Topical Issue Debate

Garda Deployment

The first matter is from Deputy Thomas Byrne. Is the Minister of State, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan taking this matter?

Is the Minister for Justice and Equality coming into the Chamber to deal with this?

No, I am taking the matter on his behalf.

The Minister of State with responsibility for sport is going to talk about a really serious issue of crime in my constituency. That is a joke and the joke is on the Government. This is outrageous.

Does the Deputy wish to proceed with it?

Yes, I want to proceed with it but I think it is outrageous that the Minister of State with responsibility for sport-----

Neither the Ceann Comhairle nor the Leas-Cheann Comhairle has any influence-----

I would like to see the Minister for Justice and Equality in the Chamber today.

I could move it back to fourth position but I do not think the situation is going to change.

I do not know what responsibility Deputy O'Donovan has - maybe it is not for sport - but his is not the Ministry I want.

Does the Deputy want us to deal with it now or-----

I want to take it because the issue is too serious for my constituency-----

-----does he want the Ceann Comhairle to request that it be taken tomorrow, without a guarantee?

No, because the issues are too serious and need to be put on the Dáil record. Someone needs to listen to my constituents on this matter.

Fine. Deputy Thomas Byrne has four minutes.

I hope the Minister for Justice and Equality is listening to this because it is deeply disrespectful-----

The clock is ticking now.

I know, we are six seconds into the slot but it is deeply disrespectful for the Minister for Justice and Equality not to come in when there is a serious issue of crime and criminality in my constituency which is not being addressed with the proper resources for An Garda Síochána.

I have tabled this particular Topical Issue with regard to Stamullen and Gormanston where there has been a wave of crime and anti-social behaviour in the last number of weeks, if not years, as well as an increase in burglaries. This has not been addressed by increasing the Garda presence in the area. Instead, we have seen an absolute savaging of Garda resources, with gardaí on the beat simply unable to deal with the crime with which they are expected to deal. Somebody has to listen. The Ashbourne Garda district may be a relatively new district with much of its population having moved there over the last ten to 20 years but it deserves the same policing response and resources as every other part of the country. It simply does not have that and as a result, the levels of burglary and anti-social behaviour are running amok. It is fair to say that the public does not have confidence in Garda response times or in the Garda presence in the area and as a resident of the Ashbourne Garda district, I share a lot of their concerns. I have no difficulty in expressing confidence in the ability of gardaí to investigate crimes and indeed, they seem to have had some success in recent days. However, I have a severe lack of confidence, as do my constituents, in terms of the Garda presence on the ground throughout the district, but specifically in Stamullen and Gormanston.

In 2016, 321 burglaries were recorded in the Ashbourne Garda district while in the entire county of Westmeath only 241 were recorded. The number of gardaí in the Ashbourne Garda district is around 100. The number in the entire county of Meath is 321 but there are 241 gardaí in Westmeath. There is a higher crime rate, in terms of burglaries, in the Ashbourne Garda district compared to the whole of County Westmeath but the district has around one third of the gardaí deployed in that county. That is outrageous, unsustainable and it cannot go on. It is completely wrong. I hope that the Minister for Justice and Equality, An Garda Síochána and the forum on the future of policing are all listening because this is wrong. It is wrong that there is not equality for my constituents who are citizens of this republic. They do not have the same Garda service that many other counties can take for granted. It is simply wrong, unsustainable and is not conducive to the public good or the betterment of civic society. This must change. The people have been complaining about it for long enough. The people of Stamullen, Gormanston, Duleek, east Meath, the fringes of Drogheda, Dunboyne, Dunshaughlin, Ratoath, Ashbourne and everywhere in between are sick of what is going on. Gardaí simply cannot do the job they are being asked to do because there are not enough of them.

We have another specific problem in that Garda stations in Drogheda, Balbriggan, Maynooth, Kilcock and Kingscourt which are adjacent to this particular Garda district cannot serve it. That is something that must change because we are completely isolated and do not have enough resources.

It cannot go on and gardaí should not allow this situation to continue. The public simply will not put up with it. I am not encouraging any form of protests in this regard but constituents have suggested that people would protest at Garda stations - that is how bad it has become. These are honourable, decent citizens who rightly feel they deserve a proper policing service and a proper number of gardaí.

At the outset, I want to apologise to the House on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, who, unfortunately, cannot be here today. He has asked me to take this issue on his behalf. The Minister would like to offer his sympathies to the two teenagers who were attacked on the road leading to Gormanston railway station on Sunday evening. He asks anyone who can be of assistance to An Garda Síochána in regard to this deplorable attack to contact gardaí immediately, and I am sure the House joins him in that request.

The Minister has been informed that gardaí from Laytown Garda station responded to this incident and were assisted by members of An Garda Síochána from Balbriggan and Ashbourne Garda stations, along with two mobile units from the regional armed support unit. The Minister is advised that, with assistance from the public, An Garda Síochána is making significant progress with its investigations into this matter. The Minister has been informed by the Garda authorities that a number of incidents, including robberies of mobile phones, assaults, thefts and general anti-social behaviour, have recently occurred in the Stamullen and Gormanston areas. Local Garda management has established an incident room in Laytown and all these incidents are being fully investigated. In addition, extra patrols under Operation Thor are being provided in the Stamullen and Gormanston areas to assist local gardaí.

As the Deputy will appreciate, the Garda Commissioner is responsible for the distribution of resources, including personnel, among the various Garda divisions, and the Minister has no direct role in day-to-day matters. The Minister wants to assure the Deputy and the House that the Government is committed to ensuring a strong and visible police presence throughout the country in order to maintain and strengthen community engagement, provide reassurance to citizens and to deter crime. To make this a reality, the Government has in place a plan to achieve an overall Garda workforce of 21,000 personnel by 2021, comprising 15,000 Garda members, 2,000 reserve members and 4,000 civilians.

The Minister is informed by the Commissioner that the Garda strength of the Meath division, on 30 September 2017, the latest date for which figures are readily available, was 293. There are also 16 Garda reserves and 29 civilians attached to the division. He is further informed by the Commissioner that, since the reopening of the Garda College in September 2014, close to 1,400 recruits have attested as members of An Garda Síochána and have been assigned to mainstream duties nationwide, 46 of whom have been assigned to the Meath division. In addition, another 200 trainee gardaí are scheduled to attest later this year, which will see Garda numbers, taking account of projected retirements, increase to 13,500 by the end of the year, an increase of 500 since the end of 2016.

This focus on investment in personnel is critical. The moratorium on recruitment, which was introduced in 2010, resulted in a significant reduction in the strength of An Garda Síochána. We are now rebuilding the organisation and providing the Commissioner with the resources to deploy increasing numbers of gardaí across every Garda division, including the Meath division, in the coming years. The Deputy asked that these significant issues, about which he is rightly concerned, would be brought to the attention of the Minister and I assure him that will be done.

I do not accept this answer. I do not accept it is correct to go back to 2010 to place the blame for all the problems. I am raising a problem, not just in regard to Garda numbers at a national level, which, thankfully, are increasing under the confidence and supply agreement, but in regard to the disparity in Garda resources between different parts of the country. This is outrageous and is not accepted by the citizenry of this country, certainly not by my constituents. There are a lot more burglaries in my area and a lot fewer gardaí than in a neighbouring county, when there does not seem to be any objective justification for this. Westmeath is not a Border county and there are no special Garda units at national level that are based there, or none I am aware of. This is wrong. Criminals are aware of this. There is no point covering it up - they know this. They know we have an excellent motorway network. There are four motorways throughout this Garda district - the M1 at Stamullen and Gormanston, the M2, the M3 and the M4, which goes through parts of the constituency or is adjacent to it. These are providing easy access in and out in regard to burglaries and, indeed, anti-social behaviour, as we have seen in recent weeks.

I agree with the Minister of State on the need to encourage everybody to give any information they have to An Garda Síochána. I wish An Garda Síochána all the very best with its investigations. However, it is my contention that it simply does not have enough men and women on the ground to do the job the State expects it to do. This will have to be taken seriously. It is a threat to good order and governance in this country that there is this sort of disparity. I know senior gardaí at a local level are shouting about this internally but it is not being listened to. It is about time someone listened and said that while this is a new area, and while these are not towns which traditionally had a huge population, they do now and they need to be recognised as such.

The crime levels which are publicly available from the Central Statistics Office make the case that I am making. The Minister of State said the number of gardaí in the Meath division is 293. My figure from a few weeks ago is 295, which means we have lost two gardaí, even in the last few weeks. It is heartbreaking and frustrating to me and my constituents.

I am sure the Deputy would acknowledge that the resumption of recruitment and the increased numbers in An Garda Síochána predated the confidence and supply agreement and was part of the work of the last Government, which took on board that the Garda was deprived of the resources that are needed to provide an effective police force across the country. While there are historic reasons for that, the last Government and this one did a lot in this regard, which needs to be acknowledged, aside from the supply and confidence agreement.

The Minister wishes to inform the Deputy and the House that Garda management keeps the distribution of resources under continual review in the context of crime trends and policing priorities, and that the needs of all divisions, including Meath, are taken into consideration in the allocation of Garda resources. In budget 2018 the Government will support the continuation of the high level of investment in An Garda Síochána in recent years and ensure that the vision of an overall workforce of 21,000 by 2021 remains on track.

In addition, the Government's plan for an overall Garda workforce of 21,000 is complemented by substantial investment in resources across An Garda Síochána, and I am sure all Members will welcome that the civilianisation effort is also increasing within the force. Some €300 million, including €205 million under the capital plan, is being invested in ICT infrastructure over the period 2016-2021. This will allow gardaí to deploy the latest cutting-edge technologies in the fight against crime and will facilitate progress on important reforms arising from the Garda inspectorate's report on crime investigation. The capital plan 2016-2021 provides for an investment of €46 million in the Garda fleet in order to ensure that An Garda Síochána has a modern, effective and fit-for-purpose fleet. This is in addition to the investment of almost €30 million in the period 2013-2015, which was covered by the last Government. In the period from 2013 to end of 2017, almost €44 million will have been invested in the fleet, with 2,000 vehicles coming on stream in that period. I believe every Member of the House will acknowledge that was a huge issue in every Garda district across the country. This investment will facilitate the provision of more effective policing services and the Minister expects that the Meath division, like other Garda divisions, will benefit from the new resources becoming available.

Infectious Diseases

This issue concerns the outbreak of measles in north County Dublin in the last few weeks. It has happened a few times in recent years and is an issue I feel strongly about as a pharmacist. From a public health policy point of view, vaccination would be considered, after water sanitation, as the single greatest success story in terms of health worldwide in modern times. The concern here is that very few people are actively working now who have seen measles and witnessed families lose children at a young age. Once a disease disappears, the burden of that disease can quickly be forgotten. I am sure there are people around these Houses who remember children being born and dying very quickly but, while death is obviously very serious, measles can also cause brain damage, blindness, deafness and many complications due to secondary infections.

Today, for the benefit of the Minister for Health, I want to identify areas where we have been complacent, given this has led to an increased number of cases.

Continued high vaccination rates are vital if we are to ensure a sustained protection of the population from diseases. Facts and science save lives while miscommunication and untruths destroy them, given how they have been shown to affect vaccination rates. This country has faced challenges with the HPV vaccine, so it would be regrettable if we were to let our vaccination rate drop below approximately 95%, which is considered the point at which the population is afforded herd immunity.

A small issue arises regarding vulnerable communities, for example, those with limited education levels or language barriers and migrants from countries where health policies and vaccination protocols are different. Speaking professionally, I know that some communities have cultural fears of engaging with our State institutions, medical people and people in positions of authority because their status within this country might not be ideal. The Minister of State should address these groups in particular, given that they may not have access to the same information, knowledge or history that some of us in this country have, for the betterment of their health as well as the health of the wider population.

Recently, doses were offered to pupils in an attempt to increase the vaccination rate, but there must be a public health process whereby we highlight to people who have never encountered measles and only know it as a word what it is, how bad it can be, how to identify it, how contagious it is and how difficult it is to contain. Someone can get measles just by being in a room that a person with measles has been in. People do not even need to have direct contact.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to update the House on this matter. Measles is an acute and serious viral infection and is highly infectious. As Deputies are aware, there is an ongoing measles outbreak in north Dublin and Meath. The HSE east's department of public health has been notified of eight confirmed cases of measles in the north Dublin area and five in County Meath, predominantly among children. Other cases are under investigation. The source of the measles outbreak has not yet been identified. Confirmation of further cases associated with this outbreak can be expected in the coming weeks as contact tracing and other measures proceed.

An outbreak control team has been convened to investigate and control the spread of this potentially serious illness. The local HSE departments of public health, where the cases are identified, are investigating and implementing control and communication measures with local GPs, hospitals and others in the relevant communities. NGO groups working in those communities have been alerted and asked to share information through their networks about this outbreak.

An alert has been sent throughout the health system, including to emergency departments, consultants in microbiology and paediatrics, hospital managers, directors of public health nursing, and GPs. Hospitals and health care facilities are requested to raise awareness among staff in order that the triage and isolation of suspect cases is achieved, thereby helping to prevent the further spread. Suspect cases should be notified to HSE departments of public health and samples should be sent to the national virus reference laboratory to facilitate rapid diagnosis. All people identified as contacts of the measles cases are being notified and advised of the risk by departments of public health.

Immunisation is regarded as one of the safest and most effective health care interventions, and the importance of vaccination is acknowledged globally. Diseases that used to be common around the world can now be prevented by vaccination. Vaccination is effective in preventing measles. In Ireland, measles immunisation was introduced in 1985. In 1988, the MMR vaccine, which combines measles, mumps and rubella vaccines, replaced the single measles vaccine. The MMR vaccine is available free of charge as part of the primary childhood immunisation schedule. In 2016, vaccination rates for MMR at 24 months were 93% and have been above 90% since 2008.

In recent years, however, and due to the success of our programme, many vaccine-preventable diseases have become so infrequent that we have lost the collective memory of how serious and deadly some childhood illnesses can be. The lack of awareness of measles and its infectiousness may have contributed to the spread in the current outbreak. Although the uptake rate is high, this outbreak and a number of prominent measles cases last year demonstrate that we must not be complacent. Since the only protection against measles is vaccination, I encourage parents and guardians of all children and teenagers who have not been immunised yet to protect their children by getting them vaccinated. Young adults who have not been immunised should also get this important vaccine.

I will address some of the other issues that the Deputy raised after her next contribution.

I thank the Minister of State. In the wider European context and given the movement of people, there have been 44 deaths owing to measles in EU countries since 2016. Disease does not know borders, so I would be anxious for the Department to examine countries where there have been increased rates of measles and consider how to control the burden of disease in the context of people from elsewhere coming to this country and vice versa.

Related to this is the issue of Brexit, our relationship with the NHS in the UK in terms of the potential border and our level of sharing of data on disease control, particularly as regards measles.

It is worth noting at this cold time of the year when older people and immunocompromised people tend to get sick that this is not just a baby or small child issue. Of those who got measles in 2016, only 58% were unvaccinated. Just because someone is vaccinated does not mean that he or she is safe, so this is everyone's problem. Anyone who is immunocompromised, old, sick or otherwise vulnerable is especially at risk. As I have stated at the Committee on Health, if there is a measles outbreak in this country, trolleys will be the least of our worries. We will have sick people with HIV and autoimmune diseases dying from a disease that had effectively been wiped out in this country. Trying to control the condition should be a priority for the Department.

I acknowledge the importance of vaccinations. The Deputy is right, in that not only children can be infected, but also adults. Unfortunately, people have died and will continue dying if outbreaks are allowed in any country.

Thanks to the increase in the MMR vaccination uptake rate in Ireland in the past decade, measles had become relatively rare. However, 43 cases were notified in 2016, the bulk of which were part of an outbreak associated with an imported case. In 2015, there were six measles cases, the lowest annual number reported since 1948 and a significant decrease on the 33 cases in 2014.

Yesterday, I met people from the Department of Health and the HSE to discuss the outbreak in the north inner city and Meath. I assure the Deputy that everything is being done on the ground and in the Department and the HSE to notify people of the risks associated with not getting their children the MMR vaccine. The public health awareness work of local GPs and district nurses has taken on board the alert issued by the Department and the HSE. We will continue to monitor the situation. I hope that, in the coming weeks and months, we will be able to identify the source of the outbreak and continue working with health care facilities and staff around the country to raise awareness of this deadly disease, particularly as it relates to young babies.

I want to keep the Deputy informed of progress on a regular basis. As soon as I have more information, I will relay it to her.

Quarrying Sector

I want to be clear at the outset as to why I am raising the sale of nine lots in a quarry portfolio in counties Carlow and Wicklow. I am doing so on behalf of the people I represent. Over 100 families are employed by the company concerned. I ask the Government to intervene with a bank which is owned by the taxpayer, AIB, to ensure the sale will not go ahead or that it will not go ahead without discussing the matter with the Morrisseys, the family who own the lots. A lot is riding on the sale. Some 100 jobs are in the balance, as well as what they contribute to the local economy. The sale will also have an impact on the marketplace because there are three super players in the quarry industry in this country who control everything. A previous quarry sale resulted in the closure of viable entities. As a result, there were job losses and a lack of competition in the market. If Morrisseys is not kept in the market, there will be job losses and a further deterioration in the level of competition in Ireland. The company supplies most of the county councils in the south east. It has a 100-year record and worked with AIB while in receivership, fulfilling almost €3 million worth of contracts in the course of the receivership. It has an excellent record with AIB, yet it is being forced into a public sale. Instead of this, AIB could very easily get value for the sale which involves a sum in the region of €4.6 million by selling properties directly to the Morrisseys who currently own the quarries. There would be no loser if the sale was conducted in that way. The bank would achieve value for money. The money would be raised privately and not involve AIB money. The 100 jobs and competitiveness in the marketplace would be maintained and it would ensure a company which has worked for 100 years in the local community was kept in business.

If we can do anything through a bank which is owned by taxpayers, this is one step we could take to show the people of Ireland that we are interested in their plight and attempting to save jobs and indigenous businesses. It is one action the Government could take to show that it is interested. That action should be taken by the Minister for Finance today. He should contact AIB and instruct it to hold off on any sale until it negotiates with the current occupiers of the quarries, the Morrisseys. In terms of the impact on the local economy should the quarries be closed, separate from the level of competition in the market, 100 families will be affected. The suppliers of goods and services to these quarries will also be affected. If we have an interest in rural Ireland, this is the time to stand up.

In its advertising, AIB states it is "backing brave". Let it back the brave who spent 100 years building a company and worked with it during receivership, kept jobs and fulfilled contracts. Let it back the brave who are still willing to work with AIB, using their money, and allow them to stay in business. That is the challenge for the Government if it wants to save jobs and continue what is a very successful business, notwithstanding the effects of the downturn.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As a local Deputy, I can understand the situation. My constituency, Clare, faced a similar situation a few years ago when a major quarry and concrete company closed. We know the devastation caused on a personal basis, as the Deputy outlined, for the many families concerned.

The company was established in the 1930s and was a major supplier to the construction industry during the boom. It went into receivership in June 2014 owing debts to AIB. The company had an interim examiner appointed shortly afterwards but was subsequently placed back into receivership.

I am aware that a number of the quarries owned by Dan Morrissey Ireland Limited are due to go to public auction shortly on the instructions of the joint receivers, as the Deputy outlined. I understand Enterprise Ireland had limited engagement with the company. In 2007 the agency paid it a €4,500 environment management grant. Although Enterprise Ireland does not fund companies to assist them to trade on the domestic market, its potential exporters division was in contact with the company to discuss exporting options and understands it was not exporting. The agency, therefore, was not in a position to assist further.

Supporting enterprise development in all regions of the country to support job creation is a key objective of the Government, with initiatives such as the regional Action Plans for Jobs seeking to build on the capabilities and strengths of each region to maximise enterprise growth and job creation. The regional action plan initiative is working to promote regional and rural job creation by bringing different stakeholders in each of the eight regions together to identify innovative and practical actions to be taken across a range of Departments and agencies. The success of this project is crucial to the Government’s ambition to create an additional 200,000 jobs, 135,000 of which would be outside Dublin, by 2020. The most recent quarter 2 2017 figures from the CSO also show that over 80% of all jobs created in the previous year were created outside Dublin. The enterprise agencies are making a significant contribution to employment in the regions. Some 61% of new jobs created by Enterprise Ireland firms in 2016 were outside Dublin, while 52% of new jobs by IDA Ireland firms in 2016 were outside Dublin.

The south-east plan which covers the area under discussion is the key policy response for supporting employment growth in the south-east region, with public and private stakeholders actively engaged in delivering a range of innovative and practical actions set out in the plan. The core objective of the plan is to create a further 25,000 jobs in the region by 2020 in the counties of Carlow, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford and reduce the unemployment rate to within 1% of the State average. Sectors targeted as part of the plan include traditionally strong sectors for the region such as agrifood, manufacturing, engineering and tourism. Key targets include a 30% to 40% increase in investments by overseas companies in the region by 2019. The first two progress reports on the implementation of the south-east plan show that good progress continues to be made in implementing the actions. Some 13,000 jobs have been created in the south east since the regional Action Plans for Jobs initiative was launched in January 2015. In addition, the unemployment rate in the south east fell from 12.8% in 2015 to 8.1% by quarter 2 of 2017. Numbers on the live register in County Carlow have fallen by 1,538, or 29%, in the past two years. However, there is still work to be done. The unemployment rate in the south east is still over one percentage point higher than the quarter 2 national average of 6.4%. The enterprise development agencies will continue to make every effort they can to develop new employment opportunities in the region.

Carlow is home to seven IDA Ireland clients which, between them, employ just over 800 people in a range of manufacturing and service operations. Enterprise Ireland has 85 client companies based in Carlow which created 373 jobs in 2016, bringing total employment by Enterprise Ireland clients in Carlow to 2,973. I referred to some of the Deputy's questions in my reply.

The Minister of State has not answered my questions. He has studiously avoided every single point I have made on behalf of Morrisseys and the 100 jobs which are at stake. He has ignored everything I have said and the letters written to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, and AIB. It is disgraceful that he would come into the House with no facts or figures and make no effort to explain whether he will contact AIB, ask it to stop the sale on behalf of the taxpayer and protect the jobs which are at risk. He never mentioned the Morrisseys, the offers made or whether he would intervene.

That shows complete disrespect for this House and its Members. The job of the Ceann Comhairle is to protect the interests of the Members but the Minister of State has not answered the question. I ask the Leas-Cheann Comhairle to insist that the Minister of State, either now or at some other stage today, provides the answer to the questions asked.

This is why people are so cynical about politics. The Minister of State refuses to discuss the issue at heart while I have cut to the chase and given the facts. I ask the Minister of State again if he will tell the bank, which this country owns, to stop the sale of this quarry and protect the 100 jobs and competition in the market. Today the Minister of State is ignoring not just the plight of my constituents but the issue at hand. There are three superpowers in this country that own all the quarries and they dictate the price of the product; it is a cartel. The Minister of State has addressed none of this. He has expressed sympathy and said he knows about this because of his experience in Clare. Why did he not do something with that experience and at least give the facts asked of him instead of reading this drivel into the record? He is ignoring a fair attempt on my behalf to put a request that it is absolutely necessary for the Minister of State to address. Stop this sale through AIB to a super group that will result in the loss of jobs and have an effect on 100 families. It is a disgraceful answer.

It is not a disgraceful answer. I said I would deal with some of the matters raised in the second part of my contribution. I have had to deal with the overall picture as well. I listened attentively to the Deputy's comments about what is happening in Carlow and again I say that I sympathise with the plight. This was only brought to my attention this afternoon and I tried to get as much information as I could in the limited amount of time available. I am prepared to take on board what has been said by the Deputy and relate those concerns to the powers that be. The Deputy's contribution is fair but the accusations against me-----

The Minister of State is "the powers that be".

It is very unfair. I said this afternoon I am prepared to listen to the Deputy's concerns and convey them to the relevant people. We know some of the plants are going for public auction. It is not for me to decide who will buy those plants, whether they are new or existing owners. I sympathise with the Morrissey family and I have made that quite clear. They are in business since 1930 and know it inside out. Something clearly went wrong in the company over the years as it went into examinership and then it was put back into receivership again. I will not comment on it further except to say I will convey the Deputy's deep concerns as he has outlined them this evening. As a Minister of State with responsibility for trade and business, I will do that. The most important action is to try to ensure the families remain employed. There is an upturn in the economy and there will be a demand for construction, quarrying and concrete products throughout the regions. Let us wait and see what happens. Rather than personally attacking us this evening, the Deputy should see what happens. I will convey his concerns.

The sale is next Saturday and sympathy does not cut it.

The sale is next Saturday and he has raised the matter on Wednesday afternoon.

The Minister knew about it last week. The Minister of State should take action rather than speaking words that mean nothing to anybody. It is disgraceful.

Industrial Relations

Before, during and after the strike at Bus Éireann, the Minister gave commitments on the floor of the Dáil that he would convene a forum involving all stakeholders to facilitate engagement on public transport. The Bus Éireann strike finished in mid-April so between then and October there were six long months in which the Minister did not convene such a meeting. He did not set a date or terms of reference for the meeting. There has been nothing. Was that a stalling tactic and did the Minister deliberately mislead the House in saying he would give a commitment to set up that stakeholders' forum to bring everybody around the table? Did the Minister have no intention of doing it?

Last year the Minister had sight of the rail review before it went to public consultation. It is back on the Minister's desk but he has not published it. Having had initial sight of it he would have seen the dire financial straits that Iarnród Éireann is experiencing. He would have seen flagged in the rail review serious safety issues apparent in Iarnród Éireann due to the lack of investment over the past decade and maintenance of vital infrastructure. In the budget a couple of weeks ago, the Minister for Finance indicated that transport had procured an additional €9.6 million. That is the only additional funding for the entire transport portfolio. It is fair to say the Minister has no interest in public transport and he certainly has no plan. Did he mislead the Dáil when he gave a commitment to convene the stakeholders' forum?

I refer the Minister to the Taoiseach's comments yesterday. The Taoiseach is on a salary of over €180,000 and he supports the chief executive of Irish Rail, who gets over €211,000 per year. He told the Dáil the rail workers' demands are unaffordable. These demands equate to a pay rise of 3.75% after ten years of pay freezes, two years of pay cuts, increased productivity and rising passenger numbers. That is along with all the austerity imposed on us, including property tax, universal social charge and everything else. Apparently, an increase of 3.75% is unaffordable. Where does the Government get off? It is affordable to increase salaries for chief executive officers, the Taoiseach and Ministers but it is apparently not affordable to meet reasonable pay demands that are only keeping track with increased costs of living.

Many workers earning between €30,000 and €40,000 are enemy No. 1 for demanding a modest pay rise after a decade of these cuts and pay freezes. Since 2008, this State has cut subvention for rail from €181 million to €117 million. There were eight years of cuts, which were demanded by Irish Rail to plug the gap in funding, and this made employees work harder and longer for less pay. Wage costs fell by €25 million and there has been a decrease of 20% in the staffing of the company. On the picket lines this week I spoke with drivers and other staff who are in fear of their lives running trains up and down the country with only two staff on them, the driver and AN Other. Often they deal with assaults, threats and can witness suicides. They are put under great duress. Trains are operating with a skeleton staff and they are not getting decent pay rises that would keep them ahead of cost increases.

What does the Minister have to say about that? Is this affordable or unaffordable? Will we treat these staff like nurses and teachers who we cannot recruit any more because we are not paying them enough to live in this increasingly costly country?

I thank the Deputies for raising this truly Topical Issue. I share their disappointment that we have seen a second day of strike action at Iarnród Éireann but I am pleased, as I am sure they are, that both sides have accepted an invitation from the Labour Court to attend talks tomorrow morning. Deputies know I have consistently stated that difficult matters like these can only be resolved through open, constructive and realistic engagement between the company and its employees. I encourage both sides to engage constructively on the matter, as I am sure they are now intent on doing.

I have responsibility for policy and overall funding for public transport.

I am not involved in the day-to-day operations of public transport. Industrial relations and pay are a matter for the company and its employees. I have made clear time and again that I will not intervene in areas where it is not appropriate for a Minister to intervene.

In relation to funding of our public transport services, I recognise that subvention levels were reduced during the recession, as the Deputies frequently and rightly point out. Most areas of public expenditure were reduced. However, the public service obligation, PSO, subvention increased last year, again this year and will increase yet further next year. Over the three years subvention will have increased by some 35% in total. In 2018, €285 million of Exchequer - taxpayer - funds will be allocated. The precise allocations to the individual transport companies will be decided by the National Transport Authority, NTA, in accordance with the various contract arrangements. Iarnród Éireann receives a significant portion of the total PSO funding available for all the public transport companies. In 2016 alone, it received 57% of the total PSO funding available for the CIÉ group and carried about 20% of the total passengers.

In budget 2018 we also announced €2.7 billion of Exchequer capital investment in public transport infrastructure and facilities over the next four years under the capital plan. This represents a 30% increase over the original capital plan allocations for 2018 to 2021 and will allow roll-out of a number of key infrastructure programmes to address congestion and emerging capacity constraints on our public transport system. The forthcoming ten year national investment plan, to be published in the coming months, will provide a ten year capital envelope for public transport to 2028. In answer to the question from Deputy Munster, a few months ago I made a commitment to engage in a dialogue with a wide range of public transport stakeholders and the process for setting this up has already begun. A constructive meeting took place on 10 July with all relevant trade union representatives and I found the exchange to be both useful and informative. I requested that each of the unions make submissions on the format and issues that might be covered by the proposed dialogue. They expressed an eagerness to do so and I look forward to receiving all of those submissions. Only one has been received to date. As previously indicated in this House, I would also welcome any suggestions that opposition spokespersons, including the two Deputies here, might have. However, as I have frequently stated, the proposed dialogue cannot take place under the threat of or during industrial action. I hope we will be able to go ahead with that dialogue shortly.

I welcome the intervention of the Labour Court and hope that the discussions, which will start tomorrow, will provide the basis for a lasting agreement between the company and its employees. It is vitally important for the travelling public and also for the staff and for the company itself that public transport continues and that the dispute is resolved in a realistic, fair and sustainable manner.

This comes back to the Minister's commitment to the stakeholders' forum. That was on 10 July, some four months ago. The Minister could have picked up a phone and set a date. He could have decided to start with the meeting and then set the agenda and the terms of reference.

I am sure that, despite the Minister's apparent lack of interest in public transport, he is aware that this year alone CIÉ is expecting record passenger numbers and that revenue is at its highest level ever. The pay of drivers starts at €43,000. Does the Minister believe that the train drivers in Iarnród Éireann are less entitled to the same type of pay rise that workers got in other parts of the transport sector? How does he justify not giving them the same terms, especially considering that TDs will award themselves a €5,500 pay rise between April of this year and January of next year? Where is the equity in that? Where is the fairness? The transport workers did not cause this strike. Gross underfunding in infrastructure has brought us to this point.

I welcome the talks, but I caution that the bus workers in Bus Éireann who went into talks settled with a big stick over their heads. They understood that if they did not accept the settlement the Minister would have made the company insolvent. The Minister should not allow that happen again, because the workers in Bus Éireann are suffering under the threat of insolvency. Their working lives have been ruined by the sort of rotas they are expected to work. They are now working in a very difficult, demoralised workplace. The company is riding roughshod over them. The Minister should not let that happen in this instance, and should not use the threat of insolvency against Irish Rail workers. Passenger numbers and revenue are at an all time high in Irish Rail. This is due to the productivity of and the cuts endured by the workers. The Taoiseach is talking through his hat when he says that there is a choice either to improve the service or pay the workers. If the workers are not paid the service will disimprove, as has been seen in the case of the health service.

The CEO, who is earning an all-time high, thinks he can push all of the responsibility for the company's woes onto the workers. If we were to subvent Irish Rail even at the European average we would be doing very well indeed. It would keep this company alive and improve rail travel. That would help reduce our carbon emissions. Freight carried on railway increases the likelihood of reducing emissions by 80%, compared to trucks on roads.

I ask the Minister not to choose the easy way out. He should stay here and look after the industrial issues in transport rather than trying to save the world. The easy choice is to try and save the world. It is harder to stay here and try and sort out public transport.

This is an important issue, but the Deputy took an extra minute.

It is an important issue and I do not want to trivialise it in any way. To answer Deputy Munster's criticism concerning the stakeholders' forum, I would say that nobody wants to hold the stakeholders' forum more than I do. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. I answered this question, but it was asked again and so I have to repeat the answer. The stakeholders' forum will take place.

It was announced six months ago.

If the Deputy wants to take up my time with interruptions she is welcome to do so. I have only one minute and 24 seconds to answer the question, so please let me answer.

I have not picked up the telephone because we wrote to all stakeholders and trade unions. They came in and we had a very good meeting. We are awaiting their submissions. I do not want to go ahead with a stakeholders' forum without their consent to the agenda because we do not want them to say that they did not agree to it. We want a consensus on the agenda. We will get it. We will hold the forum, but not while an industrial dispute is going on. There would only be one item on the agenda in that case. We want to be serious about this forum and for the trade union submissions to come in.

I am not unwilling to pay these people what they deserve, what they earn and what can be afforded. I would love to see them being paid more, but we must accept that this company is in a perilous situation despite the huge subventions it is getting. It cannot pay more than it can afford.

(Interruptions).

Deputy Munster, we cannot have bilaterals. Time is expired. I will give the Minister 30 seconds. There are to be no interruptions.

I understand the point that Deputy Smith makes about the threat of insolvency. I am not making that threat at all. The fact is that Iarnród Éireann is on the brink of insolvency. In answer to the Deputy's question about subventions, about Europe and her comment that Ireland is far behind, l will point out some very salient facts. Between 2008 and 2016 the taxpayer has made over €5 billion available to the various CIÉ companies, across both PSO and capital investment programmes. Of this, Iarnród Éireann received over €3.7 billion or almost 75% of the total Exchequer funding in that period. As taxpayers we need to be certain of the value for money of that level of expenditure.

Sitting suspended at 4.30 p.m. and resumed at 5.10 p.m.