Leaders' Questions

I want to raise a very serious issue with the Taoiseach which, on reflection, could represent a serious scandal. It involves an unacceptable response by the State regarding exposure to dangerous chemicals at the aircraft maintenance shops in Baldonnel by members of the Air Corps over many years.

Three whistleblowers warned the Taoiseach and the then Minister for Defence, Deputy Simon Coveney, in November 2015 about the conditions at the Air Corps maintenance shops in Baldonnel and the degree to which staff were exposed to very dangerous solvents and chemicals. The links of the particular chemicals involved to cancer-causing diseases, genetic mutations, neurological conditions and chronic diseases have been well-established. A precedent has been set by Australia where, in the early 2000s, the issue was identified and acted on by the Australian Government.

Complaints were made to the Department of Defence, the Air Corps and the Army in 2012 regarding this matter. In November 2015, the then Minister for Defence, Deputy Simon Coveney, was informed that workers were not receiving occupational health monitoring, as is required by law under the Health and Safety Act 2005. In what was an extraordinary situation, they were not provided with protective equipment and clothing as they worked with very dangerous chemicals. PDFORRA wrote to the Air Corps in 2015, warning that any health inspection of Baldonnel would produce damning findings. It took until 2016 for the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, to threaten the Air Corps with prosecution unless it implemented a number of recommendations, including the provision of appropriate equipment for handling chemicals and the surveillance of staff health to monitor any adverse effects they experienced as a result of their duties. Is it not extraordinary that in 2016 the HSA wrote to the Air Corps to demand that very basic provisions of our law be implemented?

The whistleblowers received no formal acknowledgement from the Minister, Deputy Coveney, during that 12-month period. The response of the State has been standard and deeply depressing. It has resorted to the courts. There are currently six cases before the courts, and the Government is fighting them very strongly and acknowledging no negligence. In 2000, the Australian Government appointed a board of inquiry. Arising out of that, it commissioned a study of the health outcomes of aircraft maintenance personnel working in the F111 bomber programme , which came up with some fairly damning findings.

Why was the State so slow to respond to the whistleblowers and to investigate the health conditions at Baldonnel? Why were the whistleblowers not acknowledged by the Minister? Will the Government commission an independent health outcome study of aircraft maintenance personnel, similar to that carried out by the Australian Government, of personal working in aircraft maintenance shops in Baldonnel? Will it commission a similar independent board of inquiry of the entire affair and scandal?

A number of protected disclosures have been made regarding the Air Corps. An independent third party was appointed to review the allegations and those making the disclosures were informed of this. Since then, there has been a line of communication with the individuals involved. When the disclosures were received, legal advice was sought and an independent reviewer was appointed. Subsequently, the person appointed could not act and an alternative independent third party was appointed. In November, interim recommendations and observations were submitted to the Minister, which were passed to the military authorities for immediate action and response.

As Deputy Martin knows, I have delegated, by statutory instrument, responsibility for defence to the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe. On 7 January 2017, a response was received from the military authorities outlining the actions that are underway, which was forwarded to the independent reviewer who was appointed for his consideration. That reviewer will now consider this material, undertake the further steps he deems appropriate in order to finalise the review in the context of the situation being as serious as Deputy Martin has pointed out. Once a final review is to hand, let me assure Deputy Martin that the Minister of State will see to it that all recommendations to ensure the safety of the members of the Defence Forces are acted upon properly.

As the independent process is ongoing and these issues are the subject of litigation, I probably should not say any more. From my experience of dealing with the Defence Forces across the entire range of their operations, they have always operated to the very highest standards. The issues raised by Deputy Martin are very different and need to be dealt with. I hope that the response received from the military authorities, which is now in the hands of the independently appointed person, will be examined properly and the recommendations made by the independent reviewer implemented, as they should be.

Everybody wants those who give so much of their lives to the Defence Forces to have proper equipment, the very best facilities and be safeguarded, in particular in matters relating to health and safety, and that these are of the very highest standards. What the Deputy has referred to is different.

The HSA has carried out three inspections of the Air Corps in Baldonnel, focusing in particular on the control of occupational hygiene hazards in the workplace, including health surveillance issues. The HSA issued its report of inspection to the Air Corps on 21 October 2016. It listed a number of matters requiring attention, including risk assessment, health surveillance, monitoring of employees actual exposure to particular hazardous substances and the provision and use of personal protective equipment.

I am very dissatisfied with that response. The Taoiseach has not explained what happened between 2015, when the protected disclosure was made, and why the Minister, Deputy Coveney, did not acknowledge and respond to the whistleblowers. There is a sense that this has been buried.

The HSA report is dated October 2016. It states that staff needed to be given equipment to protect themselves from chemical exposure and that adequate and appropriately specified personal protective equipment, in particular protective gloves, eye protection and respirators for protection against chemical exposure, must be readily available to employees as required by relevant risk assessment findings. The implication is that this was not the case of up to that point, which is quite extraordinary. I agree with the Taoiseach about the degree to which we hold our Defence Forces in high esteem. The continual lack of enforcement and protection of health surveillance and so on is quite extraordinary.

I put it to the Taoiseach that the response of the Government is to bury this matter. Litigation is ongoing.

Will the Taoiseach ensure that the HSA report is published? Will he publish all internal reports in the Department pertaining to the matter? In addition, will the Taoiseach ensure that there was full public disclosure? We are not talking about just now, but what went on for the past 20 to 25 years.

The Deputy's time is up.

The Australian Government's approach was markedly different to that of the Irish Government, which is to deny repeatedly and resist and more or less say to the whistleblowers that it does not accept anything they are saying-----

The Deputy’s time is up.

-----and that it has no time for the manner in which they have gone about this. I have spoken to them and that is how they feel right now.

Litigation is ongoing, so I will not comment on it. However, the issues that have been raised need to be and will be dealt with. On the first person to be appointed, it is quite difficult to get somebody with the range of competences to deal with all the implications of hazardous substances and that sort of area. The second person that was appointed has now received the material.

The HSA issued its inspection report to the Air Corps on 21 October last year, in which it listed a number of matters. I am advised that the military authorities responded in writing to the HSA report on 23 December last year and indicated that the Air Corps is fully committed to implementing the improved safety measures that protect workers from potential exposures to chemicals and that it will ensure that risks are as low as is reasonably practicable. The Air Corps has implemented an improvement plan which has been conducted over eight phases. The first phase commenced in September 2016, with phase completion dates to December 2017. I am advised that seven of the eight phases are due to be implemented by May 2017.

A number of disclosures were made to the Minister for Defence under the Protected Disclosures Act 2014. They were received in December 2015 and December 2016. I will update the House-----

What happened to them?

A person was appointed earlier on who was not able to take up the duty.

There was no response to the whistleblowers.

A number of other issues are the subject of litigation at the moment. However, I will update the House because we will sort this out.

I point out to Members that eight minutes are allowed for questions in each category and that that slot overran by in excess of two minutes. The second question is from Deputy Gerry Adams.

Guím Lá Fhéile Bríde faoi mhaise ar an gCeann Comhairle agus ar an Taoiseach feasta.

That is my day.

Maith thú. Fair play duit.

The management of Bus Éireann has announced measures that threaten the rights of bus workers, passengers and, in particular, the rights of citizens in rural Ireland. By slashing overtime and Sunday rates and cutting pay, the management is forcing the issue to an industrial dispute. This race to the bottom when it comes to workers' pay and conditions is totally unacceptable because it is not the workers who created the crisis at Bus Éireann. Like the Taoiseach, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, states that rural Ireland is a top priority for the Government but there is no evidence of it. The Government has closed Garda stations, post offices and hospitals. Today, 601 citizens are on trolleys. The Government has closed other facilities. Now it is attacking the public bus service.

Coming from County Mayo, the Taoiseach must know that a large number of people, particularly those in rural Ireland, depend on Bus Éireann services. They include the young, the old, the poor, the rural dweller and the tourist. Those are the people who take the bus. The outworking of Government policy for those living in rural Ireland who cannot afford a car or who cannot drive for some reason is that they have to stay where they are even if that means they cannot have access to work, study, health care or a social life. The nub of the issue is whether the Taoiseach believes that public transport is a right.

It is clear that the Government believes in privatisation and, therefore, the profit motive will determine who gets a bus service. Bus Éireann is part of our vital infrastructure, particularly in rural Ireland. With good management and by listening to transport users and workers and taking on board what they have to say, it is possible to create a service that will attract more people to public transport. That should be the Government's position but it is not the position of the Minister. The Minister should take a range of decisions, including the decision to have a full review of the Expressway service. A review of loss-making routes on which private carriers currently operate is also needed. There should be a review of the private licences issued for these routes. There should also be an increase in funding for the free travel pass. As it currently stands, the amount allocated covers just 41% of the cost of the average journey. Given the threats to routes, the Minister needs to provide clarity. What routes and services have been identified for potential closure?

There needs to be a full engagement by the Minister with all stakeholders. Will the Taoiseach ensure that the Minister, Deputy Ross, engages with all the stakeholders, including his Department, the NTA, Bus Éireann and the unions, to find a resolution of the issue and that this happens without delay?

I assure the Deputy that the Government's main priority in this context is to ensure that the travelling public has the greatest range of transport opportunities and frequencies as has been evident in the annual increase in the numbers using the transport fleet. There will be a motion on the matter today. Bus Éireann is in serious financial difficulties. It has stated that its finances are in a perilous state. A major contributor to the falling revenues is the commercial service sector, where Bus Éireann has struggled for years against new market entrants. The company cannot continue to operate in its current loss-making position, which is not only depleting its reserves but could mean serious solvency issues lie ahead unless action is taken.

The Minister, Deputy Ross, is very concerned about the matter and has, in terms of the facilities of the State such as the Labour Court, made every effort to have the management and the unions get together. The analysis commissioned by the company identifies the commercial Expressway service as a source of significant losses and one that is a commercial problem which needs a commercial response. The Minister has put forward the proposition that he commits to taking account of the overall budgetary parameters through the importance of an adequately funded PSO transport network. He has also committed to reviewing the current funding levels associated with the free travel scheme. There were rumours that the Government was going to take away the free travel passes but let me assure the House that nothing is further from the truth.

The Minister has also made requests of the NTA, which has been vocal about the issue. If Bus Éireann were to adjust or reschedule some of its Expressway services, the NTA has stated that it would take up the option of providing services and transport for rural Ireland. This is an essential part of the programme for rural Ireland to realise its potential, which was launched in Ballymahon last week by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Heather Humphreys. The Minister has also committed to bringing forward amendments to the Public Transport Regulation Act 2009, taking into account the review of the legislation by the NTA and any necessary improvements to strengthen public transport services to the consumer.

The Minister is anxious that this matter would be dealt with in the same way as they are all eventually resolved, which is by sitting down and negotiating. Management and the unions need to get together. This is a serious matter that we do not want to see escalate so I ask both sides to do that. The PSO and the opportunity through the NTA and the adequacy and scale of the free travel pass system are important to both the Government and the Minister.

I hope that both sides can get together and work it out because it will have to be done eventually.

The Taoiseach stated that the Government's commitment is to ensure that the public has the greatest range of transport opportunities. Foremost among those must be a commitment to a public bus service, which the Taoiseach has not given. Our public transport network has been in a perpetual state of crisis. Last year, Luas and Dublin Bus workers were out on strike. There is a troubling rail review by the NTA and there are ongoing difficulties with Bus Éireann. This comes after more than a decade of underinvestment. Then there is the threat of more cuts to routes.

The Taoiseach knows that these routes connect people and rural and urban communities. He also knows that public transport can reduce traffic congestion and has a big part to play in protecting the environment.

Public transport, by its very nature, is not always about profit. The reason it is called public transport is that it is a service to the public. The Taoiseach stated this matter could only be resolved by everybody sitting around the table but the Minister refuses to sit at the table. Will the Taoiseach explain the reason for that and will he ensure the Minister does so? Will he ensure there is proper engagement with all the stakeholders, including the Department and Minister?

If everybody is interested in sorting out the issue, which I expect they are, and if people are serious, the opportunity presents itself to sit down and start to talk about the problems, both from a management and trade union point of view. The Expressway service is not subsidised. The Minister, through government, has increased the subsidy through the public service obligation, PSO, levy for subsidised routes, which is what the PSO is for. However, the commercial end of Bus Éireann, the Expressway route, is losing money - €6 million each year and the figure will increase. Should we endorse this or look at the issue and say we think it is a very good idea? Nobody does this and the travelling public do not want that either. If we are serious about sorting out this issue, people must sit down, negotiate and talk about the issues.

My understanding is that the company is developing a new plan which it hopes will restore Bus Éireann to a sustainable future. As part of this path to viability, negotiations between the trade union and management are crucial, as they are in all these cases and as Deputy Adams is well aware. The nub of the issue is that there is a commercial problem which requires a commercial answer. It will not be sorted out by talking over the media. People will have to sit down together, look at the issues, identify the options and make decisions. We thank all the drivers for the work they do, as well as those in bus management, in transporting more than 20 million passengers every year. This is a very important service and we want to see it continue.

There are a few flies in the Chamber. I do not know what that means or whether climate change is involved.

A Deputy

It is where they are landing that is important.

That is right and there are no flies on me.

Blame Shane Ross.

At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment last night, members had a hot and heavy debate following a presentation by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, on the proposed merger of Independent News and Media and Celtic Media. While I am aware that this issue has been raised previously, there must be proper public scrutiny of what is taking place. The National Union of Journalists has given me a document which features a map of Ireland in terms of media ownership should the proposed merger take place. It is not an accident that the map is coloured in blue. It shows that, in terms of media ownership, the country will be almost entirely owned by Denis O'Brien and his consortium, Independent News and Media, if the merger goes ahead.

There is extreme concern about plurality in the media in the event that the merger proceeds and the joint committee, of which I am a member, will examine the issue. We have been given an extraordinarily tight timeframe in which to make a submission to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, which is conducting a phase two investigation of the proposed merger. This is the first time the Competition Act, as amended by the previous Government under the watch of the then Minister, Mr. Alex White, will be put to the test. At the time, we were told the new legislation would protect media diversity.

The committee has approximately 12 days to make a submission to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. I had to fight hard in the committee to secure an agreement that we would attempt to have public scrutiny of the proposed merger and seek to quiz representatives of Independent News and Media, Celtic Media and the National Union of Journalists, as well as academics, about what the merger would mean for the plurality of media and the future of media in this country. We have an extraordinarily short period to complete this process.

The joint committee will send an invitation to Denis O'Brien's news and media company to see if it will appear at the hearing. It may not be able to do so but some people are not able to pay their taxes here. It can be difficult for an exile living abroad to get permission from his advisers to make an appearance at such a committee within such a tight timeframe and it may not be possible. The Taoiseach and his entire Cabinet should be very concerned about this. Once upon a time - in the 1940s - the Skibbereen Eagle declared that it would keep an eye on the Kremlin. If the proposed merger proceeds, we will not have a single Skibbereen Eagle left and there will be no one left to keep an eye on anyone else.

Does the Deputy have a question?

Is the Taoiseach concerned about the possible merger? Should there not be a forum for public scrutiny of this proposal?

The committee is perfectly entitled, Deputy Collins, to engage about the application in question, which I understand the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland is investigating. The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, clearly has a view on this matter, as does the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. While the timescale may be tight, members of the committee are fully entitled to engage with and interact publicly on this proposition with the bodies to which the Deputy referred and anybody else. However, it should be clearly understood that there is a process here and that this process is under way. Submissions to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland must be made in the next short period and the BAI will make its view known on these submissions. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment will have to oversee what emerges from that over a certain period. I do not want to pre-empt the recommendations, views or analysis of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland arising from the committee's discussions and the submissions it receives in the next ten days or so.

The reason I raise this matter is that the proposed merger is not only the concern of the committee of which I and other Deputies are members. I note the committee is weighted heavily with Fine Gael Senators and Deputies but that is just the way it is. The Taoiseach should also be concerned because this is a national concern. The joint committee is up against a ticking clock because the relevant legislation provides that submissions must be made by a certain date. In this case, I understand the deadline is either 12 or 14 February. The proposed merger is a matter of national concern on many levels, in particular in respect of the plurality of media.

The question of how Independent News and Media is dealt with by the State is also extraordinarily interesting. I referred to the difficulty some people have with paying their taxes in this country. At the same time, €100 million of INM's debt was written off by Allied Irish Banks. We then had the extraordinary ill treatment of workers' pensions by Denis O'Brien and Independent News and Media. This issue needs public scrutiny as otherwise we will hurtle towards a dictatorship in the media. The Taoiseach should not pretend this will be an even-handed discrepancy or that the media depends on good journalism. That is not the case because editorial control is everything. This is an issue of national interest and the Taoiseach should be concerned about it.

I am concerned. Once a proposed media merger receives clearance from the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission on competition grounds, it has to be notified to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment to assess the proposed transaction on media plurality grounds. Upon receipt of notification from the parties, what is called a phase one examination of the merger is carried out by the Department. While this is focused on competition and market issues, the examination carried out by the Department is focused on media plurality, the point raised by the Deputy. This examination is guided by the relevant criteria set out in Part 3A of the Competition Act 2002, as amended by the Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014. Statutory guidelines are in place on media mergers.

If, following the phase one examination, the Minister opts to send the case to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, the authority will, following its examination of the proposed merger, provide him with a report detailing its recommendations on the matter. A full phase two assessment, Deputy Collins, is a much more detailed process over 80 working days or 16 weeks instead of the 30 working days or six weeks provided for a phase one examination.

Why does the Taoiseach repeatedly refer to me as Deputy Collins?

There are significant differences between the two assessments. One of these is that the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland must invite submissions from the public on the proposed transaction and must directly invite a submission from the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment, which is the work the committee is doing. It is also possible for the Minister to establish an advisory panel to provide an opinion to the BAI on the application of the relevant criteria to the media merger application in question. This is a matter of concern and it is receiving-----

That was not a reply to my question.

I want to discuss the prestigious, internationally recognised multi-billion euro horse racing industry, which is considered to be one of the jewels in Ireland's crown and where, behind the glistening exterior, lurks a world of vicious exploitation, wholesale and deliberate illegality, ruthless vested interests and criminal behaviour, without any proper oversight or regulation.

Tens of millions of euro of citizens' money continues to be pumped into this industry every year. Ironically, on the very day that the Government was facilitating the sanction of the last tranche of cash in the week before Christmas and questions were being asked in this House about the flagrant breaches of working conditions in the industry, a collective agreement was announced between the Irish Stable Staff Association and the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association, to reassure us all that the problems had been solved and there was nothing further to see. Of course, that was a sham, a conjuring trick. The Irish Stable Staff Association, despite being represented on the board of Horse Racing Ireland, is not a trade union or a negotiating body. It has no membership or employees. It does not produce annual reports and one cannot join the association through its website.

In regard to the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association, we are told that trainers must be registered with the Turf Club and as such they could not be charging any less favourable rates. That is not true. The Turf Club has no oversight of wages and conditions in the industry. When it wrote to the trainers last year seeking P60s and returns for staff who were paid more than €25,000 in order to distribute a pension scheme, it received a list of only 300 names. How can it be that there are only 300 workers earning more than €25,000 in a multi-billion euro industry with thousands of workers? The Turf Club wrote again to the trainers, this time lowering the horizon to €12,500, in respect of which it received a list of 800 names. Where are all those 800 staff? They are buried in the bowels of the black economy - cash-in-hand, on the dole, racing allowances agreed with Revenue as tax-free expenditure being calculated as part of the minimum wage, no contracts, no tea breaks, no time sheets - in an industry that is so brazen its collective agreement advertises illegality.

There is something very rotten at the heart of Irish horse racing which we have not fully figured out. However, we are learning more every day. Is the Taoiseach willing to help? Is he willing to launch a co-ordinated multi-agency swoop on the industry, involving officials from NERA, Revenue, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Health and Safety Authority of Ireland, because that is what is necessary?

The Deputy has raised a number of issues, the detail of which I do not have. In response to her question, there are rules, regulations and laws in place in this country in terms of employers, employees, minimum wages and so on. It is necessary that these measures operate as they should. I would be happy to follow-up on the issues validly raised by the Deputy. I am not too sure that it is necessary to have, as the Deputy suggested, a swoop. There is an issue to be addressed if, as she suggested, there is a black economy in this area such that there are people working in the industry at below minimum wage rates. If the Deputy forwards the information she has to me, I will be happy to follow through on it in so far as I can.

The Taoiseach is correct that I have raised detailed points to which I would not expect him to be able to respond today but I do expect him to follow up on this matter. This is a task beyond the Taoiseach. The wholesale illegality is an open secret in the industry. It will not be sorted by any one individual or agency. It requires a multi-task force to intervene to ensure that our laws are being upheld because they are not. I would suggest that what might be advisable is a confidential hotline to allow good trainers in the industry, who want to adhere to the law and to pay the correct rates but are being viciously under-cut by the black market, to speak up. I am speaking in this regard of the staff who are virtually indentured slaves and small owners and trainers who are often the back-bone of employment in rural areas and want to play a role. They will provide the information. Sadly, the response of this Government has been to appoint to Horse Racing Ireland, the very people connected with Coolmore and the big players in the industry - the vested interests at the top. We will not get the answers from those people. What we need is outside independent scrutiny.

The Irish horse racing industry is of exceptional importance to the economy and to the reputation of Ireland internationally. It has proven itself over many years. The Deputy has raised a particular issue. I am happy to receive the information which the Deputy has and to ask the agencies and Ministers involved to follow up on it. There is already in place a facility through which people can make protected disclosures or provide information confidentially.