18 million will have been drawn from the fund. The balance of €14 million represents the liability to projects for payments that fall due during 2011, subject to them meeting the delivery terms of the contract.

The budget 2010 announcement of a fund of €20 million envisaged provision of 3,500 training and education places for the unemployed. This implied a forecast participant unit cost of €5,700. This target placement rate was achieved in October 2010, and the average participant unit cost for the first 26 programmes is now expected to be €2,900. The Department will carry out analysis of actual programme costs when final data are to hand, to include cost comparisons with mainstream provision. The objective will be to provide a value-for-money assessment of this funding model and its potential for delivering effective and efficient programmes for the unemployed into the future.

The Government remains intent on meeting the ongoing challenges in the labour market. In addition to specific labour market activation measures, this Government's continuing focus will also be on supporting and promoting enterprise development to create new jobs at national and county level. Continuing to support employment creation will be the key determinant in addressing our current unemployment problem. In the interim, we will continue to provide upskilling and reskilling opportunities to those who find themselves out of employment so that they will be able to avail of future employment opportunities. I thank the Deputy once again for raising this matter and I hope the reply has increased her level of information.

Report on Magdalene Laundries

I strongly support the recommendations of the Irish Human Rights Commission that the Government initiate a statutory inquiry into the human rights violations arising from the treatment of women and young girls in the Magdalene laundries. I welcome the fact the Attorney General will now examine the IHRC report in consultation with the relevant Departments. The IHRC concluded that for these women and girls who entered the laundries following a court process there was a clear State involvement in their entry despite the statements to the contrary by various Ministers. In light of the report I believe the survivors of Magdalene laundries should receive an apology from the State and a distinct redress scheme for survivors of the laundries should be established. The survivors of the Bethany Home should be treated in the same way. I believe it was a major error to exclude the Magdalene laundries from the Residential Institutions Redress Act 2002 and the subsequent redress scheme.

There are no records available of any women or young girls who were referred to laundries by State agencies, or the children born to them. Neither is there any clear information on whether or how girls or women left the laundries, or if they had a choice in doing so. All of this information should be made available. To this end, I ask CORI and the four religious congregations that operated the laundries to agree to meet Justice for Magdalenes to deal with the issues of records, compensation and other related matters.

I pay tribute to Dr. James Smith of Boston College and the Justice for Magdalenes group, with whom I first came into contact in August 2009, for their relentless efforts in seeking justice for survivors of Magdalene laundries. Dr. Smith is in the Visitors Gallery tonight with Dr. Katherine O'Donnell. They and their group have met with many obstacles at State and church levels along their journey but today is a very significant day for them in their campaign and it will give them great strength to see this campaign through until restorative justice is achieved in the case of the Magdalene survivors.

It is my privilege and that of Deputies Tom Kitt and Kathleen Lynch to work on an ad hoc committee in the Houses in trying to assist the Justice for Magdalenes group. Like Deputy Kitt, I want to welcome Dr. James Smith and his colleague, Dr. Katherine O’Donnell. I commend them on the fantastic work they have done to date against great obstacles.

Deputy Tom Kitt referred to the recommendations of the Irish Human Rights Commission report, the launch of which we had the privilege of attending today. Redress is one matter but a State apology is a very simple issue. Women have been referred to these laundries going back to the foundation of the State and right up to 1996. One might excuse the dark ages of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s but 1996 is just 14 years ago and these laundries were still in operation. We need a State apology. We need to say the simple word "sorry" to these women. Many of them are very old, and nearing death in some cases. If they heard a State apology simply saying the State was sorry for incarcerating them, many of these women would die happy.

It is not too much to ask the State to say "sorry" for referring to these women as penitents and as sinners. Ordinary human beings like the rest of us had the stigma that they were sinners or penitents attached to them. It is not too much to ask that their birth names would be recorded. Many of them were given religious names when they went into these institutions, their children were taken away from them for adoption and their birth records have not been handed over to their siblings or their children. I see no reason we cannot, as an institution of the State, say "sorry" for not doing that.

I believe the State owes an apology to these women for refusing them their freedom, for not protecting their constitutional rights and for not giving them a proper education. The State has to be culpable for referring these ladies to laundries directly from our courts. When one considers how particular we are today about rules and regulations in working institutions, these ladies had no working wage, no maximum hours of work and no holiday time, and there were no inspections, regulations or safe working conditions in any of these institutions. That was the responsibility of the State.

The State should immediately say "sorry" to these ladies. It should remove the words "penitent" and "sinner" from burial stones. We should have the common decency to erect memorial stones throughout the country at the location of these institutions. We should have the responsibility of examining the legislation with regard to why there was no record showing these ladies were cremated and buried in a mass grave at High Park in Drumcondra. We feel very strongly on this issue. I urge the Government to establish the redress scheme and make the apology.

If I were voiceless, I could ask for no better champion than Dr. James Smith, who is in the Visitors Gallery tonight. None of the three Deputies involved is saying this just because he is present, and we have said it in private to those who would listen. He is a man who took on a story that has shamed us as a nation. If anything cries to the heaven for revenge and to be put right, this story does so. Yet, these people do not ask for revenge, nor does he. They simply ask that the terrible wrong done to them be recognised and that the State stand up and say "We were wrong and we are sorry for what you have suffered". I do not make the distinction between those who were put in as a direct responsibility of the State and those who were put in by society in all its forms, whether it was the busybody on the street, the social worker, the local priest or otherwise.

Over the weekend, I heard a news story about a kidnapped woman whose husband worked for a major financial institution. It must be the most awful thing to happen. All of the agencies of the State rose up to find that woman and to bring her safely back to her family. All I could think of was why the agencies of the State which were charged with the responsibility in regard to these women did not go into these institutions and ask "Are you here of your own free will? How long are you supposed to be here for? Would you like to leave?" None of us did that. Even for those who were put in by their families or by society, when they managed to escape — and it was "escape" — they were captured by the police and returned.

Those were awful times, although not that long ago. The State is as culpable as the institutions in which these women were held because the State allowed this to continue. We are not seeking revenge, nor are these women or their children. What they are seeking is a recognition of who they were and what their lives were. They do not have that because there is a blanket refusal to release records, which needs to happen.

I know that within these institutions there were many fine people. This cannot go on another generation; it must be dealt with. As long as it is not dealt with, it will continue. We may not be here but someone else will be. I ask the Minister of State to go back to Cabinet and tell those who sit around that table that this can go on no longer. We have dealt with one awful period of our history and this is another part of our history that we need to address. We can either dealt with it now or in the future but, one way or the other, we will have to deal with it. On behalf of the State, I ask the Minister of State to stand up and say: "We are sorry, it should not have happened and we should not have allowed it to continue".

I thank Deputies Michael Kennedy, Tom Kitt and Kathleen Lynch for raising this issue. I am speaking on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, who I am sure will take careful note of the forceful views that have been expressed on all sides of the House.

I have great sympathy for those who ended up in Magdalene laundries. We are dealing with a very sad and shameful chapter in our social history. The laundries existed in an era when Irish society could be harsh and hostile to the less fortunate and those who did not comply with what was perceived as respectable. Life in an institution can be a poor substitute for the emotional and other support normally found in a family setting. Officials of the Department of Justice and Law Reform have met individuals who were in such institutions as well as representative groups such as Justice for Magdalenes. There is no question about their integrity or commitment. Any records available to the Department have been shared with the groups concerned and officials will continue to provide all assistance possible to the individuals and interest groups seeking available records. That was made abundantly clear in the meeting with Justice for Magdalenes.

Turning now to the specific issue at hand, section 9 of the Human Rights Commission Act 2000 provides a statutory mechanism whereby the Human Rights Commission may conduct an inquiry into any relevant matter. I understand that in June 2010 Justice for Magdalenes formally requested the commission to carry out such an inquiry into the treatment of women and girls who resided in Magdalene laundries. The commission has today published its assessment of that request and has decided that it will not carry out the requested inquiry. That is a decision for the commission and I do not propose to make any comment on that aspect of the assessment report.

The report is an assessment of the human rights issues arising in regard to the Magdalene laundries. It touches on areas that fall within the remit of a number of Departments, including the Departments of Justice and Law Reform, Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Health and Children, Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, Education and Skills and Health and Children. To the best of my knowledge, the Human Rights Commission did not seek information or observations from these Departments on the issues that were being assessed. Similarly there is no indication that information or observations were sought from the religious congregations and other groups which ran the Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes and the reputations of which are at issue.

The report includes 12 conclusions, many of which are not definitive and use language such as "questions arise" or "may have breached its obligations". Nevertheless, it is surprising that a body such as the Human Rights Commission apparently did not think it appropriate to provide an opportunity for other perspectives to be taken into account before it published its conclusions on the issues. Such consultation would have allowed the commission to provide a much more comprehensive overview and could have informed its conclusions.

In this context, it must be pointed out that the Human Rights Commission did not make a definite finding that there were human rights violations. The report discusses allegations and the possibility that there were human rights violations.

The Minister of State's script was obviously written by officials in the Department of Justice and Law Reform.

In this House, we have to respect the rights of those who have suffered abuse but there also has to be some regard to the constitutional rights of those accused of wrongdoing. The Human Rights Commission has decided that it should not carry out a statutory inquiry but has recommended that a statutory mechanism be established to investigate the matters advanced by Justice for Magdalenes and in appropriate cases to grant redress where warranted. It advises that such a mechanism should first examine the State's involvement in and responsibility for those entering laundries, their conditions, their departure and end of life issues. In the event of State involvement or responsibility being established a larger review should be conducted and redress should be considered.

The details of the report will be considered by the relevant Departments and the Office of the Attorney General. I fully appreciate the wish of Deputies in this House to raise the report. However, it was only published this morning and it behoves all of us to give careful and detailed consideration to what it says before giving a detailed response. For clarity it may be helpful to touch on some of the issues that will have to be considered. Besides the provision in the Human Rights Commission Act 2000 for a statutory inquiry, the other statutory mechanism for inquiries include the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Acts 1921 to 2004 and the Commission of Investigation Act 2004.

At first reading the subject matter of an inquiry as proposed by the Human Rights Commission seems to encompass both Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes. No time limit is set. We are dealing with what happened to a large number of people over an extended period of time starting in the 1920s, although the exact figure is unclear. These were privately run institutions and, as the Human Rights Commission concludes, the available public records are poor and incomplete. The challenges facing any statutory inquiry, whether a tribunal of inquiry or a commission of investigation, should therefore not be underestimated.

We are all familiar with the excellent work done by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. That was an inquiry primarily into industrial schools which were provided for by statute and funded by the Exchequer. The inquiry alone cost over €120 million and if the cost of redress is included the total cost amounted to €1.36 billion. In the current economic climate, the Government will have to take into account the practical difficulties, including the level and degree of practical co-operation that would be given by interested parties, that any potential inquiry might face, as well as resource implications. We must learn from the lessons of other investigations, and not least be mindful of the age profile of the group we are all concerned to assist in the best way possible.

I will also clarify the extent of the criminal justice system involvement in Magdalene laundries, which was frequently aimed at not giving such women a criminal record. Under the Probation of Offenders Act 1907, where a court of summary jurisdiction thinks a criminal charge is proved against the accused the court may, without recording a conviction, discharge the person conditionally on his or her entering into recognisance to be of good behaviour and to appear for conviction and sentence at any time during such period not exceeding three years as may be specified in the order; or where a person has been convicted on indictment, a court may release the offender on probation conditionally on his or her entering into recognisance to be of good behaviour and to appear for sentence at any time during such period not exceeding three years as may be specified in the order. Courts did impose conditions in some probation orders that the accused female should reside in the Henrietta Street home or a Magdalene laundry for a specified period. This mechanism was used both for relatively minor cases tried in the District Court as well as in serious cases.

It is important to note that the courts did not have any power under the Probation of Offenders Act to order a female to be detained in a home or laundry as an alternative to prison. The person was not detained in custody but if the convicted female did not abide by any of the conditions of the probation order, including residing in the home, the recognisance could be forfeit and she was liable to be brought before the court again for sentencing. Probation orders are of a specific and limited duration of no more than three years and are of no effect once they expire. There are no central records that would show the number of probation orders requiring a female to reside in particular homes.

A preliminary examination of the records of the High Court sitting as the Central Criminal Court in the period from 1945 to 1950 indicate that a number of women charged with murder pleaded guilty to manslaughter or concealment of birth. The sentence they received was either imprisonment suspended on condition that the convicted person enter into a recognisance, be bound to the peace and enter an institution, most commonly but not always a Magdalene laundry, for a specific period; or enter into a recognisance, be bound to the peace and enter an institution for a specific period with the possibility that she might be called to have a sentence imposed within that specified period.

One year's residence in an institution was the most common period imposed. In only one case, in which a five-year period was imposed, did it exceed two years. The accused had legal representation in all of the cases. In one or two cases, a named probation officer was designated to escort the convicted person to the institution. The numbers involved seemed to have been one or two a year.

The courts have the power to remand a person charged with criminal offences in custody pending trial and sentencing. In these cases, the periods of remand were normally quite short and would rarely exceed seven days. The Department of Justice and Law Reform is responsible for providing places for people remanded in custody. In October 1960, the then Minister for Justice approved two institutions in Dublin — St. Mary Magdalen's Asylum in Seán MacDermott Street and Our Lady's Home in Henrietta Street — for use as a remand institution for females between the ages of 16 and 21, pursuant to the Criminal Justice Act 1960. Arrangements were made to ensure those remanded had the same rights and privileges provided for remand prisoners in the 1947 Prison Rules Part III, and would be visited from time to time by a probation officer and the superintendent of prisons.

All the evidence available suggests that the number of women who entered Magdalene laundries through the criminal justice system was small. It is worth noting that no complaints have been received from any of these women. I have listened on behalf of the Minister to the strongly held views that have been expressed by each of the three Deputies. I am sure their views represent the feelings of most Members of the House and most people outside it. As I said, the Government will consider carefully the points made by the Human Rights Commission in today's report.

I would like to make a final point.

I am afraid that is not possible, as the Deputy well knows.

The Minister of State said "there is no indication that information or observations were sought from the religious congregations and other groups". As I said in my contribution, representatives of Justice for Magdalenes have been trying to meet officials from CORI and the four congregations. I ask the Minister of State to make sure that happens.

I am sure the Deputy can pursue that directly with the Minister of State.

State Procurement Contracts

The issue I am raising is different from the very serious issue the House has just been debating. At the end of the summer, the Government gave a commitment to make it easier for Irish companies to apply for public procurement contracts — essentially, to compete to do work for the State and its agencies. Each year, up to €15 billion is spent on public procurement contracts. I am raising this issue because I am frustrated that Ireland continues to be absolutely out of step with practically all other EU member states in terms of the percentage of public procurement contracts awarded to companies outside the member state. France, Spain and Poland award less than 1% of state contracts to companies from other countries; Italy, Denmark and the UK award less than 2% of state contracts to companies from other countries; and Sweden, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands award less than 3% of state contracts to companies from other countries. Ireland, by contrast, gives almost 18% of the €15 billion we spend getting things done — building roads and schools, putting software programmes in place for State agencies and building boats for fisheries protection, etc. — to companies outside the State.

This debate is taking place at a time when Irish small and medium-sized enterprises are desperately in need of stimulus and support. The SME sector employs 250,000 people in areas of the Irish economy like the service and construction industries. I ask the Government to give the House a progress report on what it has been doing to make it easier for Irish companies to compete in domestic tender competitions. What has it been doing to prepare and train Irish companies to compete for contracts in other parts of Europe? I am primarily concerned that we facilitate companies that may seek public contracts in Ireland. Even in these difficult times, significant amounts of money are being spent on public contracts. I want to be told it has become simpler and cheaper for companies to participate in tendering processes. Until recently, Irish SMEs could not enter the tendering process in many cases because it cost so much to do so and they had no certainty of success. At the moment, companies cannot borrow money to put contracts in place without some certainty of success.

I ask the Minister of State to assure the House that no charge is imposed on companies that tender for the vast majority of public contracts. I want to know that where appropriate, State agencies are required to send officials to meet people who are tendering for business. The officials should give them guidance, where possible, and ensure they are competing. I want reassurance that Enterprise Ireland is helping to support and prepare Irish companies, to ensure they are as competitive as they should be and to increase the percentage of public procurement business obtained by such companies. Do we have an import substitution strategy for replacing the amount of work that is being done in Ireland by foreign companies with Irish companies, when and where appropriate? I am not satisfied that is happening. Small businesses, companies and entrepreneurs in Ireland are going out of business at a time when large contracts are being successfully completed by large multinationals based out of Ireland, even though Irish SMEs have the skill set necessary to do the job.

The number of non-domestic suppliers winning public procurement contracts in Ireland has been the subject of controversy from time to time. The Deputy referred to a statistic, released by the EU Commission, which suggested that 17% of contracts awarded in 2008 went to suppliers outside the jurisdiction. This statistic is based on incomplete data relating only to above-threshold procurements where contract notices were published and the nationality of the winning tenderer disclosed. When one compares the value as opposed to the number of contracts going to non-Irish companies in 2008, the figure amounts to less than 5% of the overall public spend on procurement.

It is not about the value of the contracts. This is a spin job.

The figures quoted by the Commission do not distinguish between companies based in Britain and those based in Northern Ireland. Therefore, many of the contracts going abroad may have stayed on the island of Ireland. As the Deputy will be aware, part of the remit of a North-South institution, Intertrade Ireland, is to expedite trade and business growth across the island. It offers practical advice and support in targeting new cross-Border business opportunities, obviously in both directions. The Commission agrees that an alternative interpretation of its figures is that approximately 95% of all procurement by value was from domestic suppliers. The Deputy will understand that the relevant percentage cannot be predetermined by the Government, but emerges from open and fair competition. When one is making comparisons, one also needs to take into account the size of the country in question.

Public procurement in Ireland is governed by EU legislation and national rules developed by the Department of Finance. The most significant development in facilitating the SME sector has been the publication by the Minister for Finance in August 2010 of circular 10/10, which sets out guidelines for public contracting authorities. The guidelines aim to ensure tendering processes are carried out in a manner that facilitates participation by SMEs and all procurement is carried out in a manner that is legal, transparent and secures optimal value for money for the taxpayer. They address the concerns of SMEs regarding access to public procurement opportunities and highlight practices to be avoided where they can unjustifiably hinder small businesses in competing for public contracts. The new arrangements include greater open advertising of opportunities, with a new threshold of €25,000; a reduced requirement for paperwork, such as accounts, at the early stages of tendering; an instruction that suppliers are not to be charged for access to tender opportunities; an assurance that all criteria used would be appropriate and proportionate; and an instruction that turnover and insurance levels would be set at proportionate levels.

All these actions are consistent with the recently published EU-commissioned research carried out by GHK on behalf of the European Commission enterprise and industry directorate general, entitled Evaluation of SMEs' Access to Public Procurement Markets in the EU September 2010, which recommends actions contained in circular 10/10 in support of SMEs and which notes in its executive summary that SMEs in Ireland secured greater access to public procurement than in other European countries.

The national procurement service, NPS, seeks to encourage participation by SMEs in the tender competitions it runs. SMEs that believe the scope of the NPS competitions that may be beyond their technical or business capacity are encouraged to explore the possibilities of forming relationships with other SMEs or with larger enterprises. It is envisaged that through such relationships they can participate and contribute to the successful implementation of any contracts, agreements or arrangements that result and therefore increase their social and economic benefits. Larger enterprises are also encouraged to consider the practical ways that SMEs can be included in their proposals to maximise the social and economic benefits of the contracts that result from this tendering exercise.

Before going to tender, the NPS strategically analyses each category of goods or services to determine the most effective approach to the market, including aspects such as achieving better value for money and SME participation. In some cases involving low risk, high demand categories of goods, economies of scale and better contracts management can be achieved through the use of a centralised contract, with a reduced administrative burden, which will in itself result in savings. In other categories of goods, dividing the contract into lots, taking on board our obligations under the procurement directives, is the appropriate process to follow.

Benchmarking from other jurisdictions confirms that using centralised competitions such as these can result in administrative savings of €6,000 to the contracting authorities availing of such contracts as a result of not having to administer the procurement themselves. The cost of putting a centralised contract in place is estimated to cost €25,000 but, clearly, the more organisations that avail of the centralised frameworks, the greater the administrative savings to those organisations will be.

In addition to the work being done by the NPS and the Department of Finance, Enterprise Ireland is running strategic workshops to assist companies, such as management development workshops and strategic and change management programmes. Enterprise Ireland also offers assistance with exports, management development, lean manufacturing, research and development and overseas offices programmes.

It needs to be understood clearly that we cannot revert, when it comes to public procurement, to a pre-1958 model of the economy, or a sort of covert under the table protectionism, which would infallibly lead in short order to expensive lawsuits or tribunals and to investigations by the European Commission. Neither can the State, when it has to cut expenditure, afford by such a method de facto to subsidise or prop up firms that find it difficult to compete unless the dice can be loaded in their favour.

No one is suggesting that.

The allegation and insidious lobbying that everyone is doing it is not a justification. Many SMEs will need to compete for contracts outside the jurisdiction and across the EU to maintain their viability.

We cannot be seen to close ourselves off from the EU marketplace by adopting a protectionist stance because in 2009 alone, 80 companies have won €210 million in overseas public procurement opportunities with the support of Enterprise Ireland which has set up a new public procurement section.

We want the same playing pitch as other member states. That is all we are looking for.

The Government is supporting SMEs generally through the range of initiatives I have outlined but under EU procurement law and the principles of transparency, non-discrimination and equal treatment, it cannot set out deliberately to discriminate in their favour when tendering for goods and services. As long as I hold this office, and I am sure my successors will adopt the same attitude, I will insist that procurement practices in the NPS meet the highest standards of integrity without interference from Ministers, lobbyists or anyone else. It is important for Ireland's reputation as to how we do business publicly. Public procurement is of great strategic significance to our economy and to the firms operating within it, and for that reason we will always seek to make procurement as user-friendly as possible within the law. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for his indulgence.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 10 November 2010.