Topical Issue Debate

National Planning Framework

I wish to raise an issue concerning the national planning framework. Given the spatial imbalance of the national planning framework and its failure to include measures to address rural decline, I would like details on the specific metrics, processes and methodologies that were used to rural-proof the plan throughout all stages of development. I would also like to know which stakeholders contributed to that process.

This Government claims to have strong rural credentials. It claims that it is committed to ensuring that the interests of rural communities and businesses are equitably accounted for in planning, policies and programmes. However, that is not evident in Project Ireland 2040. There is little or no evidence that this plan was subjected to a robust process of rural-proofing. There is absolutely no trace of any rural-proofing having taken place. Rural counties and rural regions like the midlands have been left behind. There is a 9.3% unemployment rate in the midlands. It is one of the poorest regions in this State and yet it is left behind in this planning framework. I know that there has been criticism across the parties about this very issue. Towns in the midlands like Tullamore, Portlaoise and Mullingar have been overlooked. We have seen stroke politics in action in this planning framework and that is not good enough. It is not fair. We need accountability, transparency and fairness to all regions.

Rural-proofing is not an abstract idea. It is a systematic process of stress-testing proposals to ascertain whether or not they will achieve critical targeted outcomes in rural areas. The rural-proofing of policy and its implementation are important in ensuring that Government policies show an understanding of and take into account the specific characteristics that exist in rural areas. This systematic impact assessment approach is informed by statistical data and analysis from a range of sources as well as qualitative and quantitative processes of inquiry carried out with key rural stakeholders in the public, non-governmental organisation, NGO, private and community sectors.

The process of rural-proofing should be started at an early stage. Policymakers and analysts should work collaboratively to identify intended or unintended impacts and how policies differ from their application in the urban context. In summary, it is an evidence-based process which robustly provides the foundation for rural investment decisions and the suitability of solutions which affect the rural economy, agriculture, small and medium-sized enterprises, employment creation, demographic trends, access to rural services and infrastructure. Rural Ireland is not a homogenous non-urban hinterland and solutions for coastal and island regions will vary substantially from those in the Border area. They will differ again from those in the midlands region.

Rural-proofing is therefore a sophisticated process which tests proposals in a diverse range of geographical scenarios and differing socio-economic contexts. This plan should have been rural-proofed at all stages of development and it should have been reflective of the issues that need to be addressed. As I have said before, the midlands is left behind. Recent figures from the Central Statistics Office show that my county of Offaly has the third lowest disposable income in the State. It is not good enough that we are being left behind again and I speak for the regions. Looking at investment driven by the Industrial Development Authority, IDA, there has been a net loss of 198 jobs in Longford. Laois has gained four additional jobs and Offaly 26. I have raised this issue a number of times. What I seek from the Minister of State is this: I want to know what rural-proofing was done and what he intends to do, because for job creation to have reached 12% of the target of 135,000 jobs is not good enough or acceptable.

I thank Deputy Carol Nolan for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to clarify any misconceptions about the relevance of the national planning framework to rural communities. I have been involved in the strategy throughout its development. It is a document which will help stop decline in many rural areas, and can actually save rural Ireland. I addressed that at the Committee on Rural and Community Development, where we discussed this draft plan last October or November. Deputy Nolan was also at that meeting.

I was and I raised some concerns at that meeting.

That is correct and we had a very good discussion there. A lot of changes were made following the committee meetings. Those meetings fed into the plan, and rightly so.

I want to start by saying that the national planning framework is a national plan. It has a high-level ambition of creating a single vision, a shared set of goals for every community across the country and of delivering these in a way that makes sense for our communities, rural and urban alike. Let us get that joined up. We must recognise that very often rural and urban areas are intertwined and depend on each other. As a Deputy, I represent two counties, County Meath and County Westmeath. In the constituency there are large towns like Navan and Trim and many rural villages like Castlepollard, Oldcastle, Delvin and Fore. There are many Deputies who represent urban and rural areas, just like Deputy Nolan, and we understand that.

Likewise, the Department that led this, my Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, very much understands the breakdown of urban and rural areas, how they are linked and dependent on each other and how one can help the other. That was the logic guiding our plan from the start. I hope people can understand that.

The national planning framework recognises the need for sustainable and co-ordinated development of our towns, villages and rural communities. To this end, regional, spatial and economic strategies will also be developed. Three strategies will be developed from of the national plan. Work has started on them this year and will finish in 2019. These plans will link strategic national planning and investment with regional-scaled physical planning and the local economic and community development functions of local authorities. Each local authority will develop its own county development plan and will also be able to set out its own ambitions for its urban and rural areas in order to develop both. That is what we want them to do.

In fact, a full chapter of the national planning framework is dedicated to planning for diverse rural places, which builds from the Government's action plan for rural development. This recognises that rural areas continue to undergo change due to economic restructuring arising from a more globalised economy, a move away from traditional agriculture and the influence of increased mobility and easier access to urban centres. Again, I make it very clear. People often say that rural Ireland is not functioning, or is dead and gone. However, I refer to Westport or Clonakilty, two rural areas that are thriving because they had a plan and a logic. That is what we are asking for in the national planning framework, through the regional plan and the county plans; that there is a plan for a county, a rural village, a rural area or a town. The authorities must put a plan in place and make it happen.

It does not happen by just clicking one's fingers. One must plan for it, allow for it and fund it. Likewise, as for getting jobs into any county, we want to create the environment whereby jobs can be created. That is what we are trying to do by having this long-term plan for 20 to 25 years. Many of those towns I have just listed had long-term plans. For example, Portlaoise has a great plan for the town centre, which will help with investment into Portlaoise and win jobs for all areas of the town. Plans like that can now be funded.

Consultation and participation was key to the finalisation of the national planning framework. The national planning framework document maps this consultation process, starting in October 2014, when Government approval was given to commence drafting. There were two formal phases of public consultation during drafting - February and March of 2017 and October and November of 2017 - with over 40 regional events and workshops, many of which I attended and which involved both urban and rural agencies. There were four engagements with various Oireachtas joint committees, including the rural affairs committee, feedback from an expert advisory group and detailed submissions from a range of stakeholders, with every relevant Department and agency represented. In addition, development of the national planning framework was informed by a strategic environmental assessment. All of the submissions have been published on the national planning framework website. In the last round of consultation, there were more than 1,000 submissions, including 150 from Oireachtas Members, councillors and others involved in politics, and many members of the Deputy's party contributed to this. Every submission was looked at and used, and this fed into all of the changes made in the past couple of months.

I assure the Deputy that the consultation process and research used to underpin the plan were detailed and extensive. Development was supported by technical analysis, statistics, census data and other relevant research, including work carried out by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI. The process was led by my Department and overseen by a high-level cross-departmental steering group, which had its first meeting in March 2016 and included representatives from what is now the Department of Rural and Community Development. The evidence base underpinning the national planning framework includes the ESRI research study, entitled "Prospects for Irish regions and counties: scenarios and implications", which is available on the ESRI's website.

I thank the Minister of State for his response but I am very disappointed with it because I feel he is missing the point. He said he is a rural Deputy but he and I both know there has been rural neglect, and while it has not happened today or yesterday, it needs to be addressed. That is what we are all trying to do. As a rural Deputy, I feel very strongly about this issue and I believe the Government has let us down. I will explain why. The Government has failed to reach its own rural development targets over the past two years. To take job creation, just 12% of the targeted 135,000 jobs outside of Dublin have been created to date. How will the Government get the rest of the jobs - the other 88% - created before 2020? To take expenditure on the Leader programme, just 0.3% of the budget has been spent to date. It is not reaching the ground in rural communities, which are suffering because they are without this money. Rural broadband is a perfect example. The Minister of State talks about areas preparing plans to push things forward. How can they do that in the absence of rural broadband? We are being let down time and time again. These are clear, factual examples. Rural housing targets also have not been achieved and nothing is happening in regard to rural resettlement.

We need to do more. It is about achieving balance among all of the regions. I put it to the Minister of State that not enough is being done and, in particular, not enough rural-proofing has been done on this plan. I urge the Minister of State to look at this again. I brought forward my concerns at the committee meeting in regard to the IDA not tackling job creation effectively in the regions. That needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

The Deputy said we are missing the point but I think she is the one who is missing the point.

I am not missing anything.

The rural decline which has happened in many counties, and which we have seen in so many villages, happened over 20 or 30 years because there was no plan or ambition.

We need vision.

There was no vision. We are asking that, through the national planning framework, such a vision would be set out for urban and rural Ireland and all the various cities and towns. There would be the three regional plans and the county plans and we can then make it happen and put funding in place to achieve that. There was no plan or vision and that is why there was decline. We are trying to correct that although it will not happen in two or three years. These are long-term commitments backed up by the Government and its Departments and agencies, all of which are involved and can make that happen. There is endless opportunity for ambition for Offaly, Portlaoise and the other areas represented by the Deputy. The key point is to take the opportunity to make it happen.

As I mentioned earlier, there will be further opportunities to elaborate on the national planning framework at regional and local levels through the regional spatial strategies. Consequently, it is important that people work hard on them and get them right. The preparation has begun in each of the three regions and that work will end in early 2019, to be followed by the various city and county plans. This is where policies and opportunities in regard to specific places can be fleshed out. In addition, the Action Plan for Rural Development, published on 23 January 2017, takes a whole-of-Government approach, led by the Minister for Rural and Community Development, to the economic and social development of rural Ireland and will act as an overarching structure for the co-ordination and implementation of rural initiatives across Departments and other public bodies. This will be underpinned by a new rural regeneration and development fund to be established under the Department of Rural and Community Development, which will invest an additional €1 billion in supporting rural renewal. That €1 billion is new money and it will be invested in rural Ireland.

There is now a whole-of-Government approach to the development of our country, our regions, our urban centres and our wider rural areas and rightly so. The Government believes the combination of the national planning framework and the national development plan represents a major opportunity for rural Ireland. I reiterate that if we stick to this plan and drive it and the regional plans, they can save rural Ireland. This is the best way to do it. It is wrong to say that only 12% of the jobs have been created. Over 70% of the jobs created in the past two years are outside of Dublin, and that is a fact. The rural action plans for jobs have worked, as have the regional plans. While the Deputy might not like to admit it, the data are there to back it up. We are committed to rural Ireland and will remain committed to it for the next 25 years through Ireland 2040. That is our job. The Government is planning long-term to save rural Ireland.

Emergency Accommodation Provision

The Minister of State is aware there are now more than 9,000 people homeless in this State, that is, officially accessing emergency accommodation, although many more are also homeless. The excuses last week by the Minister were unreal and absurd and would be funny, were it not so tragic. The reason the Minister gave for the increase was that more beds having been brought into the system means that suddenly, there is a huge clamour from homeless people identifying themselves to take up those beds. The Minister seemed to be oblivious to the fact the people were homeless even before they took the beds.

The Minister of State and the Minister assured us that the rate of increase has stabilised. When I questioned the Minister of State the last time, he told us the figures were not bad by international standards. Can he please stop this absolute insult to the public? It is now four years since I took part in the first protest against homelessness and evictions - four years that this crisis has been raging at its peak and it continues unabated. I imagine the key reason for the increase in figures is the same reason this happened last January and the January before that. Landlords, who develop a bit of a conscience before Christmas, do not want to evict families at Christmas and they let them stay until January, when, suddenly, a huge number of people have to find new accommodation.

Just over a year ago, if the Minister of State recalls, Solidarity brought forward an anti-evictions Bill. We wanted to outlaw some of the illegal methods that landlords are using to evict people, which is what is making people homeless, such as the sale of a property, a family member moving in, or the latest one, which is renovations that suddenly need to be done, particularly in apartments owned by vulture funds but also those being used by other landlords. The Government steadfastly refused to adopt any of those measures and families continue to be made homeless.

There were some extremely concerning issues in respect of the problems we saw during the bad weather last week. Everybody will have read that some people had to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act for their own safety to be taken off the streets. I have very mixed feelings about that. I can understand the desire of people working in the homeless services for people not to die on the streets. However, we can see how ill-fitting the services must be to many homeless people's needs that they would take such desperate measures and would risk dying in the unprecedented cold of last week. It says a lot.

I particularly want to focus on where homelessness has increased. There are 1,517 families in emergency accommodation and more than 700 of them are in Dublin.

If the Government was serious about the housing crisis, a task force would be set up for the three or four key problem areas where homelessness exists. It is not the same everywhere. It is worse in some places, including Dublin, Limerick and other key cities. The task force would target those areas for social housebuilding or acquisition. Then we would not be here scratching our heads as if it was a mystery.

One company, Cairn Homes, is hoarding a massive amount of land in the Dublin area. The Minister of State could consider asking it to get on with housebuilding in that area. I will provide more detail on this matter in my next contribution.

I thank Deputy Coppinger for raising this issue again today. We have had many discussions on this over the past year or two. The Department publishes data on a monthly basis for the number of homeless persons accommodated in all forms of emergency accommodation funded and overseen by housing authorities. We record and publish those figures in order to make policy. We base our policy changes, interventions and allocations of money on facts. That is our job. Any comparisons we make are based on being able to formulate policy on the basis of information and facts. These reports are based on data provided by housing authorities and are produced through the pathway accommodation and support system, PASS, the single integrated national data information system on State-funded emergency accommodation arrangements overseen by housing authorities. The monthly reports outline the number of individuals accommodated in emergency accommodation over a designated survey week, including a breakdown by local authority.

The report for January was published last week. It shows that 5,837 adult individuals used State-funded emergency accommodation nationally during the survey week. This included 1,517 families with 3,267 dependants. As the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, outlined to the Dáil last week, the increased number of homeless adults reflects the 200 permanent new beds put in place in the Dublin region towards the end of 2017, as well as the emergency beds added as part of the cold weather initiatives undertaken over the winter period. The Minister knows well that the Deputy says people are already homeless but when he says these new beds are in the system, he is referring to factual data. These people were recorded who might not have been recorded before. That is all he is saying. He is not saying that they have come out because he has provided the beds. The Deputy knows that is not what he said.

These beds would have been fully in use during January. The introduction of the new beds has brought increased numbers of rough sleepers into the services provided by the local authorities and their non-governmental organisation, NGO, partners. While the increase in the numbers is certainly regrettable, it is clear that rough sleepers are better off in emergency services receiving the necessary supports and assistance than they would be rough sleeping. We have seen this more than ever over the past ten days when extraordinary efforts were made to ensure that accommodation was available for all rough sleepers during the extremely cold weather. I take this opportunity to thank everyone involved in the local authorities, the NGOs and in the Department for the incredible work they did in taking care of our most vulnerable citizens. They went beyond the call of duty as they tried to encourage people to come in.

The Deputy referred to people being sectioned. They are not being sectioned by a politician, a Minister or a housing officer. This is done by a doctor on medical grounds.

The Deputy should not try to give any other impression. It is done properly. The laws are there. People are well protected. It is done in extreme circumstances and a medical professional makes that call, not anybody else.

Returning to the January homeless figures, the increase in family homelessness in Dublin, where family homelessness is most problematic, was not anticipated to this extent. We have always said it is extremely high, far too high when we are talking about over 9,000 people. We never try to play that down. We always say it is far too high and our work will not end until we deal with those numbers in total. The Minister has asked the Dublin Region Homeless Executive to investigate the matter further and prepare a detailed report for review by the Department.

The Deputy gives the impression that people become homeless solely for economic reasons and that they have all been evicted. That is not the case. There is a story behind every person or family that is homeless. Sometimes it is to do with rent, sometimes not. There are other reasons. It is not always down to landlords and evictions. It is wrong to give that impression as well. When we get all the analysis and facts I will have no problem teasing through them. There are different categories of people.

Addressing homelessness is an absolute priority for the Government because we recognise that emergency accommodation is not the place for over 9,000 people to be and certainly not the place for young children to be raised. We agree with the Deputy on that point. Rebuilding Ireland, the Government's Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness, contains a wide range of measures which are being delivered by the Government. Of course, addressing homelessness requires increasing the supply of houses. We are determined as a Government to increase the stock of social housing by 50,000 homes by 2021 under Rebuilding Ireland, with funding ring-fenced to achieve this. The Government has also increased the level of funding available to local authorities to ensure that they are in a position to provide effective supports and assistance. In 2018, a budget of €116 million is being provided by the Government for homeless services. This is an increase of 18% on the 2017 budget allocation, which was also increased, rightly so because we have to provide the money to tackle the emergency while we are dealing with the new supply of housing and bringing on stream new houses, which we are doing. Last year, through a combination of all the schemes, over 7,000 new social houses were made available which were not there at the start of the year. That helped us find homes for more than 4,000 people. There are thousands more who need a similar intervention this year. We will do that through the various arms of the State, including the Department - that is what we are there for - and local authorities, and with the support of NGOs.

Given the increasing number of families presenting to homeless services, as well as the continuing use of hotels, early in January the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, commenced a rapid hub programme that will see 400 additional family hub places this year.

It is incredible that the answer to my matter on homelessness does not contain one mention of building any new homes anywhere, particularly not in the capital city. In December, there were 6,097 individuals homeless. In January, there were 6,428. This means that, within one month, almost 400 people in one city were made homeless. I suspect that it is for the reason I suggested. It always increases because landlords decide to end leases and make families homeless.

I pay tribute to those who were employed to go out and who volunteered to do so, groups such as Inner City Helping Homeless and the Muslim Sisters of Éire, whose videos I saw during the weather report. What is the Government going to do? I mentioned Cairn Homes, which is sitting on lands zoned for 14,100 homes, 90% of which are in the greater Dublin area. However, this company completed only 418 houses - taking up 3% of its entire land capacity - in 2017. The average selling price was €315,000, hardly affordable to the average person. Cairn predicts that it will increase the asking price for its next 400 houses to €374,000. Its gross profits quadrupled in 2017. Hoarding land during a housing emergency is akin to hoarding food in a famine. That continues because capitalism allows companies of this sort to control large amounts of land. The biggest hoarders of land in the State are the local authorities. It is interesting that the Minister of State did not mention any increase in the number of homes that will be built in the cities where they are most needed. Ideologically, the Government has turned its back on public housing. That is a real tragedy for those who are suffering most acutely. The money is there to build public homes that are affordable and social homes. There has been a huge increase in the amount of wealth at the top of society. There are also the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, and the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, funds.

I cannot cover all the issues relating to housing in two or three minutes. The Deputy's Topical Issue matter specifically mentions emergency housing and the over 9,000 people who are homeless. It does not go into the supply of housing. I am happy to do that too in my answer.

So it is not related.

They are very well related but I could not give detail of both because there was not time.

Is there no connection between homelessness and the supply of housing?

Of course there is a connection. We have been saying that for the past two years. That is why many of our plans in Rebuilding Ireland are aimed at bringing the supply of housing back up. Last year, and the Deputy might not like to admit this, there were an additional 7,000 social houses in use through all the schemes. They were not there the year before that. This year again, because the supply of housing is up, there will be almost 8,000 new social houses available through the various schemes. We are making progress but it is not enough. I totally and utterly agree with the Deputy on that but it takes time to get the supply of housing back up. We estimate this year there will be more than 20,000 houses in total built in the country. That is our estimate. It could go beyond that. The building sector reckons there will be approximately 23,000 houses. That brings in a new supply of housing which will help deal with all the different housing problems, the cost of rent, the number of houses available and social housing. Supply is key. I am happy to dwell on that in other debates but there is not the time to do it all today. There are measures there and we are working with all the stakeholders, those who own land and those who do not to try to bring forward and activate those sites through various schemes, with success in some areas.

I agree that other sites are not being developed but we are dealing with that too. The vacant site levy kicks in this year such that people will be charged for sites that are inactive, this year and next year. On the Deputy's point that we need to utilise public-owned lands, we are doing that. All of the local authorities have brought forward plans on how they propose to use their landbanks, which could be used to deliver approximately 50,000 houses over the years ahead. We will work with and fund the local authorities to ensure those lands are activated and to bring forward a combination of social, affordable and private housing.

Family hubs, which I mentioned earlier, are better accommodation than hotels. Last year, some 4,000 people were found a home and more than 1,200 families have left hotels. I agree with the Deputy that there are still far too many people in hotels but we hope that through new initiatives this year we will be able to take people out of them because, I agree, they are not a place to be.

Employment Rights

There are seven Deputies listed in regard to this matter. The Deputies have one minute each and will be called in the order in which they presented.

A status red severe weather warning speaks for itself. Red is the highest alert and it is a warning to workers to stay safe, not to make unnecessary journeys and not to go to work unless it is safe to do so. The problem is that during the time of the red alert far too many workers were unable to heed the warnings given by An Taoiseach and those in authority because their employers instructed them to turn up for work. Some workers received messages telling them not to arrive too late for work, others travelled to work only to be sent home, many were under threat of having a day's pay docked if they did not turn up for work and for the vast majority of workers, particularly in the private sector, the days lost are to be taken from their annual leave allocation. For many people, particularly those in low paid jobs, this is very difficult because it means they will not be able to take leave they had planned to take at a later stage.

Long before the recent weather event, Sinn Féin moved a Bill that would address this issue. We want this Bill to be supported by Government. What practical measures will the Government take to ensure that we do not have these types of situations again? While most employers are reasonable and flexible, some have shown themselves not to be so. It is not good enough for the Taoiseach, when pressed on this issue, to say it is a personal matter for employers. It is not a personal matter. It is about the safety of workers. We must ensure that the safety of workers is front and centre. What does the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the Government propose to do on this issue?

I want to speak about the areas in respect of which the Government has outsourced or privatised services, namely, health care provision and other social services and particularly about St. John of God in the north east. The other day, workers at St. John of God received a letter from their employer stating that those who were unable to attend work during the adverse weather event will not be paid. It also states that adverse weather warnings are now the norm and they cannot be treated differently from past weather events. This organisation is not only funded through the HSE, but it is State funded. Why are workers in this organisation not being afforded the same rights as others who work in the health care provision sector?

We need to put in place a strategic plan to ensure everybody is assisted. In an article posted last weekend, a psychiatric nurse said that psychiatric nurses were bottom of the pile as they struggled to get lifts to work from emergency personnel. She also said: "For some unfortunate reason people must think mental health goes away when the snow comes. Or, maybe we are not seen as "real nurses"." Further on in the article she states: "These are the kind of nurses you are losing to other countries." Yellow, orange and red alerts aside, we need a plan to assist everybody such that no one is left limbo. People must know that if they cannot get to work, they will be protected.

In regard to the rural areas, surely when we experience these weather events the councils could contract farmers, who are the heartbeat of local communities, to assist them. I could go on about livestock, grants for sheds that have fallen down and so on. We need a strategic plan.

The Minister will be aware of the Trojan work done by many workers during this particular weather event. Many people turned up for work only to find themselves trapped there and unable to get home. Those who were trapped in their homes and unable to get to work are now being told that they are going to be out of pocket as a result. Some of these people are working for the State, indirectly. Many of them are working for agencies of which the Government has stated it is not the direct employer. The reality is that these people are employed by the Government indirectly, and they are now in a very shaky situation with regard to their pay.

At times like this, everyone pulls together. We depend on the goodwill of people and on people supporting each other. Earlier speakers referred to Meitheal, whereby everyone comes together to help each other. That is very relevant. It is exactly what happens in many parts of the country when people are under huge pressure. At the same time, we need a plan in place to ensure that people, particularly those working in essential services, know where they stand because right now they do not.

The Minister for Health was quick to tweet a message which contradicted the message given by the head of HR in the health service, namely, that anyone who could not get to work or whose workplace was closed would receive emergency leave with pay. This put at ease the minds of a lot of health care workers, many of whom stayed in hotels, away from their families during a severe weather emergency. Today, workers in Our Lady's Hospice and Care Services, who provide palliative care and are at the front line of care delivery in this State but who could not get to their workplace during the storm, have been told that the time is to be taken from their annual leave. Families are already crippled with child care costs and high rents. They cannot afford to lose a day's pay. They deserve a modicum of respect. They deserve to be treated decently and not given mixed messages. The message that must go out from Government is that all workers, regardless of grade, group and so on, must be treated decently. The Government needs to acknowledge that it did not send out that message.

I pay tribute to the staff of the key agencies who responded to the recent storm and the extraordinary circumstances in which they did so. While essential workers in those agencies, some of whom are volunteers, were required and provision was made for them, there were many people who were forced to go to work who are not essential workers. Many of them were asked by their employers, some of whom are paid directly or indirectly by the State and in other cases by private business, to turn up for work during severe weather alerts and that is not good enough. Workers need to know where they stand. The Taoiseach's reference earlier to flexibility seems to imply and infer that there was an understanding that those workers, if their employers so wished, could ignore the red weather alert. That is not good enough. Workers need clarity and this should be provided for legislatively.

I commend the emergency services on the fantastic work they did over the past few days, in particular Limerick County Council and Novas Initiatives who housed 78 people in emergency temporary beds over the past couple of nights.

The Government's response has been messy in some areas, in particular in regard to its announcement regarding the fuel allowance.

Under pressure from the Opposition, including Sinn Féin, the Government changed its mind and decided to give an extra week's payment. That was obviously done on the hoof because payments were not ready in all instances when people went to collect them. Indeed, some people have not yet got their payments.

Workers and businesses did not know where they stood when the red weather warning was issued. In the aftermath of the last extreme weather event, Storm Ophelia, Sinn Féin proposed legislation that would clarify the position but unfortunately the Government kept its head in the sand and refused to deal with it. Some businesses and farmers will find themselves in severe financial difficulty as a result of the damage and losses to their businesses and I ask the Minister to outline the measures that are planned to deal with this.

I will begin by paying tribute to the great work of the national emergency co-ordination group, the local councils, volunteers, the emergency services and all of those who went to work in very difficult circumstances to ensure that essential services were provided.

As Deputies will be aware, during the course of the recent extreme weather event the country experienced, a status red alert warning was issued by Met Éireann. Red alerts are rare and serious occurrences and they should not be taken lightly. The notice that was provided in the lead-up to the recent extreme weather event provided some time to allow businesses to put in place plans to deal with the situation. Throughout this recent event, the Government strongly encouraged businesses to pay careful attention to the information and updates that were issued from the Government’s national emergency co-ordination group following the severe weather warnings from Met Éireann. The most important issue for Government, citizens and employers is that of safety. This is the paramount and overriding concern for everyone. In the context of a red weather alert, businesses were asked to carefully assess whether, given the constraints on public transport and the deteriorating snow conditions, it was possible or necessary for them to open. They were asked to examine alternatives to accommodate workers such as working from home where that proved feasible and practical, agreeing to work back working time lost and so forth. In such situations however, the Government cannot give blanket advice to all businesses given that some companies are engaged in essential services such as power generation, services to vulnerable people and so on. Ultimately, businesses have to make their own individual decisions based on their duty of care to their staff. I was encouraged to note that industry representative organisations, including IBEC and ISME, encouraged businesses they represent to show flexibility with workers and emphasised the need to be vigilant as regards safety for workers.

In general, under employment law there is no statutory obligation on an employer to pay an employee where that employee cannot attend for work. Payment of wages in situations where an employee is unable to attend work due to severe weather conditions is primarily a contractual matter between employers and employees. Many employers will have absence management policies in place to deal with such circumstances. Employers may have included policies and procedures in their contracts of employment to cover severe weather events to provide for certain flexibilities, for example, to allow the taking of annual leave, the possibility to work from home where feasible and practical or to work back the hours or days lost and so forth. I would always encourage employers to engage constructively with their employees in these kinds of situations, bearing in mind that safety is paramount.

I remind all Deputies that they have one minute each to respond. Deputy Cullinane is first.

The Minister's speech today is an absolute joke of a response to what is a very serious issue. I am really angered by her response because essentially what she, the Taoiseach and the Government are doing is outsourcing what should be the first priority for all of us in this State, namely, the protection of workers, to employers. The Minister said that the Government cannot give blanket advice to all businesses and went on to talk about those who provide emergency services. Of course exceptions have to be made for such categories of workers but those who work in non-emergency services were being told, in some cases, to come to work and they do not have the luxury of avoiding their employers, as the Minister well knows. The Minister also said that ultimately, businesses must make their own individual decisions. No business should be allowed to make an individual decision that puts its staff at risk but many did. The Minister went on to say that there is no statutory obligation under employment law on an employer to pay an employee. Of course there is not; that is what happens in Fine Gael land, where employers do not have to provide for their workers. This response is an absolute joke. The Government cannot outsource this to the private sector and to employers any more.

Go raibh maith agat.

The Government must do its job and make sure that in future when these situations arise, workers are given respect and have the support of the law of the land-----

-----and are not left to the mercy of some unscrupulous employers in this State-----

The time of the Deputy's colleagues will be taken up-----

-----who did not give workers the support they needed in these difficult times.

Deputy Cullinane is depriving Deputy Munster.

I refer again to the St. John of God workers, who are dedicated health care professionals. They could not physically get to work during the recent adverse weather. Had they attempted to get to work, they would have been putting their own lives and limbs at risk. The St. John of God service is wholly funded by the State through the HSE. Why will the Government not afford the same protections to those workers? Will the Government introduce legislation to ensure that those workers engaged in private health care service provision are given the same protection as those in the public sector? Will the Government commit to doing that?

The Minister said in her statement that red alerts are rare but if they are so rare, surely we have enough time to plan properly. My mum is 72 years old and is a home helper. She did not know what to do over the weekend but she knew that she had to get to the house to help the family. We did not have a structure in place and were putting people of all ages under pressure to turn up to work for State bodies when the State itself had issued a red alert. On the one hand, we were telling people to stay at home but on the other hand, we were telling them to go to work if necessary. That is criminal.

We are playing with peoples' lives because the Government would not be able to organise the proverbial session in the distillery. The Government must get things right and get a grip on this or people will die when we get the next red warning.

The Minister said in her statement that during the recent red alert, businesses were asked, in the context of the constraints on public transport, to consider whether people should be asked to go to work but the difficulty was that many businesses insisted that people go to work. People have contacted me who were told to be sure to get to work but when they arrived there were very few customers and then they had no way of getting home. There were no taxis available and no way for them to get home. A young woman who works in a city centre restaurant left work at 1 a.m. on Saturday. There were no taxis or regular buses running but the airport bus was running from the city centre. She got on the bus, paid €7 and asked the driver to drop her off near her home which was on the route to the airport. The driver said "No", that the bus was travelling non-stop to the airport. She told him it was an emergency and pleaded with him but he told her that he could not stop to let her off. She had to get off the bus and walk almost two and a half miles to her home. That is the kind of problem that arose because no instruction was given, not only in terms of people getting to work but also in terms of getting people who were at work home again.

The Minister said that the Government asked employers nicely but that did not work. The Taoiseach, during many photo opportunities where he read out the weather forecast and so forth, told people to stay at home for their own health and safety. However, many people cannot afford to take a day off work. What is the Minister's advice to them? How do they pay their bills? What are they supposed to do? Do they listen to the Taoiseach or do they look after the bottom line and their own bread and butter? Is the Government going to lift a finger to help them or is it going to just rely on the kindness of employers? As someone who represented workers for more than a decade, I can assure the Minister that the Government cannot rely on the kindness of employers.

We now have two grades of workers in the health service - those who have the protection of the Minister, Deputy Harris, and those who are denied it. That is not acceptable. Surely people should be observing the advice and should be able to stay at home and safeguard their own health, safety and welfare. They should not have to worry about having their wages docked.

The question is what measures the Government will put in place to ensure workers are protected if a status red alert is issued. Essentially, the answer given by the Minister was a statement of the legal situation, the existing responsibilities of employers and so on. It did not really address the issue. Clear advice was offered by Met Éireann and those who are responsible for monitoring the weather, namely, that it was not safe to be out of doors or travelling and that we should not put ourselves at risk. However, contrary to this advice some employees outside of essential services were forced to go into work, directly or indirectly, even by the State itself.

The question, quite clearly, is what measures the Government is going to take. Red alerts are rare but they are likely to become more common. We have a Bill and a proposal. It may not be perfect in the eyes of the Minister but it is a proposal. There is currently no proposal from Government on the table as to how to address this contradiction, which I think the Government does need to address.

There is nothing in the Minister's response for workers. Our proposal was designed to try to get some protection for workers when there is a red alert in place. During the severe weather event in Limerick, a number of people contacted me. One man in particular was on the north side of Limerick and had to go to his job in Kerry. Obviously, it was very dangerous for him to go down there on the roads. The warning was out and the Taoiseach had told people not to go out, but his employer was insisting he go to work. In Storm Ophelia, tragically, a number of people lost their lives going out on the roads during the red alert. Severe weather phenomena do not occur often, so when they do happen people are rightly concerned and need guidance on what to do. The Government needs to work better with the Opposition when we have solutions and ideas and not constantly dismiss them and only change its mind if the immediate circumstances force it to do so. I hope the Government will now support the Bill from Deputies Adams, Munster and Cullinane and make sure there is some protection for workers and that we have clarity when red alerts are in place so workers will know what they need to do.

The vast majority of employers are actually very decent people and they do look after their workers. Government always encourages employers to take a long-term view of the working relationship, recognising that demonstrating concern for the welfare of employees and treating employees fairly translates into a better working environment to the benefit of both staff and employer. As somebody who worked as an employee all of my life before I came into the Dáil, I fully understand the concerns of employees but I have to say that normally if there is give and take one gets back three and four times, if one treats one's employees with respect and consideration in difficult circumstances. We had very difficult circumstances-----

What has any of that got to do with the issue that we raised? It is pure and utter waffle. It is an insult to those of us who put down this Topical Issue.

The Minister without interruption. The Deputy might not like the response but I have no control over that.

Thank you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. The Government would also encourage employers and employees to seek to resolve any issues in this regard at the level of the employment. Where issues cannot be resolved locally, it is open to an employee to make a complaint to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, under either the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 or the Payment of Wages Act 1991.

They should clog up the Workplace Relations Commission because the Government will not do its job. This is an "Alice in Wonderland" speech we are getting. It is ridiculous.

The WRC is an office of my Department and includes very useful information on its website aimed at employers and employees alike to cover extreme weather situations such as the recent events. The information on the WRC website is available at www.workplacerelations.ie. Where the employer and employee are agreeable, the commission may seek to resolve the matter by means of mediation.

What about the workers at the State-funded St. John of God's?

The Minister without interruption.

Otherwise the complaints can be investigated by an adjudication officer of the WRC. It is important to note that every case is fact specific. The Government's role is to give the greatest level of clarity to employers as to the threats posed and the actions they should take themselves. I believe that over the last week this advice was clear and unambiguous and thankfully nobody lost their lives. The final decision must be left to employers themselves who know their own business best-----

Yes, they know their own business best. They put their business first. The Minister has let the cat out of the bag. It is not the workers but the business.

-----and who in the vast majority of instances will make the best decisions in the interests of their staff, customers and public safety.