Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 11 Dec 2019

Vol. 991 No. 2

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Road Projects Status

We put down this issue because of a serious potential for accidents on the N4 Dublin road. Even according to Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, this section of road is recognised as a collision-prone zone. The zoned area is called HD 15. It is a straight stretch of road on the N4 about two miles long. When cars are turning right and crossing the L1015 Cootehall Road and the main road to Drumshanbo, or the L1024 Crohan Road, the main road to Roscommon, drivers are taking their lives in their hands. It is not the driver of the car directly behind but the one two or three cars back who does not see an indicator. There have been quite a number of accidents. We have met TII and the local authority. Apparently Donegal County Council is responsible for road design for the TII in the north west. It has been with it for the last four months and now it has decided it does not have the time to do this work. I understand it is going out to consultants. I wonder if we can get some progress on this before somebody is killed at those junctions.

I am not going to repeat what Deputy Scanlon has said. One year ago, we met people who were extremely concerned from the perspective of safety. There have been accidents there since. The clear commitment was that the work would certainly be done by the end of 2019. Here we are with little or no movement at this stage. It is critical. I am sure the Minister knows the road himself. It is extremely busy with a lot of trucks and heavy traffic. Everybody accepts that it is a very dangerous junction. Deputy Scanlon has outlined the two turns off the N4, one for Cootehall and one for Crohan. The N4 is a main artery. The reason the three of us are here is public safety. I am sure the Minister will agree with us. My colleagues and I are afraid of our lives that somebody very shortly is going to lose his or her life there. I thank the Minister for being here to listen to our case today.

This is a critical issue. Noel McTiernan and the action group raised this issue because they are living in fear every day when they reach these two junctions at Crohan and Cootehall on the N4 between Boyle and Carrick-on-Shannon. Roscommon County Council got involved. It contacted TII which in turn contacted the Donegal regional design office. It did a technical note on the issue but did not include a safety audit, which caused a delay. The safety audit is now complete. There is nothing delaying this project; €80,000 was cleared by TII for these works to be carried out and we want to see them done. On 8 November 2018 the public were forced to hold a public meeting. Since then, politicians of all colours and none have gotten involved to advance it through Roscommon County Council, TII and the Donegal regional design office which carries out this function nationally on behalf of TII. What we want to hear from the Minister today is that works will be undertaken and will commence on a certain day and will be completed on a certain day, so that the people travelling on the N4 are not subjected to such risk on a daily basis.

As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport I have responsibility for overall policy and funding of the national roads programme. The design, planning and construction of individual national roads is a matter for Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2015, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. This also includes the improvement, upgrading and maintenance of the road network. Once I have put in place funding arrangements with TII, it is a matter for TII to distribute the funds to the various local authorities, including Roscommon County Council. Therefore, within its capital budget, the assessment and prioritisation of individual projects is a matter, in the first instance, for TII. The National Development Plan 2018-2027 marks a significant step forward in terms of restoring national road funding to the levels needed to maintain the national road network in a steady-state condition and to allow for investment in road improvement schemes.

Each year, the safety section of TII carries out a collision analysis of the entire national road network, in compliance with the EU Road Infrastructure Safety Management, RISM, Directive, to identify locations that have high concentrations of collisions. The 1 km section of the N4 referred to by the Deputies includes two junctions at Croghan and Cootehall. These junctions were identified through the HD15 safety programme and improvements were made by Roscommon County Council in late 2016-early 2017 in terms of signage and lining improvements, including arrows.

Further to meeting with a delegation from Roscommon in December 2018, TII agreed to fund a scheme at this location, subject to a feasibility report from Roscommon County Council. TII provided funding for this scheme in January 2019 on receipt of this feasibility report from Roscommon County Council. TII understands that a design report and road safety audit has since been carried out on this scheme. It should be noted that Roscommon County Council is the road authority for this scheme and any further actions are currently with Roscommon County Council.

In addition to this, TII is maintaining an ongoing rolling programme of minor works projects in the area. County Roscommon has four schemes included in this programme and these are: the N61 Coolteige scheme, main construction contract is completed, an archaeological testing contract is ongoing; the N60 at Oran, construction is ongoing; the N61 Ballymurray to Knockcroghery, technical advisers have been appointed by Roscommon County Council to progress the project through the planning and design phases; and the N61 Clashaganny to Tulsk, route options are currently being assessed.

I understand that local residents have begun a campaign to have the two junctions at Cootehall and Croghan addressed due to safety concerns and I fully understand their concerns. I would like to emphasise that I am committed to the maintenance and development of our road network across the country and I support any targeted investment that would improve road safety.

As I have previously outlined, TII's safety section carries out assessments of the network under the HD15 programme which identifies accident clusters and under the HD17 programme which is also carried out under the European directive and which involves route assessments. I very much welcome TII and Roscommon County Council's continued efforts to address safety matters on the N4 route.

Those junctions are extremely dangerous. Am I correct in understanding that the Minister said it is back to Roscommon County Council to proceed with these works? The sooner this is done the better. There are regular accidents there. Cars are regularly rear-ended.

There are two other junctions on the N17, that is, the main Sligo-Galway road. One is at Achonry Creamery where there are regular accidents and the gardaí can verify that. Thankfully nobody has been killed there but a serious accident is waiting to happen there. The other is at the junction off the N17 to Ballymote, an extremely busy junction with a lot of traffic. I spoke to the senior engineers of Sligo County Council who are examining the problem but the question of the best way to proceed is down to funding. I welcome the Minister's response about the N4 and I hope we will get some response about the N17.

We agree with everything the Minister outlined for us. It is exactly what we have told him. My understanding is that Roscommon County Council is not holding this up but that it is a TII issue. If I am wrong, I will accept that. In cases like this, which we highlight on the basis of what we are seeing and what is being reported to us, we need no hold up to ensure such junctions are safe. Accidents occur there regularly. I have spoken to the Minister in the past about the N5 and he has acted and I know there is more to come in respect of safety on that road. I ask the Minister to get involved, if he can, and to make the phone call to see if he can push the work on the N4 on as quickly as possible in the interest of public safety.

I note the Minister's response and that he said that the blame lies squarely at Roscommon County Council's door. I do not accept that. Once again we are on this administrative merry-go-round where the council says one thing, TII says another, the Donegal regional design office says something else and the Minister says something else again. Last week the Minister brought a memorandum to Cabinet to make the use of driverless cars legal on our roads. With junctions like these a plan such as that proves that the only driverless car is the Government. What is required in this instance is for somebody to lift the phone to a principal officer, to Roscommon County Council's county manager, to TII's chief executive officer and to the regional design office's CEO to ask when they will start this work. The money is there, so let us make these roads safe.

As I said before, I can do nothing but share the concern of the Deputies and I deeply respect the fact that they are raising a matter of road safety which is raised in every county and borough in the country and it should be given due consideration. The TII and the Roscommon roads authority are the local authority people responsible. I am regularly asked in this House to interfere in something that is not up to me to do but it is perfectly legitimate for the Deputies to raise it because it makes it a matter of public interest. I will make sure that those authorities are aware of what the Deputies said here today. The Deputies cannot really expect me to intervene in individual cases around the country, albeit that they are very worthy.

Road safety is always worthy.

I have explained but would like to explain further the process involved in the safety programmes. Under the HD15 programmes safety works are based on an analysis of accident density and those sections of the network with considerably higher than average accident densities are selected for analysis. Sections of road which are amenable to engineering solutions are prioritised for treatment. In addition, TII operates a HD17 programme based on road safety inspection reports that indicate which issues, for example, signing, lining or safety barriers, need to be addressed on different sections of road and programmes are drawn up to deal with the priority issues. Network safety ranking uses collision data to rank the safety of national roads and to identify high collision locations on the national road network. The results of this collision analysis go towards targeting annual road safety remedial measures. Collision data is recorded by An Garda Síochána. This data are used by the Road Safety Authority, RSA, and TII for research purposes. Each high collision location is investigated by a site assessment team, the inspection of the site's collision history coupled with the site visit determines if an engineering counter measure will improve the safety performance of its location.

Animal Welfare

Deputy Cahill and I have raised this issue previously. It is very important, particularly with the recent increase in the dairy herd since the abolition of quotas and the resulting number of calves, particularly bull calves in that herd. It is essential that animal welfare is paramount and that we ensure appropriate outlets in the export and domestic markets.

We are asking the Minister for an update on the plans he and his Department are putting in place to ensure there is capacity within the system to cater for 1.5 million dairy calves, the majority of which are likely to be born in February and March 2020. Earlier this year, there was somewhat of a haphazard approach from the Department to ensure live export routes were operating to capacity. It is essential that the Minister works next year with live exporters to ensure the routes are in place and the highest welfare standards are maintained on those routes.

Farmers, by their disposition, want to care for their animals and ensure the highest welfare standards are followed. The Department must ensure there is tight monitoring to prevent breaches of the welfare standards. In particular, calf mortality on farms should be closely monitored. It is in everybody's interest to ensure, without exception, that the welfare of animals should be paramount. Farmers expect and demand it, and it is essential the Minister should take every step in his power to ensure there is adequate oversight and that the welfare of animals is to the fore at all times.

I agree that welfare standards are paramount for everybody involved in the beef industry. It is essential that we protect our justified image as sustainable food producers. The produce of every dairy farmer is quality assured and welfare is a prime requisite of that quality. The modern consumer demands high standards of us and we can show that we are meeting those standards.

It is vital that we maintain our live export outlets to the Continent and get out the maximum number of calves this coming spring. We have had a summer and autumn of discontent in the beef industry and the live export outlet is essential to keep competition in the trade. It is obvious that we must reduce the number of cattle that are available for slaughter if we are to ensure a viable and commercial price. Last spring, there was a backlog and logjam in live exports getting to the Continent. This coming spring, the calving is likely to be more crammed than normal, thanks to the good weather we had earlier in the year. Lairage space, truck space and ship space are critical factors in maximising the number of calves that can be sent to the Continent for veal production. Everything that can be done in this regard must be done. The Minister will say that this is the responsibility of live exporters, to which I say that An Bord Bia also has an essential role in ensuring this outlet to market is maximised.

I thank the Deputies for their questions. The welfare of all animals is a priority for my Department and we continue to engage with stakeholders to ensure the welfare of cattle born on dairy farms next spring is provided for appropriately. Further meetings between my Department and stakeholders are planned over the coming period, well in advance of the peak calving season. Several measures are being taken to ensure high calf welfare standards. Currently, calves may not be moved from their farm of birth or sold until they have reached at least ten days of age. This requirement is being further evaluated. Recognising that the numbers of dairy bull calves being traded in farm-to-farm sales has been falling off in recent years, the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society, ICOS, and the marts are playing a key role in co-ordinating and linking dairy farmers and specialist calf rearers. The Irish Farmers Association, IFA, recently arranged a series of calf health and welfare seminars, while Teagasc and Animal Health Ireland, AHI, are providing further calf care seminars early next spring. A recently compiled AHI calf care booklet has been distributed to all co-operatives, and the Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Council, FAWAC, is finalising a new calf rearing advisory booklet.

My Department has engaged with exporters to ensure the welfare of calves being transported to the Continent and has advised them of updated standards and requirements. Live exports are a critical part of Ireland's livestock industry, stimulating price competition and providing an alternative market outlet for farmers. My Department facilitates this trade, recognising its importance to the agrifood sector, while placing a strong emphasis at all times on the welfare of the animals being transported. In 2018, overall total live exports of cattle, including calves, increased by more than 30% compared with 2017, to 246,000 head. This growth trend has continued into 2019, with live exports already totalling 266,000 up to the week ending 19 October 2019. This increase reflects the incremental growth in the numbers of calves born on dairy farms but is also, in part, a consequence of the decision in 2017 to reduce the veterinary inspection fee payable on live exports of calves aged less than three months from €4.80 to €1.20.

The transport of calves requires the use of lairage facilities at Cherbourg and the development of additional lairage capacity there is a commercial matter for the export sector. However, officials from my Department met their French counterparts in the summer in Cherbourg and, during those discussions, the French authorities indicated that they would be willing to consider applications submitted for additional lairage capacity, should they arise. My officials are in ongoing communication with Irish exporters on the need for co-operative management to ensure that the lairage capacity at Cherbourg is optimised. I have urged the live export sector to consider developing an additional lairage in Cherbourg or engaging with the owners of existing facilities to explore the potential for additional capacity. This has proved possible, as evidenced by the French authorities' approval of an increase in the holding capacity of the Qualivia lairage in Cherbourg earlier this year. My Department worked closely with the French authorities in this matter. The move provided for additional daily capacity for 400 calves, bringing the total daily capacity to 4,400.

I met with exporters in September to discuss and review existing export procedures, and officials from my Department have had continued regular engagement with them. I visited the Netherlands recently with a delegation from An Bord Bia where we met with importers of Irish calves, who expressed strong satisfaction with the quality of Irish calves. Other market opportunities are being explored by An Bord Bia for older male dairy calves. My Department's veterinary inspectorate will continue to undertake its risk-based and random inspections across all industry locations to monitor compliance. I assure Deputies that calf welfare issues are being accorded the highest priority within my Department.

I thank the Minister for his response. It is clear in hindsight, with the removal of quotas in the dairy sector, that insufficient thought was given by the Department and national agencies to the impact that change would have on the beef sector in particular. We have seen some of that impact in the prices that have prevailed in recent times and in the increased number of dairy bull calves. There is clearly a need to develop new markets. Teagasc admitted recently that sufficient consideration was not given to the market outlets for dairy bull calves as a result of dairy expansion.

As I said in my initial contribution, farmers expect and deliver the highest of welfare standards for their animals. Consumers, too, expect the highest of standards. It is essential from both their perspectives that there be clear oversight by the Department to prevent any exceptions to or breaches of those standards. Will the Minister provide clarity regarding the oversight exercised by his Department to ensure there are no individual farmers breaching the standards which consumers and fellow farmers expect?

Finally, it is time for the Department address the issues in regard to cross-bred Jersey-Friesian calves, for which there is little beef value. We must ensure that the dairy and beef sectors work together in what is a circular process. The bull calves coming off the dairy herd must be capable of making a profit from a beef point of view.

On Deputy McConalogue's point regarding cross-bred calves, I am critical of the emphasis that was placed by Teagasc and the research farms on cross-breeding. A proper evaluation of the economic breeding index, EBI, must be done. I understand the EBI does not take account of the differential in culled cow value between the Friesian cow and the cross-bred cow or the variation in calf price.

If that were done, the economics of cross-breeding could be far more fairly examined. There is an onus on dairy farmers to produce an animal that is economically viable for beef production. There are question marks over the current viability of cross-bred calves. If proper breeding is undertaken by dairy farmers, they can produce economically viable animals. Some 60% of animals for beef production will come from the dairy herd and, as such, proper breeding is essential.

Sexed semen has a significant role to play in this issue and far more research must be rapidly undertaken to ensure its usage increases.

The best investment we can make to ensure the continuation of live exports is to underpin this endeavour with high welfare standards. I have emphasised that in all my engagement with various stakeholders, including farm and co-operative leaders and others involved in the export of these animals. In that context, we have introduced revised regulations which improve welfare standards for calves being exported, including by requiring more space to be available on trucks among other measures. That is an important factor in reassuring the market destinations of these calves. I most recently visited the Netherlands on this issue and have also engaged with people in Spain who buy these calves. They are very satisfied with the current standard but, obviously, we need to constantly reassure them. In essence, primary responsibility rests with dairy farmers to ensure the welfare of calves and that they are complying with the law. There are random inspections at marts and on farms to ensure compliance with the regulations. Those inspections will be stepped up according to risk-based analysis in the context of peak calving in spring etc., which is important.

On cross-breeds, there is a danger of talking ourselves into a difficulty. We developed the dairy beef breed index specifically to give greater certainty to farmers on what they are getting when they buy a calf in the calf ring. That is important in respect of the breeding decisions being made by dairy farmers and ensuring the progeny has a realistic prospect of delivering economically for the purchasing farmer. There has been an increase in the use of those sires in the most recent breeding season and we need to accelerate that. Although I take the points made by the Deputy regarding Jersey calves, it is possible to over-emphasise the extent to which that is prevalent within the herd.

This issue requires a multifaceted response. We have engaged with all the various stakeholders and I am confident that, as in previous years, if everybody pulls their weight, we will be able to deal with any issues arising in spring 2020.

School Services Staff

The issue of school secretaries was previously discussed in the House. I understand that an insulting and paltry increase of 1.5% was offered at the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, and the talks have broken down. The secretaries were not looking for a particular increase but, rather, parity with secretaries in education and training board, ETB, schools and, most importantly, to be directly employed by the Department. As the Minister and I are aware, many of them are employed on a piecemeal basis through the principal's budget and without the benefit of maternity pay, sick pay, a pension etc. The issue of parity is not just about the financial aspect; it is also about acknowledgement and respect. Of course, finances are very important to the secretaries, but the offer of 1.5% while ignoring the issues that brought them into the forum in the first place is unacceptable. The Minister and the Department must give a commitment to the secretaries. They do an amazing job. Their multitasking is unbelievable, as previously recognised in the House. We should acknowledge that by treating them properly.

As the Minister knows well, having spoken on the issue on several occasions while in office and previously, secretaries employed directly by the Department of Education and Skills can earn double or even triple the wages of those employed directly by schools, as well as enjoying far better terms and conditions. Indeed, the Minister previously gave full commitments to a very good campaign on this issue in County Donegal. Secretaries employed by the Department are permanent staff, often with a pension, whereas those employed privately by schools have significantly less tenure in office. It is manifestly unfair for people with the same qualifications who do the same job to the same standard to have vastly differing wage scales and employment conditions. The Minister is aware of this issue having discussed it on many occasions. A campaign was launched and the Minister gave the all-clear for the matter to go to the WRC, as he was required to do. There was significant pressure from the House in that regard. However, the talks have broken down because he went to the WRC and offered an increase of 1.5%. The issue is about terms and conditions rather than money. The failure of the talks is the responsibility of the Minister as he is the one who decided to go in with an offer of 1.5%. He needs to set out a proper pathway to avoid strike action.

Secretaries are the heartbeat of schools. They do so much to ensure that schools function properly for staff, parents and teachers. It will shock the public to know that the vast majority of school secretaries are paid on a lower scale than their contemporaries employed by the Department. They have no pension entitlements and do not know where they stand from year to year. They only get paid during term time, with the result that many must go on the dole during school holidays. There is a two-tier system which is completely unfair. The secretaries want dignity, respect and parity of pay and esteem for the work they do. The Minister has made all the right noises, particularly in early October during statements in the House - called for by Fianna Fáil and taken in Private Members time - on the industrial action by school secretaries. However, he has not followed through. I agree with my colleagues that his offer of 1.5% is an insult to the secretaries and he needs to do far better by them.

I recognise the very important work done by school secretaries, caretakers and other support staff in the running of our schools. I have spoken to several school secretaries about their employment conditions and understand the issues they have raised. Earlier this year, I relaxed the moratorium for community, comprehensive and ETB schools with enrolments of 700 or more to allow them to employ additional school secretaries up to a maximum of two per school. It is an initial step and has taken immediate effect. In budget 2020, I increased the number of secretaries and caretakers in certain schools to allow schools with an enrolment of 500 to 625 pupils to fill secretarial vacancies provided they have fewer than 1.5 secretaries. Similarly, schools with an enrolment of 626 to 699 pupils may fill vacancies provided they have fewer than two secretary posts filled and schools of 700 pupils or more may fill caretaker vacancies provided they have fewer than two caretakers. These measures will take effect from September 2020.

Schemes initiated in 1978 and 1979 for the employment of clerical officers and caretakers in schools were withdrawn completely in 2008 and have been superseded by the capitation grant schemes. The current grant scheme was agreed in the context of the Programme for Economic and Social Progress published in 1991. The majority of primary and voluntary secondary schools receive assistance to provide for secretarial, caretaking and cleaning services under these grant schemes. It is a matter for each school to decide how best to apply the grant funding to suit its particular needs. Where a school uses the grant funding for caretaking or secretarial purposes, any staff taken on to support those functions are employees of the individual school and specific responsibility for terms of employment rests with the school.

On foot of a chairman's note to the Lansdowne Road agreement, my Department engaged with the unions representing school secretaries and caretakers, including through an independent arbitration process in 2015. The arbitrator recommended a cumulative pay increase of 10% between 2016 and 2019 for staff and that a minimum hourly pay rate of €13 be phased in over that period.

This arbitration agreement covers the period up to 31 December 2019. The arbitration agreement was designed to be of greatest benefit to lower-paid secretaries and caretakers. For example, a secretary or caretaker who was paid the then minimum wage of €8.65 per hour in 2015, prior to the arbitration, has been paid €13 per hour from 1 January 2019, which is a 50% increase in that individual's hourly pay.

Officials from my Department attended a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills on 9 April to discuss the status of non-teaching staff. Last May, officials from the Department had discussions with Fórsa trade union representatives as part of a planned meeting and Fórsa took the opportunity to formally table a pay claim. This was tabled as a follow-on claim from the current pay agreement for this cohort of staff, which lasts until December 2019. The Department issued surveys on 10 July to establish the full current cost of the trade union's claim. This is standard practice. Officials from the Department met Fórsa representatives in September. Management bodies representing the employer schools impacted by the action were also in attendance at the meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to further explore the details of the pay claim as presented by Fórsa and the nature of the industrial action.

On 30 September, Fórsa asked the Department to agree to use the services of the Workplace Relations Commission to resolve the dispute. As is normal practice, the Department agreed to use the industrial relations machinery of the State in an effort to resolve it. To address the various issues in the claim and arrive at a mutually acceptable solution, the Department is in discussions with Fórsa under the auspices of the WRC. Talks have been ongoing since October. At the WRC this week, the management side met with representatives of school secretaries and caretakers from the Fórsa union. The matter is still being progressed at the WRC where talks are ongoing and subject to the normal procedures, including confidentiality. In these circumstances the resumption of industrial action announced by Fórsa for the new year is disappointing while the WRC process remains ongoing, and I call on Fórsa to reconsider its action. I still believe we can find a solution through people sitting around the table.

What the Minister is saying to the school secretaries is, "Happy Christmas and good luck to you". They are planning further industrial action on 10 January next, and it is not for the reasons the Minister has outlined. They went into those talks in good faith and on the understanding that they were pursuing parity of pay and conditions. Pay is just one element and leaves out the conditions, which mean that they are not entitled to sick pay and do not get paid during holiday breaks or the summer months. The Minister brags about their pay having increased from €8.65 per hour to €13 per hour, but that is no boast over that period of time. It is very insulting that the school secretaries would be offered such a paltry rise without addressing the equality issues. The Taoiseach and the Minister's party pride themselves on the notion that they stand for equality, be it marriage equality, equality for women or other issues where equality is a buzzword, but they are treating school secretaries like second-class citizens. That is what emerged at the WRC and the school secretaries will not tolerate it. If they go ahead with the strike on 10 January it will be cold and miserable, but the Minister and the Department are telling them there will be no happy Christmas for them in view of the way they are being treated.

The secretaries did not leave the talks because of what the Minister has outlined. They joined the talks because they took the Minister at his word and believed him when he said that we must develop a comprehensive mechanism that would provide a pathway to a resolution. The Minister said that to me in this House, but that is not what transpired at the WRC this week. It is far from it, and deeply disappointing. We do not want the secretaries to go on strike. Strike action should always be a last resort, never to be supported. It can be avoided if the Minister and the Department engage in serious discussions with the secretaries in light of what the Minister said previously. I am relying on what the Minister solemnly told the Dáil. I do not want this to be turned into me looking for more resources for secretaries, as it inevitably will be by the geniuses in the Fine Gael press office. I am looking for the secretaries to be treated in the manner in which the Minister promised they would be treated. Can he confirm that he met the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform today on this issue? There certainly was talk of that happening. If he did, could he give us details of that meeting?

The Minister said that he understands the issues but I do not believe he does. The secretaries want parity. They want pay and conditions that are equal to those of Department-paid secretaries, nothing more and nothing less. They want a change in the employment relationship so they will have a proper pay scale, year-round employment, holiday pay, sick pay and pensions like everybody else who works in the school. That is a very fair request. Does the Minister accept the principle that there is an issue with people doing the same job in the same place being on vastly differing pay and conditions? Will he commit to working with the representatives to address this properly? School secretaries play a vital role in passing information from schools to the Department of Education and Skills. This forms part of their argument that they should receive equal treatment and the work to rule that will commence on 10 January next, unless the situation is resolved, will have an impact on this. Can the Minister give details about the nature of this impact and the work they do in this regard?

I reiterate that the talks have not broken down or collapsed. We come to a solution or agreement when people are around a table. Yes, there was disappointment about what was on the table. The talks in the WRC are confidential and I do not participate in them. Following this week's meeting, both sides acknowledged that the talks have not collapsed. While the management side must now reflect on the latest discussions, we are disappointed that the union has moved to re-engage in industrial action, which will impact on the day-to-day operation of schools, including the pay of substitute teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs. My officials are continuing to assess the situation and to engage with the management bodies who represent the schools affected by industrial action and colleagues in the Department.

As I said to the Deputies, this is not a situation I wish to see arise. The world and its mother know my position on this, which is that I want this issue to be resolved. This has been an issue since 1978 and we need to reach a resolution. Those are not just words. I am on the record for saying it, as Deputy Thomas Byrne said. My words have not changed whether in opposition or in government. I said it as Minister last year. The only way to resolve this is around a table. I urge Fórsa to take those words in good faith in terms of trying to find a solution. I cannot decide what happens in the talks, but there are representatives of the Department at them.

They represent the Minister.

Negotiations are ongoing and the talks have not collapsed.

The Minister offered 1.5%, nobody else.

I once again urge the Fórsa union to continue the talks. If they have not collapsed there is still an opportunity to find a solution.

The Minister is the Department.