Topical Issue Debate

Job Losses

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing us to raise this very serious issue and I thank the Minister for coming into the Chamber to answer. This is a very serious situation. What makes it more serious is the way it came about. Just days into the new year, when the workforce had returned to work and were working hard, as they always do at the C&C Group all over Ireland, in the Borrisoleigh plant and in Clonmel, a supposed leak of coming job losses was reported in The Irish Times. First, I do not believe it was a leak. I believe it was deliberate policy on the part of the company itself, which will not engage.

The Gleeson plant in Borrisoleigh and Bulmers in Clonmel have a huge heritage and a very dedicated and diligent workforce. I salute the workforce there and sympathise with them and their families in their plight, having heard this news in the way they did, through Tipp FM or The Irish Times website. They were told today that the group CEO, Mr. Glancey, was flying in from England, but he is not flying anywhere. I have an e-mail here from Tom McCusker, who says there is no one coming into the country today and he is dealing with it. Here we are with a merry-go-round. There is no accountability, no responsibility and no goodwill shown to the workers and their families. It is despicable.

It is a sad state of affairs that these two small, productive companies - there were up to 700 jobs in Bulmers in Clonmel at one stage and up to 300 in Gleesons of Borrisoleigh - could be taken over by C&C and laid to waste. They were plundered and - I do not like using this parlance here - they were raped and pillaged. No action the company takes or promise it gives to us and to the workers is worth the paper it is written on. It now says it is going to relocate 80 jobs to Clonmel, which is an hour's journey away. The assurances I have got about the Clonmel plant over the last four years - I have raised it here several times - have not been honoured. How can we believe or trust this? Are they going to pipe the water from Borrisoleigh to Clonmel, or are they going to find a spring underneath the factory in Clonmel in order to bottle the water in Clonmel-----

I have to ask you to conclude. You will have an opportunity to reply at a later stage.

We are playing games. I am appealing to the Minister to call this company and try to get some accountability for this and respect for the diligent workforce in Tipperary.

I acknowledge the Ceann Comhairle's choice of this topic and I thank the Minister for coming in personally to deal with this very serious issue, which has a potentially disastrous outcome for the people of mid- and north Tipperary. I am not going to go back over many things that have been said, but perhaps I could ask the Minister a few questions on the 80 jobs that are being approved in Clonmel and the €10 million investment, which is welcome. Will the workers in Borrisoleigh who are losing their jobs have priority for those jobs?

Could the Minister outline to the House and the general public the extent to which efforts were made by the Minister and his Department to dissuade C&C from closing its plant in Borrisoleigh? What carrots were given that might have kept that plant open, which seems to the general public to be very economical and which has provided magnificent employment for more than 200 people down through the years? What is going to happen to the plant now? Is any effort being made to find a new owner and will the company make available the plant and the machinery so that it is possible for an alternative owner to come in?

The extent to which redundancy, compensation and retraining will be given to the workforce in Borrisoleigh is critical. We ask that this be maximised. What efforts are the Government and State bodies making to bring new industry into mid- and north Tipperary? I caution that C&C still exists in the county. It is fragile. We want it to prosper in the county and to continue giving employment. We have to be very careful with the language we use regarding the company. Threatening it is of no help.

You will have an opportunity to speak again.

I ask the Minister to give special attention to mid- and north Tipperary, which have suffered seriously from unemployment over the years. Replacement industry is very slow in being sought for that area.

The decision by C&C to close the plant in Borrisoleigh and the manner in which that became public are absolutely deplorable. I can only describe as shameful the fact that workers and their families learned of the closure from the pages of The Irish Times and local radio. It is a disgraceful way to treat workers who have given loyal service at Gleesons for many years - some for as many as 30 years - and their families. The closure is a hammer blow to workers and their families and to the town of Borrisoleigh, which has depended on this business for generations.

When C&C acquired Bulmers in Clonmel and Gleesons, we were told of a bright future with expansion plans, but in fact the opposite happened and the company shredded jobs, in both Clonmel and Borrisoleigh, and slashed wages and conditions of employment. The closure of the Borrisoleigh plant is completely unnecessary and is being done solely in the pursuit of more profit. It is about greed. This company is already very profitable. Its latest half-year accounts, to the end of September of last year, show a profit of €62.5 million. It has become obvious that the acquisition by C&C of Gleesons was done with the clear intention of closing the plant by stealth.

It is clear from a reply to the Dáil in November of last year, just short of three months ago, that the Minister was aware of the situation with C&C and he had directed his officials to enter discussions with it. What discussions took place, when did the Minister become aware of the proposed closure, what actions has he taken to try to prevent that closure and what actions does he now intend to take to prevent it?

I have to ask you to conclude your remarks.

We are the best little country in the world in which to do business. Does the Minister condone the decision of the management to close the Borrisoleigh plant? Does he intend to or has he already contacted C&C to express his condemnation of the company, the way it has dealt with its affairs and the way it has treated the workforce with such disrespect in Borrisoleigh? Will he publicly sanction the company for the manner in which it has conducted its affairs in that respect? I have raised this issue here on a number of occasions because, from the time C&C took over M&J Gleeson, it had one purpose and one purpose only, namely, to run it down, take its brands and close the factory. The Minister, all his officials and everybody in the Department were aware that there were problems with this company.

There were problems in that it would not communicate. It would not recognise the workers in terms of having a group forum. Eventually, it reluctantly accepted having a union represent them. Therefore, the motivation of the company was always questionable in terms of what it would do with Gleeson's of Borrisoleigh.

After they announced the takeover, the then Competition Authority looked at this. I want to ask the Minister what is the role of a competition authority. Why did the Competition Authority not put conditions on a takeover? Effectively, it rubber-stamped this takeover with no protection whatsoever for the workforce. The Competition Authority could not have allowed this to go ahead unless it had a business plan and projections from the company. Did that forward plan that was put before the Competition Authority include the possible closure of this plant? The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission must be questioned on that decision.

Finally, I recognise that the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, is making determined efforts to create jobs but we also need to remember that we must sustain the jobs we have. We have lost 140 jobs in Borrisoleigh and I am sure that the Minister and the officials in IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland are out there trying to encourage new jobs to come in. In this instance, we saw the warning signs and we did not do anything about it. Today, senior management in C&C told me that the jobs will be on offer to the workers from Borrisoleigh who are being displaced. They will be offered those jobs as a priority and under the same terms and conditions as C&C operated. They also told me - I ask the Minister how much of this he is aware of - that a party is interested in purchasing the plant as a going concern. For how long did the discussions take place? Was the Department involved and did the Minister give them enough support and encouragement to make that final decision?

I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue.

Like all Deputies, our thoughts are with the workers who were affected by this announcement. I am conscious of the impact of this announcement on the workers and their families, and the community in Borrisoleigh. As Deputies have said, the way in which this emerged through leaks in the press was not the way it should have been handled or the way, I understand, the company ever intended that it should be handled.

Since the purchase of M.J. Gleeson and Company a number of years ago, C&C has been engaged in restructuring of certain elements of its business. The decision announced yesterday is part of a company-wide restructuring, particularly of its manufacturing base, which the company has undertaken following the loss of material contracts for private label water which has led to serious underutilisation of capacity in both the Irish and the United Kingdom plants and undermined their competitiveness.

I have spoken to senior management at the company in the past couple of days since this surfaced and urged them to see if the decision could be reconsidered but, unfortunately, this is not possible given the commercial realities they face.

The C&C Group announced yesterday that, following a detailed review of its manufacturing and operational footprint, it intends to consolidate production from sites in Shepton Mallet in England and Borrisoleigh in its manufacturing site in Clonmel. Under this proposal, production and packaging will be transferred on a phased basis from the facility in Borrisoleigh. Consequently, Clonmel will become the core manufacturing site for Bulmers and Magners cider, Tipperary Water and the company's range of niche premium beers and ciders. In support of the proposal, the company is committed to investing in excess of €10 million in enhancing the packaging and logistics capability in Clonmel and the creation of 80 additional jobs. This is designed to put Irish-based employment in the company on a secure and competitive footing. The company has indicated that Borrisoleigh will remain as a key transport hub and both logistics and warehousing operations will be maintained in the town.

The company has also indicated that where possible the workers at Borrisoleigh will be offered alternative employment at the expansion in Clonmel. Regrettably, net roles lost in Ireland across the company's operational network are estimated to be 54 jobs.

I note the company's statement that it will provide support and training for the workers affected, which was raised by Deputy Coonan. In addition, all the supports of the State will be made available. Enterprise Ireland will continue to engage with the company as it undertakes its restructuring. The agency will continue to monitor the situation at the company and will continue to communicate with the group and will offer any assistance that it can within Enterprise Ireland's remit.

I understand that the company has initiated the consultation process with its employees and their representatives who are impacted by the announcement, and the company plans to meet employee and union representatives over the coming days.

Enterprise Ireland has been in close touch with the company over the past year, and on a number of occasions in recent weeks, to seek to support it. A decision of this nature, where the company has lost a large part of its business, is obviously a commercial one. The company has made its decision. Enterprise Ireland will continue to work with the workers. We will be actively seeking alternative investment in Borrisoleigh. The plant is an asset that we hope will be available to attract new investors and Enterprise Ireland will work with the company in that respect.

Obviously, there will be support for training of workers, as committed to by the company. In addition, the resources of the State to assist workers will be available. In particular, the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, will be available to support workers in respect of their rights and access to other supports.

I also thank the Minister who is making efforts. One of the problems with C&C, the then Competition Authority and others is that they waltzed in and took over a good company, and they have laid it to waste. This is a hammer blow for Tipperary. I am being told that I should be welcoming them, because it is an ill wind that blows no good and it will blow the jobs to Clonmel. A storm is blowing, however, and the jobs will blow to Scotland because the workforce in Clonmel, as well as Borrisoleigh, have been treated disgustingly over the past number of years under C&C.

I attended the past two AGMs of C&C in Dublin. At the first one, I was not allowed in because my vote was wrong. At the second one, I got in and met management, but I was an embarrassment to them. That is why they let me in. They did not want to answer any questions from anybody, let alone at the AGM. Shareholders have major concerns.

If one walks into any bar in Dublin or around the country, one will see that Orchard Thieves is the new cider that is displacing Bulmers. The real thieves are C&C itself. There is an aggressive campaign to exit Bulmers, Magners and all the others, and we will have a wasted plant in Tipperary as well. That is my worry going into the future.

I would like to be positive if I could but I cannot because there is no meaningful engagement with the Minister, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission or anybody else; they just did this. The same happened with the Barlow family in Clonmel when the Quinn Group bought the radiator plant. They bought with one intention, which was to close it down. This is happening too often in Ireland where multinationals and conglomerates are buying up good indigenous companies and laying them to waste. We must wake up here, smell the coffee and see what is going on under our noses.

I thank the Minister for his response and for his commitment that he will make a serious effort to address the imbalance in north Tipperary and mid-Tipperary. I look forward to working with the Minister and with the agencies to replace that industry in Borrisoleigh.

On a general point, does the Department or the Government have any plans to deal with larger companies, such as C&C, which come in, buy up smaller companies with which they compete and then, literally, close them down? That is the major problem. Everybody concerned in Borrisoleigh believes that M.J. Gleeson and Company was a viable company and providing employment to the local people which, in turn, was a significant source of economic activity for the neighbourhood. That issue needs to be addressed so that we can prevent that happening.

The Minister did not respond on what will happen to the plant and machinery in Borrisoleigh, and whether the company is willing to make it available for sale or if somebody has an interest in it. Perhaps he will respond now. There are alternatives, particularly in micro-brewing. Every effort should be made to avail of that plant and machinery.

The Minister might come to Borrisoleigh and meet the people. He might convene a meeting of the State agencies, Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and Tipperary County Council to see what we can do to address this horrible crisis that has befallen us.

The decision to close Borrisoleigh makes me angry because it is quite obvious to everybody that C&C acquired Gleeson's with the sole intention of closing it down. It had a number of goes at it, including 40 redundancies not too long ago.

The Minister referred to commercial realities. The commercial realities are that this company is very profitable, making in the region of €120 million profit every year. This is an unnecessary closure.

To suggest that workers in Borrisoleigh will transfer to Clonmel is probably unrealistic. It is 58 minutes to an hour from Borrisoleigh to Clonmel and it is very unlikely that many of those workers would be able to take up offers of jobs in Clonmel. The priority must be to try to save these jobs. Will the Minister intervene directly with the company, which is to a large degree supported by Enterprise Ireland, to stop this closure and save these jobs?

Does the Minister intend to reprimand the company for the manner in which it treated the workforce in Borrisoleigh and the way it made the announcement? Can the Minister put himself in the place of a worker who woke up to hear on the local radio that his or her factory was being closed, without any advance notice or warning? Such conduct should not be tolerated or condoned by any Department, particularly not the Minister's Department.

When the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission agreed to the takeover, it must have received some indication from the company as to its future and forward plan. Does the Minister see a role for the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission in protecting workers in such takeover situations? C&C purchased M&J Gleeson in Borrisoleigh and gradually ran it down and undermined it to reach the stage at which it could close it. Even with the lack of investment, M&J Gleeson still managed to make a substantial profit out of its day-to-day running in 2015, and would have made a profit in 2013 were it not for the exceptional items that were factored in. We must send a very strong and clear signal to such companies that this type of conduct is unacceptable to the Minister, his Department, the Irish people, the workforce in Borrisoleigh, the people of Tipperary and the local community.

Again, I express my sympathy with the workers. Job losses are always to be regretted. Job losses in Irish-owned companies are at their lowest level since Enterprise Ireland was established. We are doing more work with companies to sustain them through a difficult trading environment than has been done before. Much of what we are doing is right, and there are more wins than losses.

Deputy Mattie McGrath raised the issue of Clonmel's future. The company's commitment is to invest in enhancing the facilities in Clonmel.

We heard the same promises for Borrisoleigh.

It has made a clear commitment to invest more than €10 million in the company and provide additional jobs in a more efficient and higher-utilisation plant.

While the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission has a role in examining any merger and acquisition proposal, it is solely to ascertain whether the merger would create excessive concentration in the market. Its role is to examine the share and the impact on competition and whether it would be bad for the marketplace. It has a limited role. It does not work with development plans.

There are valuable assets in Borrisoleigh, and Enterprise Ireland will work with the company to make them available and seek alternative investors, which the company supports. As Deputy Coonan said, we have been putting a very strong emphasis on regional growth. In Tipperary, Eishtec has created additional jobs, Amneal Pharmaceuticals has recently invested through the IDA, and ABP Food Group has invested in Cahir. These three companies have provided more than 600 jobs. Our regional enterprise strategy is designed to strengthen our regions, and I am encouraged by the progress in both the south east and the mid-west, which has shown that we have a strategy that can work.

Deputies have raised concerns about whether this was wrongly motivated. The company's statement showed that utilisation in its manufacturing plants had decreased to 34% and that it had lost significant business.

Unfortunately, no level of grant aid can reverse such commercial realities. Restructuring results in difficult times and we must ensure we support the company. As others have said, the company continues to provide good employment in Tipperary, and we are determined to support it. It is encouraging to see that unemployment in Tipperary has decreased by 23% during the past four years. We are making headway and we need to build on this progress.

That is what I am determined to do.

General Practitioner Contracts

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important Topical Issue. I compliment and acknowledge the work done by GPs throughout Ireland on a daily basis to look after their patients. They are a key part of the fabric of rural Ireland in particular. The existing general medical services, GMS, contract for public patients was first devised in 1972, and there has been little modification since then. There is a need to reinstate the financial supports available to rural GPs. Some 20 rural practices throughout Ireland are no longer in receipt of the rural practice allowance. There is also a need to restore the distance coding payment.

A total of 147 rural GP practices are in receipt of the rural practice allowance. It is a very restrictive payment. The payment is worth €16,200. In order to qualify for it, a practice must serve a population of fewer than 500 and be located at least 4.8 km away from an urban setting. The payment is tied to a GP, not to a particular area or practice. The withdrawal of the distance coding payment, which was given to rural GPs until 2010, is also undermining the viability of rural practices.

During recent weeks and months, I have worked very closely with Dr. Liam Glynn, a GP based in Ballyvaughan who took a High Court action against the HSE and was successful in having his rural practice allowance restored. I ask that the rural practice allowance be restored to the 20 rural practices that are no longer in receipt of it. I also request that the distance coding payment be reinstated. While I acknowledge that negotiations on a new GMS contract are under way, I ask that, as a gesture of goodwill, the payments be restored. There are two particular areas in County Clare, Feakle in east Clare and Kildysart in west Clare, that are no longer in receipt of the payment. There is a feeling in the GP community that its members are aging and we need to make it more attractive for new GPs to come in and take up practices in rural Ireland. I am asking that these payments be reinstated, and I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's reply.

I thank Deputy Joe Carey for raising this issue and providing me with an opportunity to update the House on the matter. The Government is committed to ensuring that patients throughout the country continue to have access to GP services, especially in remote rural areas, and that general practice is sustainable in such areas into the future. On 1 January 2016, 15 GMS lists, out of a national total of more than 2,400, were without a permanent GP, and five of these were in rural areas. However, the full range of GP services continues to be provided to the patients in these areas through either a locum GP or a neighbouring GP.

The HSE, the Department of Health and the Irish Medical Organisation are engaged in a comprehensive review of the GMS and other publicly-funded health sector GP contracts. A key objective of the engagement with the IMO is to achieve revised and modernised contractual arrangements which support the sustainable delivery of enhanced GP services in local communities, especially in remote rural areas. As the Deputy pointed out, some 40 years have passed since the original contract was drawn up. Under the current GMS contract, GPs who practise in remote rural areas of low population qualify for special rural practice concessions, including an annual allowance of just over €16,200 and more favourable subsidies for the employment of staff, including practice nurses and secretarial support staff. The HSE recently produced revised rural practice allowance guidelines for remote rural areas. The purpose of the new guidelines is to ensure consistency, transparency and fairness in decision-making regarding rural GP practices and to provide additional options to support GPs. From time to time, HSE local offices offer other incentives, including access to HSE facilities, to attract GPs into rural areas. Such incentives may include offers of additional contracts, such as the contract to provide medical officer services to nursing homes.

I am aware that some isolated rural areas and deprived urban areas may find it difficult to attract GPs to fill vacant posts. I think this is what the Deputy is waiting for. I anticipate that the Department of Health and the HSE will shortly have a proposal to put to the IMO that will help to support and sustain rural practices. Although the existing rate of allowance for a single-handed GP is likely to be maintained, an enhanced allowance might be made available to GPs who are in group practice arrangements, for example, with GMS GPs outside the designated remote area but proximate to that area. In addition, we will propose special items of service to modernise the current arrangements and incentivise the provision of certain primary care services, such as new and emerging contraceptive methods. Having regard to the easing of the State's financial position, the Department of Health will shortly commence a formal consultation process under the FEMPI Acts in respect of the fees and allowances that are payable to contracted GPs. I emphasise that we feel we will shortly be in a position to make a proposal that - it is hoped - will find favour with the IMO in relation to rural practice and distance codes.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. I agree with what she has said and I am heartened by it. Unfortunately, this issue has dragged on for far too long. I am asking today for the restoration of the payment of rural practice allowances that are tied down to 20 practices that are currently in operation, as well as the restoration of payments in respect of other practices that have fallen away because of the absence of rural practice allowances. I understand that a new proposal for rural general practice will have to be introduced and agreed as part of the negotiations on modernisation that are currently under way. As that will take time, I propose that the payment of these allowances be reinstated as a gesture of goodwill. They were taken away overnight, and I am asking for them to be restored overnight as well.

While 20 practices may be more affected than others, there are more than 20 practices involved here. On that basis, this package will be offered to everyone in this category. The Deputy has suggested that something should be done "as a gesture of goodwill", but I believe what we are doing is something that will be sustainable into the future. I suggest that the Deputy should wait to see what the IMO's response to this proposal will be. I believe the package will help to incentivise GPs who already work in certain rural districts or certain deprived urban and rural areas, as well as those who might wish to take the opportunity to move to such areas. I ask the Deputy to wait to see what the IMO's response to this proposal will be. I hope it will be accepted by the IMO.

Mobility Allowance Review

This Government prides itself on putting equality at the front and centre of every decision it makes and every policy it pursues. Almost 1,000 days ago, it abolished the mobility grant scheme, which allowed for transport supports and allowances to be provided to people with disabilities. The Minister of State will be aware that earlier today, disability campaigners from across the country launched their policy objectives for the 2016 general election campaign. One of their objectives with respect to disability relates to the commitment to extend a new mobility scheme that was made by the Government in 2013, or almost 1,000 days ago. I have raised this question on Topical Issues to give the Minister of State an opportunity to explain to the communities and citizens who are involved in the mobility sector and are concerned about isolation and getting to and from work what progress she has made in offering an alternative scheme. What are the hurdles and barriers in this area, if any? The situation at the time was described as atrocious. It was atrocious in 2013 and it is atrocious today. I would be grateful if the Minister of State would use the opportunity of her response to give some light hope to those who are entitled to play a full and active role as citizens in this Republic by engaging in their communities.

I thank the Deputy, who has been persistent in highlighting this issue. I assure him that not a week goes by without some kind of engagement on this issue taking place in the Department. It has been one of the most intractable issues I have come across. I can usually find a solution to most things, but finding a solution has proved to be most difficult in this case. The Government has decided that the Minister for Health should make progress with the detailed preparatory work needed for a new transport support scheme and associated statutory provisions. I am sure Deputy Keaveney accepts that the language used in this area will be important into the future.

The Department is seeking the solution that will best meet its aim of supporting people with severe disabilities who require additional income to contribute towards the cost of their mobility needs, while remaining within the available budget and satisfying all legal and equality concerns. Work is ongoing on the policy proposals to be brought to the Government for the drafting of primary legislation for a new scheme. The proposals seek to ensure there is a firm statutory basis to the scheme’s operation. As I am sure the Deputy already knows, this was not the case in the past. We are also seeking to ensure there is transparency and equality in the eligibility criteria attaching to the scheme, which previously was very much piecemeal. The success of one's application depended on where one was living. We want to ensure resources are targeted at those with the greatest needs and the scheme is capable of being costed and is affordable on its introduction and on an ongoing basis.

The draft general scheme and heads of a Bill have been the subject of very detailed discussions with the Department's legal advisers. Deputy Keaveney will be glad to hear it is intended to submit legislative proposals to the Government for consideration in a matter of weeks, following finalisation of legal considerations and consultation with other key Departments. On foot of a Government decision, the HSE has continued to make monthly payments to the 4,700 people who were previously in receipt of this allowance. That was my key consideration. I was seriously worried about those who were receiving this payment, which, as we are all aware, had become part of their incomes. I am not puritanical about what people do with their money when they receive it. I insisted that this payment would not be removed. It has been very difficult to ensure those who currently receive it continue to be protected while at the same time allowing for criteria and a pathway to be put in place nationally to ensure those who wish to enter a new scheme have access to such a scheme.

I wish to inform the Deputy - maybe I should not be saying this - that the amount of money which has been allocated for what we already do will not be enough. As we know it will not be enough, we have made provision to ensure additional money can be made available where it is necessary. It is not that I am not conscious of this. I am very conscious of it. I believe a person who cannot access the outside world cannot participate in society.

We are determined that the necessary legislation to underpin a scheme like this, which should have been there in the first place but was not, will be brought to Government very shortly.

I am disappointed it has taken three years. This scheme, and the Minister of State's response, is the same as the response she gave in February 2013. It is the same number of citizens with a disability who are ring-fenced by the current arrangement, or by inertia. My concern is for the many other citizens in society who do not have the same capacity to fully integrate and play an active role as citizens as a consequence. I come from a very rural constituency and have had an opportunity in the recent past to travel the constituency and meet people who are gravely concerned about the inequality created by this inaction. The Minister of State has ring-fenced the payment to 4,700 people and I would be grateful if she would, in her response, give hope with a prompt legislative response for those citizens who are emerging with a disability and who have no access to the current arrangement.

Most people who know me know that I am not one to hang around and keep looking at a problem. My philosophy in life is to find a solution as quickly as possible. This one has been more difficult than most. We would have preferred it if we could have retained the old scheme and perhaps put a legislative framework around it and allowed it to expand. That was not possible because of circumstances outside of this House of which the Deputy is aware. However, it is also important to note that the disabled drivers' and disabled passengers' scheme operated by the Revenue Commissioners remains in place. This scheme provides VRT and VAT relief, an exemption from road tax and a fuel grant to drivers and passengers with a disability who qualify under the relevant criteria set out in the governing regulations made by the Minister for Finance. I assure the Deputy that the development of legislative proposals to replace the mobility allowance and the motorised transport grant remains a priority for this Government.

We think differently now about disability and that is a good thing as we are more open and more challenged by putting services in place that allow people to make decisions for themselves. The capacity legislation was a major step along the road in that area. What we will put in place needs to have the flexibility to ensure we will be able to meet people's different needs as they emerge in the future. This is something that appears on our radar every week and will continue to do so. I agree with the Deputy that it needs to be dealt with but, unfortunately, it has proved to be very difficult. I hope, however, that we have a mechanism with the new legislation which will ensure that can happen.

Office of Public Works Properties

There have been the most serious irregularities in the assembly of the site for significant public offices which are now occupied by the Department of Social Protection and the Revenue Commissioners in Anne Street, Wexford. That assembly took place over a 20-year period from 1983. I was made aware of the issue as far back as 2008 and I have investigated it at different times in the years since. My concern has grown significantly. I have engaged in significant correspondence with State bodies, including Wexford Borough Council and the Revenue Commissioners, but I have not received satisfactory answers. Deputies Maureen O'Sullivan and Finian McGrath have equally made inquiries to agencies such as the Office of Public Works and I understand that no satisfactory explanation has been forthcoming.

I am satisfied that there are serious unanswered questions and anomalies surrounding the assembling of this site involving public bodies. The site was funded by taxpayers and there must be full transparency by the public bodies involved in how taxpayers' money was spent and in the methods of the assembly of that site where we have substantial government offices. The issue is complex and convoluted but documents that I have seen are prima facie evidence of very serious irregularities, giving rise to serious unanswered questions by public bodies in the matter of the assembly of the site. This irregularity has had a serious detrimental effect on the lives of innocent individuals and caused an injustice to them and to their civil and human rights, so it is critical that the answers are provided.

I do not lightly raise instances of specific wrongdoing or irregularities and I have only very rarely done so since I came into the Dáil. I did so in 2005 with regard to the multinational Gama construction company, alleging very serious irregularities after careful scrutiny. Those allegations were greeted with incredulity but, upon examination, they stood up and a lot more wrongdoing was uncovered as result of my standing in this spot to make those revelations. Wexford Borough Council and the Office of Public Works must disclose all the facts about this development and put them into the public domain.

The putting together of this site for public offices was concluded in the late 1990s. Given the complex nature of how this site was assembled, I believe a commission of investigation set up under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 is the appropriate mechanism, not a tribunal and not a Garda inquiry but a specific and targeted commission of investigation inquiry. From the documentation I have seen, and in consonance with the legislation whereby people of concern would be consulted about the terms of reference and the evidence, I believe very tight but comprehensive terms of reference could be quickly assembled and I ask the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to begin the process, even in the dying days of this Dáil.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and assure him that how taxpayers' money is spent is extremely important and should be open and transparent. At the outset, I wish to clarify that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has no direct responsibility for, or involvement in, the assembly of land by local authorities for the purpose of the provision of offices for Departments or other offices of the State. Section 213(2)(a) of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, provides that a local authority may for the purposes of performing any of its functions, including giving effect to or implementing its development plan, acquire land by agreement, or in certain circumstances, compulsorily.

In this case, I understand that the Office of Public Works acquired two sites from Wexford Borough Council in the 1990s. These sites now accommodate Government offices in Anne Street. One of these sites was acquired by way of an agreement with Wexford Borough Council dated 22 May 1995 for IR£145,000. The other site was acquired by the OPW from Wexford Borough Council under agreement dated 2 January 1997 in exchange for a site owned by the OPW in King Street. The site transferred to the OPW had been assembled by Wexford Borough Council by compulsory purchase order. The OPW was not a party to the assembly of these sites, which were bought directly from Wexford Borough Council.

Therefore, if there are issues with the manner in which these sites were assembled by Wexford Borough Council, they should be raised in the first instance with its successor Wexford County Council.

It might be helpful in this regard if I set out some of the key elements of the ethical framework for local authorities. Part 15 of the Local Government Act 2001 provides an ethics framework for both elected members and officials working in local government. The ethics framework imposes a statutory duty on all in the service to maintain proper standards of integrity, conduct and concern for the public interest. Section 171 of the Act obliges elected members to prepare and furnish to the ethics registrar an annual written declaration containing particulars of their "declarable interests". Section 174(8) of the Act requires that the chief executive and-or the cathaoirleach of a local authority consider what action should be taken on becoming aware of a possible contravention of the ethical framework. This action can include investigative or disciplinary procedures considered appropriate in the circumstances and-or referral of the matter to the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO. SIPO is an independent body which reports to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. While the functions of SIPO are mainly inquisitional, the commission has the power under section 24(2) of the Ethics in Public Office Act to refer cases to the Director of Public Prosecutions where it is of the opinion that an offence may have been committed.

I am grateful to the Minister for outlining the responsibilities of Wexford Borough Council in the assembly of this site. Unfortunately, however, she did not answer the specific request I made in this Topical Issue, which is that a commission of investigation is required to unravel serious irregularities in the assembly of the site. Even if what the Minister of State says about the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government's responsibilities holds, that does not preclude the Minister from acting under the law. I am obliged to a Law Reform Commission report which informs me that a commission of investigation may be established by the Government, based on a proposal by a Minister with the approval of the Minister for Finance, to investigate any matter considered by the Government to be of significant public concern. Happily, the head of the Government, the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, is sitting beside the Minister of State as I speak. He is now informed of the serious concern I have raised about irregularities which have seriously affected the economic and social rights as well as the livelihoods of innocent people.

What the Minister of State outlined with regard to the Ethics in Public Office Act is not sufficient. I have examined this. It is complex, even Byzantine, but it must be investigated. I call on the Minister of State, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Taoiseach to take what I am saying seriously. It will be confirmed when it is examined, and they should not be found negligent by not assisting in seeking the answers that are badly needed in respect of this issue.

I reiterate what I said earlier. If there are issues with the manner in which these sites were assembled by Wexford Borough Council, they should be raised in the first instance with its successor, Wexford County Council. However, I undertake to speak to my line Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, and I will refer back to the Deputy with a reply.

I would be happy to take Leaders' Questions but the Standing Orders do not allow me to do so. We will wait for the Ceann Comhairle to join us.

Deputy Buttimer might volunteer.