Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 21 Jul 2020

Vol. 995 No. 3

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Flood Prevention Measures

Jackie Cahill


14. Deputy Jackie Cahill asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the status of flood relief works on the Templemore to Borrisoleigh road, County Tipperary. [16806/20]

The purpose of this question is to seek clarity on the status of the flood relief works on the Templemore to Borrisoleigh road in County Tipperary.

An application to the OPW was submitted by Tipperary County Council under the remedial works element of the 2017 voluntary homeowners relocation scheme. A letter approving the required funding to Tipperary County Council for proposed works to protect two properties at Borrisoleigh road issued from the Commissioners of Public Works on 13 July last.

When are the works due to commence? These two families have suffered greatly due to flooding in recent years. An elderly couple, a husband and wife in their late 70s, live in one of the houses. Over the past couple of years, when they went to bed in the months of December and January, they were listening to hear if there was a sound of rain falling on the roof. They have been flooded on numerous occasions. While the statement said the work is to be done before July 2021, I ask the Minister of State if this urgent work could be done immediately in order that those two families could have a stress-free winter.

I understand Deputy Cahill's concerns regarding this matter. It was on that basis that the allocation was made by the OPW to Tipperary County Council of €244,950. It is a matter for the council to make sure that the money is spent in the appropriate fashion. I agree with Deputy Cahill that the families at the centre of this have suffered a lot. I hope and expect that the CEO of Tipperary County Council would make whatever arrangements are necessary for the spending of that money as soon as possible, and for the alleviation of the flooding issue at Templemore Road, Borrisoleigh.

Flood Relief Schemes

Brendan Smith


15. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if additional funding will be provided in 2020 to local authorities for flood relief schemes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16814/20]

I take this opportunity to wish the Minister and the Ministers of State well in their important work.

As we all know, in recent years there have been increased incidences of flooding causing major problems for households and landowners. Unfortunately, the two counties I represent, Cavan and Monaghan, have been adversely impacted on many occasions. The minor works programme, which provides some funding for local authorities to carry out remedial works is of great benefit and I would like to see the programme expanded. I put it to the Minister of State that very little of my county, Cavan, is included under the provisions of the Arterial Drainage Act 1945. It shows that we have more incidences of flooding on single, smaller streams and rivers. I would like to see, if at all possible, additional funding provided for the minor works programme.

I thank Deputy Brendan Smith for his kind wishes. In my previous role in the Department, the Deputy routinely asked similar questions to the one he has asked today. I look forward to working with him.

I am advised that local flooding issues are a matter, in the first instance, for each local authority to investigate and address. In this case, it would be the Cavan and Monaghan county councils. All local authorities may carry out flood mitigation works, using either their own resources, or by applying for funding under the OPW minor flood mitigation works and coastal protection scheme.

Under this scheme, applications are considered for projects that are estimated to cost not more than €750,000 in each case. Funding of up to 90% of the cost is available for approved projects. Applications are assessed by the OPW having regard to the specific economic, social and environmental criteria of the scheme, including a cost benefit ratio and having regard to the availability of funding for flood risk management. Full details of this scheme are available on www.gov.ie/opw.

This scheme is a demand-led scheme and is based on the applications received from local authorities, based on the authorities’ assessment of the individual projects within their areas. The OPW works in close collaboration with all local authorities and offers any advice required to assist in the determination of these projects.

The allocation of funding for the minor works scheme is included in the overall allocation for flood risk management investment included under Vote 13 - Office of Public Works, in the Estimates for Public Services for 2020.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. Cavan County Council has identified 11 sites that require urgent attention. If the Minister of State could ensure that the applications are approved, the overall cost to the OPW would be less than €300,000. Up to 60 households would benefit from such improvement or remedial works. Some people have to leave their homes at stages during the winter and others do not have access to their homes or farms. Up to 60 households are directly affected and if the remedial works were undertaken these people would have their lives transformed, literally, in going about their daily business, especially in winter time. The Minister of State will agree that spending less than €300,000 of public expenditure to benefit up to 60 families would be a good return and it would try to ensure that these people have some normality during the winter months.

I do not disagree with most of what the Deputy said. I am sure he will appreciate that I cannot make commitments on the floor of the Dáil with regard to the spending of OPW money. From my time as a county councillor, as a backbencher and as a Minister of State in two Departments up to now, I am aware that the engagement between local authorities and the OPW at a local level is crucial in advancing cases, including such cases as those referred to by the Deputy, as well as others.

The Deputy referred to a particular area of Cavan being particularly susceptible to flooding and that a lot of the county is not included under the provisions of the Arterial Drainage Act. It was for that reason - and I know the Deputy will appreciate it - that the scheme he referenced is of such importance. In order to advance these and other cases that the Deputy might have in respect of Cavan and Monaghan, the most important thing is that engagement takes place between the local engineering staff of the councils and the OPW. If there are particular issues that the Deputy wants to bring to my attention, I will follow up on them with the OPW directly on his behalf.

Cavan County Council and its officials have an excellent relationship with the officials of the Office of Public Works, OPW. I have attended meetings, along with other public representatives, between the council and the OPW and have seen that good co-operation. I would like to ensure the applications are progressed as quickly as possible. We have a larger scale project which would benefit Cavan town and its surrounds. It would come under the CFRAM, catchment flood risk assessment and management, programme.

Over the next two years, I hope the Minister of State will ensure additional funding is provided to that particular scheme because of the benefits it could bring to many households. As I said earlier, it could change the lifestyle of those affected in the areas in question. Some older people actually leave their homes during the months when the areas are susceptible to flooding. We have to ensure that people are not discommoded to that extent as much as is possible. That type of small-scale financial investment can mean so much to many families and communities.

I agree with Deputy Brendan Smith. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, also appreciates the Deputy's sentiments. The more money he provides the OPW, the more I will be able to spend.

It is a Fianna Fáil problem now.

State Properties

Catherine Connolly


16. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the research undertaken on foot of the Spending Review 2018, Analysis of OPW Spending on State Rents, in particular on the balance between capital and current expenditure; the effectiveness of the current model in meeting accommodation requests; if value for money is being obtained; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16768/20]

My question concerns the Office of Public Works and the spending review carried out in 2018, Analysis of OPW Spending on State Rents. It is a matter in which I have a particular interest. What further analysis and research has been carried out on the conclusions and recommendations of the report?

I know this is an area in which the Deputy has much interest and has raised in both the House and the Committee of Public Accounts. The State’s office accommodation portfolio is large and geographically dispersed. It currently comprises 543 buildings of various sizes totalling an estimated 888,000 sq. m of accommodation of which 61%, 542,000 sq. m is in owned buildings with the balance of 39%, 346,000 sq. m leased. Up to 52% of office accommodation is in Dublin with 48% spread throughout the rest of the country.

In managing the portfolio, the OPW actively seeks best value for money in response to requests for accommodation from Departments and State agencies. Decisions taken on whether to lease, build or purchase accommodation have regard to several factors in order that the optimum property solution can be achieved in each case. The main factors are the operational requirements of client Departments and agencies, availability of capital for investment, property market trends, availability of sites for development and the timescale within which a solution has to be delivered.

Arising from the 2018 spending review paper on OPW spending on State rents, a follow-on expenditure review is being undertaken by the OPW and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. It is focussing on the balance between capital and current expenditure within the OPW’s estate management function. The review involves research into the current models for providing office accommodation and their long-term costs.

I envisage that the review, when completed, will make a valuable contribution to policy in this area and will provide an enhanced evidence base for managing the State office accommodation portfolio into the future. I expect the review will be completed over the coming months and will be published later this year.

I would appreciate it if the Minister of State could give a more precise date of publication because this review was carried out in 2018, over two years ago. It was very specific. I have the utmost respect for the OPW which does a tremendous job. It has a portfolio of over 2,000 buildings, divided between Garda stations, heritage sites, offices for rent and storage spaces.

There is always room for improvement, however. Some of the weaknesses highlighted were from its own internal review at the time. One was the lack of data on the numbers of buildings and so on it had. That was also identified in the spending review. With the absence of data, no decisions can be made properly on policy. Everything was identified in that review for which we paid money.

I know all of the criteria depend on the Department's numbers such as building type, occupation density, the average rent and cost per square metre. What precise action was taken on the various recommendations from the spending review? The Minister of State gave me one but no date for the publication.

I have given the Deputy no date. However, I will prioritise this during my tenure in the Department. I have only entered the Department in the past ten days. From my previous time on the Committee of Public Accounts, I know this issue constantly arose, particular concerning the balance between rent and purchase or build.

It is worth noting that on rent alone, the OPW rental bill has dropped considerably. Annual rental costs in 2019 were approximately €97 million for 350,000 sq. m. In 2010, rental costs stood at €128 million. We are making progress.

On the Deputy's point about the determination as to whether we want a model of more rental or more construction, the report made specific references to the benefits of both, particularly when Departments and agencies may have short-term needs which we might not be able to fulfil over a short period. It is worth noting that the OPW has several projects in office accommodation in Dublin city that are well advanced. We are trying to ensure they are brought to fruition as quickly as possible to reduce the overall requirement for rental properties. It should ensure that we will be able to deliver the best possible office accommodation in the shortest period.

If there are specific points the Deputy wants me to come back on, I can do so in writing.

I know the Minister of State is new to the job and I do not mean to put him in a spot. However, the purpose of these reports is to ensure continuity, regardless of who is in government or how long they are in power.

The spending review in question was undertaken specifically to look at the OPW and its whole portfolio of rented properties. I am personally in favour of acquiring or constructing buildings. It makes no sense that we are paying out nearly €100 million per year in rents. The Government and the OPW should be right there i lár an aonaigh, in the middle of the market, acquiring properties.

When weaknesses were identified, as were reported to the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2019, and this spending area was done, we must be seen to take action and justify this high level of rental costs as opposed to owning the buildings.

I do not disagree with the Deputy. As I stated earlier in my reply, the decisions on whether we lease or build must have regard to several different factors. I referred to two of them, namely the operational requirements of the Departments and agencies. Many of them will come to the table with different and peculiar demands in a short period which we might not be able to fulfil.

Availability of capital over a short period is another factor. When one stacks up the business case, one must decide whether it is proportionate to go one route or another.

I do not disagree with the Deputy that it is more desirable for the Government to own most of the properties on which it depends. It is worth referring to the statistics on the percentage of offices owned versus those rented, as well as those offices in Dublin versus outside of Dublin. I would have thought the figure for offices in Dublin would have been much higher when it is actually 50:50. This is a point we can address from a regional point of view.

The cost benefit of rent versus ownership is a matter that the Department will be coming back to when the current report is finished. When that review is completed, I have no difficulty in sitting down with the Deputy or the new Oireachtas finance committee to go through what is the best course of action to take for our stock of accommodation to meet the demands of our civil and public services.

Public Procurement Contracts

Denis Naughten


17. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if the public procurement threshold will be increased from €25,000 in view of the impact it is having on SMEs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16823/20]

I understand Deputy Grealish is taking Question No. 17 on behalf of Deputy Denis Naughten.

I congratulate the Minister and Ministers of State on their appointments.

Will the public procurement threshold be increased from €25,000 to help kick-start the SME sector?

I thank Deputy Grealish. Strategic public procurement can play a key role in responding to societal, environmental and economic challenges. Therefore, the inclusion of strategic public policy considerations in procurement processes is a key feature of the programme for Government.

The Office of Government Procurement, OGP, has been actively engaged in putting in place the necessary process and policies that are designed to encourage SME access to public procurement opportunities. In this regard, the OGP developed circular 10/14, entitled "Initiatives to Assist SMEs in Public Procurement". Under the circular, public bodies are required to advertise all contracts for supplies and services with an estimated value of €25,000, exclusive of VAT, and upwards on eTenders, the national tendering platform. This means that as many businesses and SMEs as possible are aware of tendering opportunities. Indeed, the latest analysis carried out by the OGP indicates that 94% of procurement opportunities are secured by Irish businesses, with more than 50% of those being classified as SMEs.

I understand that an increase in the public procurement threshold was considered by the SME advisory group. The group meets on a quarterly basis so that the voice of SMEs can be heard by the Government and the OGP. The group's membership consists of officials from the OGP, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Enterprise Ireland, InterTradeIreland, IBEC, the Small Firms Association, the Construction Industry Federation, the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association and Chambers Ireland. The issue was discussed, with members being invited to submit their views to the OGP. It was clear from the discussion and the formal views expressed that the majority of members were against increasing the advertising threshold. The OGP also took account of analysis of data on eTenders in its findings and decided in June 2018 that, taking openness and transparency into consideration, the current advertising threshold of €25,000, exclusive of VAT, should be maintained.

The thresholds for advertising on eTenders will be kept under review in light of the impact on operational efficiency, value for money and accessibility to business opportunities, particularly for the SME sector. The OGP is continuing to monitor the issue in consultation with the SME advisory group and will continue to engage with business proactively in order to enhance the significant measures and strategies already in place to support SME access to public procurement opportunities.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. The threshold of €25,000 has not been increased for at least ten years. In 2011, Deputies from all parties, including Government ones, set up a group in the House to see whether something could be done to increase the public procurement threshold. We spoke to the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, who had responsibility for this matter at one time. The issue mostly had to do with supplying services to schools. The Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, referred to 94% of opportunities going to Ireland-based companies, but many of those could be internationals with offices in Ireland. That is what was happening.

The main issue facing small businesses is the rates they pay local authorities, but they cannot sell so much as a biro to those authorities. Instead, we often see large container lorries coming along to supply local authorities, the HSE and other public offices. The local shop in the town or village cannot supply them. The same issue obtains in respect of schools. As far as I am aware, one company is supplying most schools. There are small companies trying to sell little bits to schools, for example, chalk and cardboard. They are the ones being asked to sponsor various events in schools and the big multinationals get away without doing that. The whole issue needs to be examined.

I take the Deputy's concerns on board. I met the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, at the start of my tenure and discussed this issue with him. He impressed on me the importance of the SME advisory group and that there was a perception that it was difficult for SMEs to get contracts despite the fact that 54% of the contract value awarded by the OGP went to SMEs. We must keep engaging with SME representatives and ask them what we need to change. I am told that, from the previous engagement, it was clear that they did not want to change the €25,000 threshold.

There may be other measures that can be taken. I intend to maintain the engagement that the Minister of State had with SMEs. The next time we convene the advisory group, I would be happy to take Deputy Grealish's concerns to it for discussion. With businesses under so much stress after the pandemic in particular, they need new contracts. There is a large amount of Government spending occurring at the moment, and it is important that those businesses have a fair shot at getting those contracts.

I welcome the opportunity to engage. During one of our committee meetings on this issue at which officials from the office of the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, were in attendance, it was put to us and the groups appearing before us that four or five businesses should get together and tender as a group. That would not work, though. There could not be four or five businesses in the same town tendering for something. How would the contract be divided between them?

The SME sector is responsible for employing more than 1 million people and it is important that we afford SMEs every opportunity and Government support possible. Reviewing the threshold could be of help to many SMEs in getting back up and running.

I have an open mind. I am new to this position and am willing to review with the OGP the €25,000 threshold and any other existing condition to ensure that SMEs have a fair opportunity to win contracts. I want to engage in communication, education and anything that we need to do in order to train people up, advise them on why they are not winning contracts, and ensure that the process is fair across the country and SMEs have a fair shot in competitions with larger companies and internationals. If there is any way that I can co-operate with Deputy Grealish or any other Deputy, I intend to do so.

Public Expenditure Policy

Bernard Durkan


18. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the guidelines he has issued to Departments in the context of complying with expenditure guidelines and meeting the various targets this year and for the next five years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16860/20]

Bernard Durkan


19. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the degree to which he remains satisfied that public expenditure targets can be met by the end of the year inclusive of revisions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16859/20]

I seek to ascertain the extent and nature of the guidelines issued by the Minister to various public bodies throughout the country. This relates to procurement and so on. Incidentally, I congratulate the new Minister and Ministers of State. This is the first occasion I have had to put questions to them directly.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 18 and 19 together.

I thank Deputy Durkan. I apologise on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, who has had to leave for a Cabinet sub-committee meeting. He asked me to take these questions on his behalf.

Managing expenditure within allocations is the responsibility of every Department and its Minister. Significant additional expenditure has been allocated to a number of Departments over the past number of months. While we find ourselves in an unprecedented situation due to Covid-19, all of the usual measures remain in place in terms of the sanctioning and management of expenditure.

The Revised Estimates Volume, REV, for 2020, which was published in December 2019, set out an overall allocation of €70.4 billion in gross voted expenditure for the year. Taking into account the additional expenditure agreed by the Dáil for Covid-19 measures, the revised Government expenditure ceiling now stands at €79.7 billion. This includes an additional €6.8 billion for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, nearly €2 billion for the Department of Health and €483 million for the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. In addition, further measures have been announced by the Government in response to the Covid-19 crisis, including the decision to extend the pandemic unemployment payment and the temporary wage subsidy scheme to August. At this stage, it is estimated that, based on decisions to the end of June, the overall increase relative to the allocations set out in REV 2020 arising from Covid-19 is almost €12 billion. In addition, supports are to be announced as part of the July stimulus plan and further spending may be required to support key sectors as the year progresses.

A number of reconfigurations of Departments are in progress. When work on all transfers of functions and related allocations is complete, restated Estimates will be presented to the Dáil reflecting the new departmental structures and their allocations. These Estimates will reflect decisions on additional funding to respond to Covid-19, including that set out in the July stimulus. Over the coming months, it will be important that Departments manage within the allocations set out in these Estimates.

In conjunction with budget 2021, a national economic plan will be published setting out the Government's long-term approach to restoring employment and outlining how we will secure our public finances. As the economy returns to growth and employment is restored, it is important that the deficit be reduced year on year to underpin the sustainability of the finances. To achieve this aim, a sustainable medium-term expenditure framework will be pursued that provides a clear pathway back to a balanced budget. Throughout this process, the Government will prioritise policy actions that protect the most vulnerable and put in place new measures for economic decision making that reflect the welfare and quality of life of those living in Ireland.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. To what degree does he foresee the Government's ability to monitor the various Departments' demands in the first instance as well as the possible shortfall in available resources in view of the fact that changes in the economy, market and so on may take place in the meantime? Is it possible to identify accurately the kinds of need each Department will have?

It is not possible at the moment to do what Deputy Durkan asks for a variety of reasons that will be outlined by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, as part of the July stimulus initiative. The Department of Finance data for this quarter and forecasts for the remainder of the year and spending will be as accurate as is possible. While we have seen a significant reduction in regard to those claiming one or other of the supports put in place for the pandemic, which is very welcome, our economy continues to be in a very vulnerable situation. The Minister, Deputy McGrath, and the wider Government will have to take this into consideration as they approach the preparations for the budget, discussions around which will begin as soon as the Dáil resumes following the recess.

On the specific elements of the Deputy's question, we will probably be able to get a better picture of the emerging situation once the new Departments have been configured and are able to present their own policy initiatives to the Dáil, together with their legislative platform. Together with the figures produced by the Department of Finance and the Central Statistics Office in particular as to how our economy is likely to progress between now and the end of the year, the data the Deputy is requesting will become clearer at that stage.

I thank the Minister of State. Does he foresee a situation whereby the Government will be able to identify accurately possible overruns in respect of Government contracts at an early date with a view to putting in place measures to correct such overruns if necessary and how does he foresee this interacting with contracts?

There is a twofold element in that regard. The public spending code is one of the mechanisms the Government will have at its disposal in relation to the amount of moneys being spent. The ongoing monitoring within the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform of the individual Votes from this House to each of the Departments gives it an indication as to outturn not only annually but across the year as well. On the Deputy's question of Government being able to foresee anything of the nature of the pandemic it is hoped we are in the process of coming through, the response is "No".

On the capital element of the Deputy's question, in response to an earlier question on public contracts, particularly our built contracts, the Minister, Deputy McGrath, made the point that in the context of the roll-out of the national development plan and identification of the major projects under that plan, each Department and State agency is being required by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, on foot of reviews carried out by it, to ensure that outturn is proportionate to budget. As the Deputy rightly stated, there have been a number of incidents in the not-too-distant past that were not satisfactory, to put it mildly. Managing outturn is a challenge and the Government is taking it very seriously.

Heritage Centres

Brendan Griffin


20. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he has reviewed the plans for the remainder of the 2020 season in respect of Sceilg Mhichíl, County Kerry, in view of the acceleration of the Covid-19 roadmap and the economic boost reopening the site to visitors would bring to south County Kerry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16944/20]

I congratulate Deputy O'Donovan on his appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, OPW. I wish him the very best. I know that he will do an excellent job.

I tabled this question because the Skelligs are important to the economy of south Kerry and, to a lesser extent, west Kerry. Sceilg Mhichíl is one of two UNESCO world heritage sites in the Republic of Ireland. I welcome that a review is under way by the OPW in regard to the reopening of this site for the remainder of the 2020 tourism season. I thank the Minister of State for being so proactive on this matter to date. I am seeking an update on the review and I ask the Minister of State to expedite it because this site is one of the cornerstones of tourism in south Kerry and it would be helpful if a way forward could be found.

I thank Deputy Griffin for his good wishes. I know that this is an issue he feels strongly about because he raised it with me in the immediate aftermath of my appointment.

As the Deputy is aware, the OPW announced earlier this year that the Sceilg Mhichíl visitor site would not open at the scheduled date of 16 May because of Covid 19 concerns. In the context of the significant restrictions in place throughout the country at the time, the decision was not wholly unexpected. While it was greeted with general regret, it was broadly accepted that opening the Island to visitors was not feasible on safety grounds.

Some weeks on, things have changed significantly as Government has announced an accelerated timeframe for reopening the country. We can all see the changes around us and sense the pace picking up as society and businesses get back to normal. In this context, it is appropriate that the position at Sceilg Mhichíl would be reviewed. The OPW has, therefore, recently started a formal review of the Sceilg Mhichíl closure and it is going through a process to reassess all of the risks and see if they can be mitigated to the extent that an opening might be feasible.

There are two main elements to the visitor journey at Skellig. The first is the boat trip, which is delivered by local boatmen, and the second is the on-island experience, where visitors land on the pier and make their way to the monastic remains on the summit of the island. These two aspects have to be analysed fully, and should either fail the crucial safety test, it may not be possible to make a positive decision. My officials have been in touch with the Skellig Boatmen's Association within the past two weeks and have sought its formal input into this process, understanding that they, not the OPW, are in charge of safety on passenger vessels and must be consulted, which Deputy Griffin, as a local representative would know. Separately, the OPW is also carrying out a thorough risk assessment of the visitor journey on the island to examine all aspects afresh.

I am aware of the iconic place that the Skelligs hold in Irish tourism and its importance to south Kerry in particular, and as a former Minister of State with responsibility for tourism, I would be anxious to ensure that all our heritage assets perform to support our tourism economy. However, we will have to be guided first and foremost by safety concerns. I can assure the House that the review will be as thorough as possible in that respect.

I thank the Minister of State. I again emphasise how grateful I am that he is being so proactive on this matter and that the review is under way. With the acceleration of the roadmap the overall situation is evolving. I welcome that the OPW position is evolving alongside it. It is important to state on the record that safety and health considerations have to be to the fore in this matter. However, I ask the Minister of State to ensure every effort is made to ensure the health and safety recommendations and preconditions are factored into the economic need. It is hoped that a middle ground can be found such that the site can reopen safely. If this could be done, it would be a massive boost to the area. The area has already faced huge challenges in the past couple of difficult years and in the context of Brexit. This current challenge is a hammer blow to the area. If the site could be reopened, even for August, September and October, it would be a boost to the entire economy of the area and, in particular, the people who are directly involved in enterprises directly related to the Skelligs. I again thank the Minister of State and I look forward to the outcome of the review. If it could be completed as speedily as possible it would be advantageous to everybody involved.

I thank Deputy Griffin. I have asked the Chairman of the Office of Public Works to review its decision in regard to this site. We are taking the matter very seriously. It is hoped that the review process will be completed before the end of July, which is only a couple of days away. It is worth pointing out that the Skelligs is unique in terms of its UNESCO status and in terms of access, which is through collaboration between the Office of Public Works and the local boatmen who have to be consulted. There are a range of views within that cohort of people as well that we have to take on board. It is also worth pointing out that because of its uniqueness and its location in the Atlantic, which can be very wild, up to 40% of tourist days in any season can often be lost due to bad weather. We are conscious of the need for social distancing. We have to operate within the Government guidelines and to be cognisant of the staff manning the boats and those who are responsible for the Skelligs.

We also have to be cognisant of our wider role as custodians of a national monument that has a particular economic and tourism potential, not only for south Kerry but for the wider country. As Minister of State with responsibility for it, I am very conscious of it, together with the commissioners of the OPW, to ensure the best possible presentation of our national monuments and heritage sites, not only Sceilg Mhichíl but the others too, especially in the context of what remains of the tourism season for 2020.

That is very good to hear. As someone who once held the junior Ministry with responsibility for tourism, the Minister of State gets this and knows what it is about. In fairness to him, he was on the matter as soon as he was appointed. For people I have spoken to in south Kerry, it has been very well received that he is prepared to examine the matter and give it his time. People want to feel that there is a fair hearing and that the issue is given every objective consideration. That is the main thing. If that is done here, people will be prepared to take whatever outcome is found to be the suitable way forward.

It would, of course, be preferable that there is the option for those businesses in a position to bring people to the Skelligs to go ahead and do so. It may not be suitable for certain people to do that and I know that it is not quite as straightforward as people just getting back up and running and going back into business. When the season is so short, economies of scale are lost and business plans have to be radically altered. Even if the site reopens, it may not be the case that every boatman will avail of the opportunity to go, but it would be marvellous if people at least had the option.

I am very grateful to the Minister of State for his work on the issue. He was on it immediately, which is very encouraging.

I congratulate the Minister of State on his new appointment. As I have been calling for the reopening of Skellig Michael for some time, I am glad to support Deputy Griffin in his question. The entire area of south Kerry is being adversely affected by the ongoing closure of Skellig Michael. Portmagee, Valentia, Ballinskelligs, Cahersiveen and Waterville greatly depend on this major attraction being open. As has been said, it is vital that we reopen it for the rest of the tourism season.

One of the problems is insurance for the boatmen and the cost of the insurance. Just as the Government has supported other businesses in other ways, it is vital that it makes some financial contribution to the cost of insurance for the boatmen if it is to be got up and running.

I thank the Deputy for his good wishes. A number of sites have closed and Sceilg Mhichíl is not the only one. Sites in Galway, Wexford, Laois, Clare, Dublin, Wicklow, Meath, Tipperary and Kildare are also closed. They are closed on the basis of health and safety, which is important to point out to the House. We have to be conscious of the potential of the virus to spread because we cannot maintain social distancing.

The Deputy referred to insurance. Insurance is an element for the boatmen but our concern has to be the protection of the people who work on a site or visit it. We have to ensure that if we open a site, we do so in the knowledge that the likelihood of people contracting the virus is minimised or eliminated. The OPW is responsible for this building, for instance. There are no members of the public here any more, for the same reason. We have to ensure we can operate our sites safely and, before we bring people in, that they will be safe.

To respond to Deputy Griffin's point, I am supportive in general of the concept of trying to open as many sites as possible. I will keep him up to date on the specifics of Sceilg Mhichíl. I cannot currently comment further but I am committed to examining whether we can get some sort of roadmap, if not for this year then certainly for next year.

Public Sector Pay

Gerald Nash


21. Deputy Ged Nash asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he plans to engage with public sector trade unions on a successor to the public sector agreement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16819/20]

Paul Murphy


28. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his plans to adhere to the 2% pay restoration for public sector workers in October 2020 as agreed under the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020; and his policy approach to public sector pay thereafter. [16866/20]

I congratulate the Minister of State on his new appointment and the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, on his new role. I wish them both well.

As they will both know, the current public sector pay agreement will expire soon. I am pleased that in recent correspondence from the previous Government received by the Labour Party, there is a commitment to honouring the next and final phase of the public sector pay deal that is currently in place. The programme for Government commits to this Administration seeking to negotiate a new deal with public sector trade unions.

Will the Minister of State provide details on the engagement that he, or the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, or departmental officials have had to date with the public sector committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions? When does the Minister of State expect the talks on a potential successor agreement to take place?

I apologise on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, who had to step out of the Chamber. I propose to take Questions Nos. 21 and 28 together.

As the Deputies will be aware, the current public sector pay agreement, the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020, will expire at the end of the year. The agreement was passed into law by the House in the Public Service Pay and Pensions Act 2017 and we have committed to honouring the agreement in full. The final commitment under this agreement is to a 2% increase in salaries, due on 1 October. This will be made as scheduled under the 2017 Act. Proceeding with the payment is both in recognition of the contribution that public servants have made in dealing with the public health emergency and a demonstration of our commitment to collective agreements. It demonstrates the Government's belief in the benefits of a collective approach to public service industrial relations. The Public Service Stability Agreement has allowed us as a Government to dismantle the financial emergency legislation while providing certainty in our fiscal planning. I think most people would agree it has served us well.

The House will also be aware that within the programme for Government, as Deputy Nash noted, there is a commitment to seeking to negotiate a new agreement with the public service unions. Our approach to any engagement, however, will need to take full account of the State's current financial circumstances and outlook. The Minister looks forward to engaging with the public service unions on these matters in the coming months.

The Minister of State stated, "Proceeding with the payment is both in recognition of the contribution that public servants have made in dealing with the public health emergency". I do not necessarily agree. It is simply a case of honouring an agreement that the Government is duty bound to honour with public and civil servants throughout the country. I nonetheless welcome the commitment to the principle of collective agreements in managing the public service in future and engaging with the public sector trade unions on that basis for pay reform and other matters.

If the pandemic tells us anything, it is that only the State has the power and authority to work collectively when push comes to shove to keep us all safe and well. I hope that rather than simply applauding them, lighting candles for them or getting pictures taken for social media, as Ministers lined up to do in recent months, to thank and express our gratitude to healthcare assistants, radiographers, laboratory technicians, doctors, nurses and teachers we will ensure that the approach we take properly values the contribution that public servants make to our society.

It should be remembered that not all public servants are well paid. Many earn below what might be considered the hourly rate of the living wage. If we are to talk about a living wage, the Government needs to lead by example and ensure that the few thousand public servants who do not garner an income that would qualify as a living wage are addressed in the context of public sector pay negotiations that may occur in the next few months.

I draw the Deputy's attention to the second part of the sentence he quoted, where I stated proceeding with the payment was also a "demonstration of our commitment to collective agreements." We committed to that in the programme for Government and no timeframe has yet been laid out within which the Minister will enter into negotiations with unions. He has committed to the House that he intends to do it in the coming months. The next budget is only around the corner and we all know that when the recess finishes in September, discussions on that will get under way immediately. There needs to be a successor to the agreement, which served us well. It was negotiated against a difficult backdrop and in good faith, as has been demonstrated.

Both sides, and not just the Government, have acted in good faith and come to the table responsibly. The agreement has been demonstrated, across all elements of the public sector, to have been in the best interests of the public, which the public sector serves. We are all public servants.

Deputy Nash is correct that nobody has a monopoly on concern when it comes to front-line workers. Many of us have family members working on the front line.

Labour Employer Economic Forum

Matt Shanahan


22. Deputy Matt Shanahan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he will consider implementing a policy to allow an organisation (details supplied) to have a seat on the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF; the steps he can take to remedy the lack of access for small and medium enterprises, SMEs, to Department of Finance officials in view of recent statements by representatives of SMEs at the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response in the future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15821/20]

Will the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform consider implementing a policy to allow the organisation, details of which have been supplied, to have a seat on the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, and the steps he can take to remedy the lack of access by small and medium-sized enterprise, SME, representatives to Department of Finance officials in view of recent statements by those representatives at the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response?

I thank the Deputy. As he is aware, the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, was established to bring together representatives of employers and trade unions with Ministers to exchange views on economic and employment issues as they affect the labour market and which are of mutual concern.

The Government has not been prescriptive about what organisations have a seat at the LEEF but has left the decision to the lead representative bodies in the respective areas. The labour delegation is organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and generally contains representatives from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Fórsa and the Nevin Economic Institute. The employer delegation is organised by IBEC and generally contains representatives from IBEC, Chambers Ireland and the Construction Industry Federation.

The Minister notes the strong programme for Government commitments to the broader question of social dialogue. As a Government, we are interested in new models of sectoral engagement and will utilise public consultations and citizens' assemblies, while strengthening existing mechanisms such as the national economic dialogue and the LEEF.

I will address the second part of the question, which relates to access for SMEs to Department of Finance officials. I have inquired with the Department of Finance and I am informed that officials engage with business representative bodies on an ongoing basis and have attended various events in this regard over the years. The most recent of these engagements was a meeting of the SME and State bodies group that was jointly chaired by the Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance on 10 July 2020, which was also attended by all the business representative groups as well as officials. This is a programme for Government commitment and is focusing on the challenges facing our SMEs as the economy reopens.

In addition, the Department of Finance conducts a survey of more than 1,500 SMEs, the largest of its kind in the country, on a biannual basis to understand issues facing SMEs, especially relating to access to credit and related matters. Finally, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform also indicates that representatives of ISME have been invited to and attend the national economic dialogue every year since it started in 2015. All organisations are welcome to make pre-budget submissions to be considered as part of the budgetary process.

I thank the Minister of State. He mentioned an engagement on 10 July but I spoke about a lack of engagement that has gone on for many months, and even longer than that. ISME represents approximately 700,000 employees, which is quite a large portion of our smaller employers. That group finds it very difficult to get any access and I referenced the unavailability of senior departmental officials to ISME representatives and hence smaller businesses. I point out that IBEC is a far larger grouping and a large number of its members would be considered larger employers with 40, 50 or more employees.

The people operating small businesses in this country need to have a voice on the LEEF. Some of the prescriptive arrangements to come from the LEEF, particularly with regard to employment law, taxation, etc., are forced on to smaller SMEs. They are entitled to have a voice and I hope the Government will facilitate that in the near future.

I thank the Deputy. I will communicate his point to the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath. I know it is a commitment by this Government, as it was with the previous Government, that SMEs would have access. I know the former Minister with responsibility for enterprise, Deputy Heather Humphreys, facilitated access and the current Tánaiste is doing so as well. My old role which involved dealing with procurement has been taken over by the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, and I wish him well in his portfolio. Representatives of ISME had regular access both to me and senior officials in the Office of Government Procurement. A particular matter can be communicated either through my office or directly to the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath. As I stated at the outset, both the labour and employer delegations were laid out by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and IBEC, respectively. My understanding is that this is the normal practice. If there is a particular problem that Deputy Shanahan wants to raise but does not want to do it in the Dáil, I have no difficulty in referring it back to the Minister.

Heritage Sites

Cormac Devlin


23. Deputy Cormac Devlin asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the role of the Office of Public Works with respect to the historic buildings, monuments and artifacts within the Cherrywood strategic development zone; and the plans of the OPW during and post-construction for same. [16982/20]

I congratulate the Minister of State present, Deputy O'Donovan, as well as the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, on their appointments. I thank the Minister of State for taking the question this afternoon.

There is a 360 ha site in Cherrywood that is a strategic development zone in Dublin, in my constituency of Dún Laoghaire. It has a rich history, with several ancient monuments, buildings, ruins of the Tully church and two stone crosses. Given the construction of the new town centre and associated housing in the area, will the Minister confirm what role the Office of Public Works, OPW, has in the preservation and protection of those historic buildings, the monuments and artifacts within that strategic development zone? What are the plans of the OPW both during and after construction?

I thank the Deputy for his question. As he states, the Office of Public Works is responsible for the maintenance and operation of a defined list of approximately 700 sites in the State. Some of these include properties like Newgrange, Kilmainham Gaol and Dublin Castle, which are well known and visited by significant numbers of international tourists every year. However, most of the locations managed by the OPW are not as prominent and are located across the country, many in rural locations. The sites managed by the OPW are national monuments in the main and there are also certain prominent historical properties. Within the general Cherrywood area identified in the question, the OPW has one national monument site only, which is Monkstown Castle, in its care.

As an executive agency with the very specific remit I have described, OPW has no responsibility more generally for heritage sites, historic buildings, monuments or artifacts that lie outside of the 700 listed locations and which are, therefore, not in its direct care. Policy matters more generally, including protection measures around Ireland's heritage properties nationally, legislation, enforcement of breaches of the National Monuments Acts and the response to planning applications near listed historic sites is the responsibility of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, soon to be the Department of housing, local government and heritage, and the OPW has no direct role in these matters.

The OPW heritage services has not been directly involved or consulted in the creation of the Cherrywood strategic development zone and has not been assigned any specific responsibilities or duties within planning law arising from it. The OPW is not responsible at a national level for the protection of heritage, generally, and we are instead focused solely on sites and priorities within our remit. Previously, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht had responsibility for addressing the protection of Ireland's cultural assets more broadly. The Department's national monuments service has been unclear, however, in recent days about its specific roles and powers at Cherrywood and refused last week to take this parliamentary question from us. I have also been unsuccessful in getting it disallowed arising from the fact there is no function for the Office of Public Works. It is a double-whammy for Deputy Devlin.

Given our lack of responsibility in this area, the response to the question is relatively bare, unfortunately, and I have not been able to find out who, if anybody, is responsible for addressing heritage concerns in this area. I assume in the absence of other information, in the normal course, the Department dealing with housing will continue to hold this function. Although I have scant information, I expect the protection of heritage and other vital assets to be addressed in planning measures to be applied at Cherrywood. However, I can find no categoric information to that effect and the people who should know are not clear on the subject. That is of no benefit to the Deputy.

I suggest in these circumstances that the Minister would be circumspect about who exactly has responsibility for heritage protection. When the reconfiguration of the new Department is finished, I will endeavour to find out who is responsible for this, if anybody. It may even be the local authority but I do not know. We will try to find out and assist the Deputy.

This is a reply I look forward to getting and circulating. This highlights the point that these historical monuments, artifacts and buildings at Cherrywood are in real danger. I acknowledge the work of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and, as its cathaoirleach in 2017, I tried to propose a committee at the council involving the National Monuments Service, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the council and other agencies such as the OPW. That was not forthcoming.

I know now from that response the reason that was the case. However, I want to highlight for the Minister of State, and I appreciate his work on it, that according to a noted historian, Brian Mac Aongusa, Tully Church was the site of an early Christian community founded in the 6th century, which operated for almost 1,000 years until it fell into ruin in 1613. The elements of the current building date to the 12th century and include important elements of Norman architecture, including a perfectly preserved Romanesque chancel arch. The site is also the location of two standing stone crosses thought to date from the 10th century. It is of utmost importance that we find out which Department is engaging with the county council because in recent correspondence I received from Dún-Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council I have been informed that geophysical surveys were to be undertaken and on-site meetings were to take place. I would be grateful if the Minister of State could ask his officials to confirm the number of on-site visits that have taken place and keep me informed of the progress on-site.

The Deputy can forward to me any correspondence he has on this because it will be of help to us. If we have a role in this, we want to be clear with the Deputy and the Dáil, but the wider question he has raised is something I am already attuned to, which is the ownership of the monuments versus those who manage, protect and oversee them. There is an issue in that respect that I would like to see cleared up. The Deputy raises a very particular point that the transfer of responsibility for these areas, particularly the 700 sites that are on the schedule I referred to, from one Department to another when those Departments are broken up and changed is not helpful. The one constant is the OPW and our role, but unfortunately, as new Departments emerge, we will have new linkages and relationships that we will have to try to rebuild. It would be much easier if there was clarity regarding the management, ownership and ongoing protection of them. It is a discussion I have already started with the Minister of State, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and it is an issue I hope we can get finality on in the coming days.

Departmental Projects

Brendan Griffin


24. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he will examine the potential of existing and future flood prevention embankments and similar infrastructure to double as walking and cycling infrastructure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16945/20]

I want to raise with the Minister of State the potential that exists from flood prevention embankments, for example, and other infrastructure across the country doubling as walking and cycling infrastructure. We have referenced this in the greenways strategy, but it is an area on which I believe we can do a great deal of work. We often look at flood prevention works and the infrastructure that is needed as money that has to be spent without a return, but there could be a huge return for communities and for the Exchequer if we double up that infrastructure and use it for walking and cycling tourism and as amenities. Some embankments are already in use for that purpose. In my locality, the River Maine embankment is used as part of the Keel uphill-downhill loop walk, for example, but across the country there is enormous potential to do a great deal for walking and cycling through doubling up this infrastructure. I would like to hear the Minister of State's views on it.

I thank the Deputy. I have a very short reply but if he asks a supplementary question it might improve matters. The provision of walkways and cycleways is a matter for local authorities and the OPW does not have any function in the role. The OPW is responsible for the maintenance of embankments that form part of arterial drainage schemes completed under the Arterial Drainage Acts. The embankments are not in State ownership but are on lands that are for the most part privately owned. Also, the embankments were not designed or constructed to cater for such cycleways or walkways. Therefore, the provision of cycleways or walkways on such embankments is not feasible. In respect of embankments that might form part of future OPW-funded flood relief schemes, the OPW is happy to work actively with any local authorities that wish to explore opportunities for the provision, where feasible, of added value elements such as cycling and walking within the development of flood defence structures.

I thank the Minister of State. Regarding the future, something that is designed from a bespoke point of view can be used for two purposes but some of the existing embankments, for example, are already in use for walking purposes. One of the commitments in the programme for Government is the development of consultation with communities on the development of the wild Atlantic walkway. Some of the existing embankments could play a major part in rolling out that particular new product for the entire country. It would be very helpful if the OPW would engage with other partners in government and other agencies with a view to seeing how that could work. Also, through the OPW some fantastic relationships with landowners have been built up over the years, and that healthy relationship could be very helpful in getting a consensus approach to developing our tourism and amenity offering further, especially along the western seaboard but across the country by our riverbanks and on the east coast, which experiences flooding issues. It is an opportunity, particularly in the context of where we are currently, because the great outdoors will become more important in the time ahead and it would be an area that would be fantastic to progress in the next couple of years.

I totally agree with Deputy Griffin. A commitment I will make is to explore this further. It is accepted that the existing and older defences, which would be the traditional ones we are all used to seeing throughout the country, might not have the capability to have any sort of walking or cycling infrastructure placed on top of them. However, in terms of some of the newer ones, this is something that could possibly go in at a very early stage in the design, and the public consultation element, with the Office of Public Works. We have many flood defences in planning, some of which are in the early stage of design, with more of them being fairly advanced. I will ask my officials, especially in respect of those at a very early stage, to see if we can get some sort of collaboration on this, together with local authorities. Ultimately, there may be some sort of collaboration that can be done and, one never knows, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, under Deputy Eamon Ryan, might be able to help us also with some of the funding of it, which will always be welcome.

It is very encouraging to hear that because through that collaborative approach we could get fantastic value added from what we know we have to spend anyway, but it would be great to get more of a return rather than just the primary flood defence return that we would get from such investment. As I said earlier, some of the newer infrastructure could be designed in such a way that it would be perfect to cater for those additional needs, but some of the older infrastructure can be used also. I gave the example from the main arterial drainage scheme in my locality close to where I live and where I often walk. We have a fantastic amenity in the Keel uphill-downhill loop walk, which is along that old Maine river embankment. We have many of those throughout the country. That was done through consultation with the landowners following which a consensus was agreed. My vision is that we would get all of these pieces of infrastructure, which fantastic people built over the decades, working for the wider community but also that the landowners, with their full consensus, would be able to gain from this financially in that there may be financial support for landowners through various schemes across different Departments. That would be a very pro-rural step forward but it would also be something that would set us aside internationally as a destination for walking and cycling.

As the Deputy knows, because an element of this is that we both have had the lashes on our backs on occasion in regard to the development of greenways, greenways and cycleways are often dependent on the goodwill and the permissive access of landowners. Any changes to the way the Office of Public Works would go about the design and roll-out of any kind of flood embankment would have to include the local community, particularly those on whose lands they are based because there would not only be a flood defence put in place but also a public right of way. This is not something we would simply be able to make happen. It would involve, as I said in my first response, a detailed planning and consultation process. However, it is something worthy of consideration, especially the size, location and number of these embankments that will be required as the State finishes out the national development plan up to 2026. Perhaps a collaboration between the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Office of Public Works can be arrived at in conjunction with the local authorities and the local landowners, while there could be also some cost and burden sharing.

It is certainly something I would consider, as would the Office of Public Works, OPW.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
Sitting suspended at 6.20 p.m. and resumed at 6.40 p.m.