Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

We move on to Question No. 98.

It is the same question.

Then I suppose the Deputy does not need to say anything.

Public Sector Pay

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

98. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if the foregoing of the pay rise for all public representatives will be agreed to as part of a Covid-19 solidarity measure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26722/20]

If the question is whether we should have a democratic discussion in this House about politicians' pay, where the public can listen in and, indeed, exercise influence on us about what the pay levels should be, then, yes, I think that would be preferable. If the public had a say in it, they would say that we are paid far too much and that it would be much better if our pay was linked to the average pay of working people because then we would be representing everybody, not just the well paid.

That is a view the Deputy is perfectly entitled to hold and, as a Member of this House, he is perfectly entitled to bring forward whatever legislation he thinks is appropriate to empower the Dáil to set its own rates of pay. I do not think that would be a better system. The system we have is completely independent and beyond our direct control. We are linked to a certain grade within the Civil Service and I think that settles the issue. We are linked to that grade, irrespective of whether the rate of pay is going up or going down.

The Deputy has spoken about the 2% and said he is not going to take it. Some Deputies may take it and other Deputies will not. It is a matter for each individual to make that decision and I am not going to lecture or advise anyone as to what he or she should do. I am telling the Deputy what I am doing personally, as a member of Government, and that is the equivalent of an annualised cut in pay of 12%, which is the right thing to do because we are in a hugely privileged position to serve in government and to represent the people of this country, as well as our constituencies. It is a matter for the Deputy if he has a proposal to make. Let him make it to the House - in this democratic forum - in the normal way.

The Minister does not seem to get the point. I was on the picket line with Debenhams workers the other day. They were sickened at the thought that people in this House were going to get a pay increase when their pandemic unemployment payments were going to be cut by those very people. Does the Minister understand why they would be sickened about a situation where they have been abandoned, where the Government has let them down and where people who have worked for decades have just been dumped on the scrapheap? The Government sits by and gives them tea and sympathy but does nothing to help them, and they are literally dumped by a ruthless company and a Government that washes its hands of their fate. Then, they see that politicians are giving themselves a pay rise. Does the Minister not get how angry that would make them? I can tell him it was not me prompting them. When I hear that kind of stuff, I think we have to respond to that and we have to say it is not just a matter of individual choice. Fair play to the Minister for making that choice, and we have made that choice that we will not take the pay increase, but, against that background, I do not believe any politician in this House should receive an increase in respect of an already high salary.

The Deputy has characterised this once again as politicians giving themselves a pay rise. That is misleading and he knows it is misleading. It is stoking up the anger that is undoubtedly there. The reality is that the system which is in place takes it out of the hands of politicians, in essence, and I think that is the right thing to do. The Deputy might think it would be a great thing to bring in legislation that reduces politicians' pay but if we give that power to the House, it might make a different decision at another point with which he would completely disagree. Is it not far better that we have a system where we do not have direct control?

The Deputy has singled out politicians, as is his right and as is his form, but there are many others in the public service earning far more than politicians and he has not singled them out. He wants very special treatment for politicians to not be paid the 2%. As I have said, I am not taking it and the members of the Government are not taking it, but I think it is only proper that we allow each individual to make that decision. The Deputy is throwing all of this out there, but I do not hear an alternative proposal as to what to do. If he has one, he should bring it forward.

I have already put forward a proposal, as have others.

It is to link the pay of people in here to average industrial earnings. That is our proposal, that is our policy and that is what we campaigned for.

I agree with the Minister on higher paid civil servants. That would also nauseate people. Low and middle-income earners, the vast bulk of public servants, were savaged with FEMPI but those cuts did not mean the same for the super-well-paid civil servants at the very top of the Civil Service, and that nauseated people too. We have a policy for that and we have put it across many times in this House.

That policy is that nobody who is paid out of the public purse should be getting more than €100,000 and that higher bands of tax should apply to anybody earning in excess of that amount, whether in the public or private sector, so that an end can be brought to the shocking differentials between the earnings of people on low and average incomes, who work just as hard as anybody in here, and the earnings of individuals who are on multiples of those salaries.

I thank the Deputy. He made some additional points. He wants every Deputy to be paid the average industrial wage and he is perfectly entitled to hold that policy. I do not know if he would also apply that policy to all other public servants earning as much as or more than Deputies. Perhaps that is his policy; I simply do not know. We have a system whereby we do not set our own pay and under which our pay is linked to that of a certain grade within the Civil Service. This takes our level of pay out of our direct control. Of course it grates with many people who are in extremely tough circumstances to see anyone on good pay getting an increase. That is why some Members of the House have decided not to take it but it is open to others to accept it. I am not going to pass judgment on or lecture anyone as to what they should do in their own lives and individual circumstances, about which we cannot always know.

Public Sector Pay

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

99. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the extent to which he expects to be in a position to continue with outstanding issues relating to the FEMPI legislation in the course of 2020; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26668/20]

I hesitate to go down the route of this question but it must be asked. I seek to ascertain the progress to date and intentions with regard to restoration of cuts made under the FEMPI legislation given that vast swathes of public servants, including doctors, nurses and many others at the coalface whom we aspire to support, had to take severe cuts during the economic recession.

As the Deputy is aware, section 12 of the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act 2013 obliges me to submit a written report on the operation, effectiveness and impact of FEMPI legislation to the Oireachtas before 30 June each year.  As part of those reports, I consider whether or not any of the provisions of the relevant Acts continue to be necessary having regard to the purposes of those Acts, the revenues of the State and State commitments in respect of public service pay and pensions.

My report was submitted in June of this year and highlights the economic circumstances of the State, the budgetary outlook, the debt position, returns from taxation, Brexit and preparedness for other economic shocks. It concluded that, on the basis of the prevailing economic and fiscal outlook, the timetable for pay and pensions restoration up to July 2022 continued to be appropriate and necessary.

The report references the Public Service Pay and Pension Act 2017. This Act provides for the restoration of reductions made to public service pay and pensions by the FEMPI Acts. In that regard and as the Deputy knows, on 1 October 2020, public servants will receive a 2% pay increase. This will complete pay restoration for public servants earning up to €70,000 per annum. Also on 1 October, reductions of between 5% and 8% made to certain allowances in 2010 will cease.

In addition to pay, the Public Service Pay and Pensions Act 2017 provides that, by the end of this year, an order shall be made to restore, at a date to be decided, reductions made to certain public service pensions.

Taking what I have just said into account, very substantial progress will be made in completing the FEMPI restoration process by the end of this year. I highlight that the elements I have set out relate to the thousands of public servants who have been at the front line in delivering key services during the current pandemic. These services are critical and range across the areas of health, education, justice, welfare and business supports to name but a few. They have ensured that this Government continues to deliver a comprehensive national response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Given the pivotal nature of the services provided by public servants generally, during the current Covid crisis and during the previous crisis, does the Minister remain satisfied that it will be possible to proceed along the lines anticipated heretofore into 2021 and 2022 without interruption, having particular regard to the disquiet among some in the public sector and what they see as the unfairness of the cuts which were, understandably, imposed upon them?

I thank the Deputy. It is fair to point out that the emphasis of the restoration process to date has been on low and middle-income earners within the public service. By 1 October, people earning up to €70,000 will have had their pay fully restored. That is a significant milestone. There are further measures in the FEMPI Acts, to which I have alluded. A process is set out in the legislation with regard to the unwinding of the remainder of the FEMPI provisions. These will be considered in due course. As I have highlighted, under the current Act, by the end of this year I have to signal a date by which the public service pension reductions will be reversed. There is also a schedule in place so that, by July 2021 and July 2022, restoration will be complete for higher-earning public servants. All of those matters remain under consideration but for now the priority is to see out the current public pay deal and, it is hoped, to negotiate a new one.

The Minister obviously remains satisfied in the ability of the Exchequer to deal with the situations outstanding, particularly those situations in which it was felt there was an unfairness regarding the way cuts were distributed in that they impacted more upon one sector than another. The reply the Minister has given correctly states that those earning up to €70,000 will have had their pay restored but, in the meantime, they would possibly have reached a higher bracket if they had not had these severe cuts imposed. I am not suggesting for one moment that the cuts could have been avoided at the time. They want right across the board and affected everybody. Everyone was hit very severely. Many people in those income brackets lost their homes for a variety of reasons including having entered financial commitments with which they could not continue. The Minister has confirmed that we will continue with the restoration of cuts made under FEMPI legislation to the best of his ability.

In overall terms, it is very important that we manage the public service pay and pensions bill, which is of the order of €20 billion and which represents approximately one third of the State's overall current expenditure. This needs to be managed in an affordable and responsible manner. That will inform and guide my approach with what remains to be done with regard to the FEMPI legislation. Cabinet gave approval today for the drafting of legislation to remove what has become known as the FEMPI handcuffs. That is another important step along the journey. The 2% pay restoration to be implemented on 1 October will have a full-year cost of €264 million. On balance, it is the right thing to do to honour the agreement in full. I hope it will create a better and more positive environment within which it might be possible to negotiate a new deal with the public service unions, albeit in very changed and difficult circumstances.

Garda Stations

Aindrias Moynihan

Ceist:

100. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the extent of his engagement over the past year with other State agencies regarding the new Garda station for Macroom, County Cork; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26376/20]

The Garda station in Macroom is very much showing its age. The need to upgrade and to replace the station has been very well established over a number of years. That is why it was included in the capital programme for the period from 2016 to 2021. Even though the land was bought some five years ago, very little progress, if any, seems to have been made in advancing the project. The Department of Justice and Equality was to confirm that it was a priority project. Can that now be confirmed? Is it a priority project? Is advancing through a public private partnership? What is the up-to-date position on getting the new station for Macroom?

I will answer the Deputy's question about Macroom Garda station on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, who cannot be here in the Chamber. Since the Garda Commissioner’s announcement of a major reorganisation of An Garda Síochána’s structures and the decision to change the new Macroom station from a district station to a regional and divisional headquarters in late 2019, the Office of Public Works has undertaken intensive engagement with the key relevant State agencies.

The Office of Public Works, OPW, has been liaising with An Garda Síochána in respect of the brief and the design of the scheme since the Garda Commissioner announced the station in Macroom was to operate as a regional and divisional headquarters. The design is well advanced and is currently with An Garda Síochána for approval of the plans.

From an early stage in the project, there has been ongoing engagement with the local authority, Cork County Council, with which the OPW jointly acquired a greenfield site off the N22 for dual use. There has been ongoing technical consultation with the local authority, which will deliver the shared access road as part of a fire station development. It is understood this aspect of the development has been tendered by the local authority and completion of this part of the work is critical to a public private partnership contractor being able to commence work on the Garda station site. Meetings have taken place between OPW and the local authority with regard to the planning application and site infrastructure for the development, including water supply, drainage and road junctions. The relevant pre-connection inquiries have been made to Irish Water.

Considerable energy has been added to the project since it was promoted to a new divisional headquarters. The divisional headquarters will serve the entire county of Cork, one eighth of the entire island. The Minister of State can well imagine the additional demand on the station. I imagine he will well understand the frustration locally, having seen little progress on this project for several years. It is good that new energy is coming to it at this stage and I thank him for that. Can he clarify who the different stakeholders are? Who has been engaged at this stage? The National Development Finance Agency, NDFA, was to advance the public private partnership aspect of the project. The agency was waiting for the Department of Justice and Equality to identify the project as a priority. Is the project continuing as a PPP? Has the NDFA engaged with the OPW? Is the agency in a position to advance the project?

The idea that the fire station project would in some way impede this project does not stand up; it is actually the other way around. Cork County Council was able to advance the project, despite the fact that the council had to wait to get updates on the shared entrance. Who are the different agencies involved? Has the NDFA been given the go-ahead to drive on full tilt as a public private partnership?

The Deputy has asked who the stakeholders are. The OPW has had meetings with the NDFA, An Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice and Equality, which is funding the project on a regular basis to progress it as part of a PPP. Other agencies are involved as well. There were long negotiations with Cork County Council regarding the shared access road. Irish Water has concerns about the capacity required.

An Garda Síochána upgraded this project significantly last year. It is a completely different project, more than twice the size of what was originally intended. We have multiple agencies involved and there is liaison with the county council over a road and the fire station. We have a changing specification as well. There are numerous complications. The fact that the project only changed last year indicates that it will take some time.

There has been engagement with the county council in respect of the planning, preparation and design. Will the Minister of State clarify whether it will be a county council application? Will it be an OPW Part 9 fast-track process? Can such a fast-track process be used? We have seen so much lost time on the project over several years. Could the fast-track process be used to move this along? How soon will we be able to see the much-needed Garda station project advance to planning and tender? Can the Minister of State clarify that, please?

An Garda Síochána has not yet signed off on the design. The project cannot be sent for planning permission until An Garda Síochána signs off on it.

The Deputy asked about the form of planning application, who will lodge it and whether we will use a traditional planning application or a fast-track process. I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, to contact him directly on the matter. I apologise as I do not have that information to hand.

Public Sector Staff

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

101. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he will consider the call from trade unions and civil society for a four-day week across the public sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26724/20]

Deputy Boyd Barrett has been lucky in the lottery.

I have a little luck for a change.

You should buy a ticket tomorrow night, Deputy.

The Fórsa trade union has launched a campaign to introduce a four-day week. It is something that people on the left, including trade unionists and socialists, have argued for a long time would be a good measure. It is even more appropriate now that we should consider introducing a four-day week given the pandemic and the vast numbers of people who have lost their jobs. I am keen to hear the Minister's response to the proposal.

I am aware of the Four Day Week campaign led by Fórsa, ICTU and other civil society groups. Many of the implications of this proposal need to be carefully considered for the entire labour force and not simply in the public service. Indeed, any movement by the public service in isolation could have serious consequences for small and medium-sized businesses struggling in the face of Covid-19.

I will deal with the public services as the Deputy has asked. However, I would first like to make the point that the State is already a good employer that offers staff considerable flexibility through the availability of, among other things, work sharing, flexible working hours, shorter working years, career breaks and now remote working.

In my role as Minister, I have to ensure that quality public services are delivered to the people in a manner that delivers value for money to the taxpayer. There are two core issues associated with any transition to a four-day week for the public service. The first is the cost to the taxpayer and the second is ensuring continuity of services to the public. Estimating the full Exchequer cost of the proposal would be highly complex as it would encompass more than 342,000 public servants across almost 200 organisations. At a very high level, paying people for four days but providing services to the citizen over five, and in some cases seven, days would add at least one fifth to the current pay bill of approximately €20 billion. That equates to an extra €4 billion, which would have to be found to deliver the same level of services. In reality, an extra €4 billion is probably a conservative estimate as gaps would likely be filled though overtime payments and additional cover from agency staffing, both of which come at a considerable premium. It is unclear how increased productivity alone could offset the cost in the context of keeping essential services open. Practical issues will arise for the Garda, members of the fire brigade, nurses in hospitals and so on operating a four-day week. I can go into that in a moment.

I am unsure whether people remember this but when I was studying geography in school, amazingly, the geography book said that by the time we got to around now, the 2020s, the biggest problem society would have would be that because of technological advance, we would all be working a three-day week and we would be trying to figure out things to do in all our leisure time.

How wrong they were.

The suggestion was that technology would confer great benefits in respect of labour saving and increased productivity. We got all the increased productivity. However, instead of this improving the quality of life of workers, the opposite has happened. We even had, as part of the austerity programme, the infamous Lansdowne Road hours, adding hours rather than reducing them.

I do not accept that we would see a fall-off in services. In fact, countries that have shorter working weeks have higher levels of productivity. A happier workforce, one with a better quality of life, is a more productive workforce. I believe the Minister is wrong in his argument.

Is the Deputy advocating that for politicians as well?

We are only working three days in here.

Deputy Boyd Barrett may speak for himself.

I am unsure whether the Deputy is advocating that people would work for four days and be paid for five days or would work for four days and be paid for four days. In any event, there are real consequences for key parts of our public services. Let us consider teachers for example. Is Deputy Boyd Barrett suggesting that schools would only open for four days per week and not for five? We need to think about the implications this would create for families, childcare issues and so on. Other front-line services, including gardaí, members of the fire service, nurses and doctors would be affected. I am not at all clear on exactly how it would work in practice.

There should be acknowledgement that the State is a good employer. I have offered some examples, including the shorter working year, work sharing, flexitime, career breaks and, increasingly, remote working, which is a feature that is here to stay. There is an ambition in the programme for Government to deliver that.

Many public servants are earning less now than they were ten years ago during austerity. They have not had their pay restored and they are working longer hours. Let us think about our nurses.

They are overrun and underpaid and there is pay apartheid. The same is true for our teachers, and there is pay apartheid even for the service officers and ushers here in the House, who are paid different rates depending on when they came into the place. I would not, therefore, laud the treatment of public servants. Some, perhaps, are very well paid and well treated, but others not so.

That is a somewhat separate argument, and, of course, there are complexities and nuances to a four-day week, but it is about establishing the basic principle. Once upon a time, the weekend was considered impossible and there was no such thing. We then got a weekend because people fought for it, and society and the economy were better for it. The very same principle can apply to the four-day week and it is not about cutting people's pay.

I would not like to accuse the Deputy of trying to cut people's pay. He put the question in the context of the public service only but this issue has to be examined in the round, for the private sector as well. I am sure he is not suggesting one treatment for public servants while people working in shops, factories and offices would continue to work a five-day week-----

The question would have been moved if I had mentioned everybody else.

We would still have taken the question. The Deputy said there were nuances and complexities, and there are very real ones, such as the example I gave of schools. Does he suggest they should open for only four days a week? This is an issue that would benefit from social dialogue. We need to put a new structure in place to facilitate a full dialogue involving civic society, with employers, the public service, unions and other important stakeholders.

Deputy Carroll MacNeill is not present to ask her question.

Question No. 102 replied to with Written Answers.

Garda Stations

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

103. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the progress to date in carrying out refurbishment works at the Garda station in Bawnboy, County Cavan, to enable it to reopen as announced by the Department of Justice and Equality some time ago; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26729/20]

The acting Garda Commissioner in November 2017, in a report to the Department of Justice and Equality, outlined that An Garda Síochána had decided to reopen six Garda stations that had been closed some years previously. He outlined to the Department that he had been in touch with the OPW with regard to the necessary modernisation or upgrading of any of the Garda stations so chosen. The Garda station in Bawnboy, my home village, was one of the six that it was decided to reopen and we were told work would commence in a relatively short time. The station has been modernised and upgraded. What progress has there been to date?

The programme for Government provided for a pilot programme of station reopenings throughout the country, including Bawnboy Garda station. The OPW undertook technical surveys on the building and issued a report to Garda estate management on the works required, the indicative costs involved and a proposed layout. The deliberative process between An Garda Síochána and the OPW to finalise proposals is ongoing. On final Garda sign-off, the office will prepare, submit and publicise the necessary Part 9 planning application and progress the procurement of works required to reopen the station, which is expected to take place in 2020. In the interim, the OPW is arranging enabling works that are necessary prior to the removal of asbestos.

The same wording used in that reply was used in a reply to a parliamentary question I asked in 2018 or 2019 about this deliberative process between the OPW and An Garda Síochána. This is not a massive development; it is a relatively small-scale project.

The former Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, was very supportive of reopening Bawnboy Garda station when I put questions to him in the House on this issue in the past. I think it was early in 2019 that, in response to a parliamentary question, he indicated that the station would reopen before the end of 2019. Subsequently, in September 2019, the then Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW, Kevin Boxer Moran, indicated that the station would reopen by mid-2020.

What progress has been made in this deliberative process in regard to getting plans finalised and construction commenced?

One of the problems faced in this project was obtaining approval, due to universal access requirements for building compliance, which, as the Deputy will understand, is necessary. There was also a question about whether these stations should have married quarters attached to them when operational, and An Garda Síochána has yet to decide whether such accommodation is to be part of the functions of the reopened station.

A fast-track application is being prepared under Part 9 and that is expected to happen this year.

I would like the Minister of State to insist with the OPW that it stick to the timeframe this time, which I would greatly appreciate. It was only last week that the Garda Commissioner joined us at a meeting of the Cavan joint policing committee, where we spoke about the difficulties in policing a long land border with a different jurisdiction. Bawnboy is a small village in west County Cavan with a rural community and it is a long way to the next Garda station. At the time it was closed, I argued, along with the local community, for it to be reinstated and was very glad when the then Garda Commissioner announced it was one of the stations that would reopen. The local community is anxious that the station be reinstated as soon as possible.

What was brought home very clearly during the recent Covid-19 pandemic was the value of community policing and the presence of members of An Garda Síochána in our communities. It is a comfort for communities when they know of the local Garda presence, which a local Garda station facilitates. I ask the Minister of State to relay the message to officials at the OPW that we want movement on this as rapidly as possible.

I appreciate the Deputy's concerns about security, particularly around the Border area. Six stations were identified for reopening as part of the pilot programme, four of which have thus far reopened, with Bawnboy and Leighlinbridge the two that remain. There has been progress on this but I appreciate the Deputy's point on the concerns of local people about having community policing in place. I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, to revert to him on the topic.

Public Sector Reform Review

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

104. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his plans for a new drive for public service reform as mentioned in the programme for Government; if this will not include a slowdown in recruitment or an undermining of staffing levels; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26723/20]

To follow on from our earlier discussion, the way in which services can be maintained on a four-day week, whether in schools, local authorities, hospitals or anywhere else in the public service, while keeping those services, is by recruiting more people, such as more teachers, nurses, local authority workers or youth and community workers. I want to know that we are going to go in the direction of recruitment to provide high-quality public services, rather than the cuts and understaffing that plague our public services.

I acknowledge the extraordinary response of our public servants and their organisations to the circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic. We can all be proud of the great work that is under way during this unprecedented public health emergency.

A number of reforms that have been introduced under the Government’s public service reform agenda, such as the build-to-share ICT infrastructure, the progressive digitalisation of services, a streamlined and centralised Government procurement system, shared services and centralised strategic HR capability, have greatly facilitated our civil and public services in responding rapidly to the challenges emerging from the pandemic. The current framework for public service reform and innovation, Our Public Service 2020, launched at the end of 2017, builds on earlier programmes of reform while expanding their scope to accelerate the digital delivery of public services, deliver better services to customers, drive innovation and develop our people and organisations. The Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, who has responsibility in this area, is very keen to continue and develop further that ambitious programme.

Our Department has begun consultations on developing a successor framework to Our Public Service 2020 and similar work is well advanced in framing a renewal plan for the Civil Service. The vision and strategy underpinning this will focus on large-scale, ambitious transformation to support greatly enhanced digital service delivery, developing our data infrastructure and building the workforce and workplace of the future following the extraordinary changes that have taken place during the pandemic.

On staffing levels, as the Deputy will be aware, significant increases in Government expenditure have allowed for the recruitment of additional staff across the public service since 2015. Over the past four years alone, the number in the public service has increased by more than 30,000.

When the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government came to power in 2011, it coined its infamous slogan that it would get more for less. As that Government swung the austerity axe, the result was not more for less but a hell of a lot less at every level in our public services, to the point that we have nearly 1 million people waiting for procedures in hospitals, the lowest rate of ICU beds anywhere in Europe in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, the most overcrowded classrooms and waiting lists for housing maintenance, adaptations and developing Part 8 projects because of chronic understaffing. All of the procurement policies and technological streamlining in the world do not substitute for the people who are needed to deliver services. We are not being aggressive enough in recruiting the nurses, teachers, local authority workers and community and youth workers we need to deliver public services.

I have a question on this matter, although we might not get to it this evening. I asked for confirmation on some issues relating to the e-Government strategy which was meant to be updated. I would like to get a timeline for that because it has become much more important in the time of Covid-19. People are interacting more with Government services online because they have to and we need to make sure the strategy is up-to-date.

The plan is that the strategy will be updated in quarter 1 of next year.

At this point, our public service has never been larger. The Deputy is right that there were major cuts to numbers at the bottom or in the trough. These left us with approximately 292,000 public servants and we now have about 343,000. Recruitment in recent years has been essential to keep pace with demographic changes and undo some of the cuts that were imposed during those years. We face great challenges and we are determined to continue with a programme of recruitment. In the overall context, this has to be done in an affordable way. As a result of decisions the Government has made since coming into office, we have seen the initiation of additional recruitment in key areas of the public service in recent months. That will continue.

The facts on the ground speak for themselves. To allude to our earlier discussion, they suggest that there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Too much of the money is going to the chiefs and not enough is going to pay the people who deliver the front-line services. Our ICU situation, for example, is terrifying. It is not about beds because we have the beds and ventilators. We do not have the staff because we have not recruited them or created the posts. We are not creating the posts in nursing and we are not aiming to recruit enough teachers to reduce our class sizes to the level of those in Denmark, as opposed to having three times the ratio in Denmark. We are desperately lacking outdoor workers in local authorities to do maintenance work, work in communities, fix the roads and do all of that kind of stuff. There is a clear and obvious shortage of front-line public sector workers in the area of key service delivery and we need to respond to that.

I acknowledge that over the past six months, in particular, some public services have been under huge pressure and some have simply not been able to operate because of the extraordinary circumstances we are all living through. The numbers speak for themselves, however. The number of public servants has increased significantly and across the board, including in our health service, where we have well over 120,000 people working. The winter plan we unveiled will involve additional recruitment. This year alone, we are spending an extra €3 billion on health because we have to do so and it is the right thing to do. We are determined to ensure that we fund our health service properly for next year, not just to deal with the pandemic but also to deal once and for all with the deep-rooted structural problems in the health service and ensure it has the capacity, both in physical infrastructure, such as beds, and in the people needed to run the services. We are determined to do that.

Flood Prevention Measures

Tagaimid anois go dtí Ceist Uimh. 105 ón Teachta Griffin. Deputy Griffin received an honourable mention earlier today.

Brendan Griffin

Ceist:

105. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the status of the implementation of necessary flood prevention works in Kenmare and Sneem, County Kerry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26340/20]

It is rare that I get such a mention in this House so I will have to mark the date in the calendar. I raise the issue of recurring flooding in Kenmare and Sneem, County Kerry. Most recently, at the end of July, we had serious flooding in Kenmare and Sneem. While we also had flooding in other parts of south Kerry, it particularly affected those two locations. I want to keep this matter high on the agenda. I seek an update on progress on measures to alleviate flooding in these areas.

The Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, has informed me that he has personally visited all of the areas that suffered from flooding and he would like to thank the Deputy for raising this issue. A steering group, comprising of representatives from the Office of Public Works and Kerry County Council, is already in place to progress a number of schemes in County Kerry, including the Kenmare flood relief scheme. Earlier this year, Kerry County Council appointed three additional technical and administrative staff to support the progression of these schemes. These posts are being funded by the OPW to progress the schemes proposed for County Kerry under the flood risk management plans.

Kenmare's scheme is due to be implemented as part of the first tranche of 60 new schemes that have been prioritised for implementation nationally, following the launch of the flood risk management plans by the Minister of State's office in May 2018, and the announcement of a €1 billion investment in flood risk over the coming decade. Potentially viable flood relief works for Kenmare, to be implemented as appropriate after project level assessment and planning, or exhibition and confirmation, would include fluvial flood defences comprising of walls and embankments on the Finnihy and Kealnagower rivers, and tidal flood defences comprising of walls, embankments and removable barriers. The measures proposed also include the removal of the existing pipe under Finnihy Bridge. Kerry County Council is on schedule to issue the request for tenders for engineering design consultants and environmental consultants, from the Office of Public Works framework of consultants, in October 2020.

 In the meantime, the steering group has also proposed interim works that will involve the clearance of vegetation along a 600 m stretch of the Kealnagower river from the bridge at Aldi to where the Kealnagower river meets the Finnihy river, and a 600 m stretch of the Finnihy river from behind St. Claire’s Convent to the footbridge downstream of Cornwell’s Bridge. This vegetation will need to be cleared to allow various surveys, site investigations and examinations of environmental baselines and so on to take place. This will also involve the removal of debris that poses an immediate risk in a flood event of leading to blockages in bridges as was seen in the recent flooding event in Kenmare where a number of properties were flooded. Subject to approval, this work will be completed before the end of the year.

I thank the Minister of State for the response and I acknowledge the visit of the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, to the south Kerry area following my request after the flooding in July. I also acknowledge the financial supports that were put in place for affected parties in the locality following the request I made in early August. That is very important but it is critical that the tenders issue in October and we see consultants appointed. I understand that the design phase will take up to 18 months before planning will be sought and the works commenced. The fear in the areas of Kenmare and Sneem is that there will be a recurrence of serious flooding. I ask that the tender process be prioritised and there is no undue delay. In respect of Sneem, I ask that similar priority be given to having the matter addressed as soon as possible.

On the appointment of consultants by tender, it is scheduled to issue a request for tenders to the engineering and environmental framework in October, with the appointment of a consultant in the first quarter of 2021.

On the completion of the Kenmare flood relief scheme, following the appointment of a consultant in early 2021, the programme for delivering a flood relief scheme for Kenmare will take a number of years, contingent on planning approval. Once planning is in place, the construction of the flood relief scheme for Kenmare will likely take between 18 and 24 months.

Civil Service

Pa Daly

Ceist:

106. Deputy Pa Daly asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the additional budgetary amounts that have been assigned to facilitate working from home or flexible working hours across the Civil Service. [26341/20]

Given that we will be dealing Covid-19 on an ongoing basis, what additional budgetary amounts have been assigned to facilitate working from home or flexible working hours across the Civil Service?

The Deputy has waited patiently to contribute. The response to the Covid-19 crisis was swift, with many civil and public servants transitioning to working from home at very short notice. This was an unprecedented action but it was entirely necessary to ensure the health and well-being of staff across the system was protected as best we could.

Most Departments and offices, including my Department, would have had remote access solutions or systems in place and issued mobile devices such as laptops and tablets before the pandemic. In my Department, approximately 97% of staff are enabled to work from home, with most of the other client organisations of the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer at between 80% to 95% staff remote working coverage.

No additional expenditure allocations have been provided to Departments to facilitate working from home arrangements or flexible working hours across the Civil Service in response to Covid-19. Any additional funding incurred by Departments, including in respect of information technology resources required, is to be met from within existing resources, and they have done so. The management of resources in this regard is a matter for each individual Department and Minister.

With regard to my Department specifically, the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, which is an office of the Department, has spent €267,000 to date on capital equipment for the Department, including for itself, from its Vote. The vast majority of this expenditure relates to facilitating staff to work remotely through the purchase of information technology equipment. This cost is being met internally through existing capital budgets by reprioritising expenditure. My Department has also spent €22,000 on remote working equipment from its own Vote to date.

I thank the Minister for the reply. Coming from a rural county, I am excited by the possibilities afforded by remote working to a place like Kerry. As I said, we will be dealing with Covid-19 for a long time.

I have a concern about contacting some Departments, although none of these is the Minister's Department. There is a difficulty in our office getting through to some Departments. When we got through to one we were told it was like a ghost town and when calls were transferred, nobody answered the phone. There is nothing on the websites to indicate that phones are not being answered and that only emails will be responded to. I wonder if extra facilities or staffing can be put in place to ensure the same level of service is maintained across all Departments. For example, staff in a school in Kerry contacted the Department to try to find out what was happening with broadband and were advised to contact their local representative. The staff did that somewhat reluctantly, unfortunately.

I thank the Deputy and agree with his initial point. Remote working brings certain opportunities for the regions and for individuals it may open career opportunities that people thought may not be possible. A degree of remote working is here to stay and we must think about what is the right balance both for the employer, the public servant and the public services being provided. There is also the issue of cities if large numbers of people are not based in or working in them.

I will take up the matter of maintaining public services as we must ensure, insofar as it is possible, that services are maintained even in the extraordinary circumstances in which we work. If phone calls are systematically not being answered, I will look into the matter.

Question No. 107 is in the name of Deputy Pearse Doherty but we do not appear to have a request to transfer the question to Deputy Farrell. On that basis, I reluctantly must pass over the question.

Question No. 107 replied to with Written Answers.

Flood Relief Schemes

Kieran O'Donnell

Ceist:

108. Deputy Kieran O'Donnell asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the status of flood relief schemes in Limerick city and environs, including Coonagh, King's Island and Castleconnell; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26359/20]

I specifically seek an update on the flood relief projects in Limerick city and its environs, including Coonagh, King's Island, Castleconnell, Montpelier, Annacotty village and the Mountshannon Road. The Minister of State has visited these areas and people's lives are being affected there. Houses in Coonagh were flooded and residents are now getting back into their homes. The people of King's Island are waiting on a large project to get under way. Funding has been allocated to Castleconnell village, which has been repeatedly flooded over a number of years. This extends down to the Mountshannon Road and into Annacotty village. Montpelier is also affected.

As the Deputy notes, the Minister of State has visited Limerick city and other areas where flooding has occurred. I thank him for raising the question of the status of flood relief schemes in Limerick city and its environs, including Coonagh, King's Island and Castleconnell. As the Deputy knows, the Minister of State is very familiar with the areas in question. On 15 September, in the company of officials from Limerick City and County Council and the Office of Public Works, he visited Coonagh to view the area where the embankments were breached. From there he visited King's Island and received updates on these projects.

The evidence provided by the catchment flood risk and assessment and management, CFRAM, programme, which was launched by the Office of Public Works in May 2018, supports the Government’s €1 billion planned investment to complete 151 flood relief schemes through the national development plan up to 2027 as part of Project 2040. Since May 2018, the number of flood relief schemes under design and construction by the OPW in partnership with local authorities has increased to approximately 90. These include schemes in King's Island, Limerick city and its environs and Castleconnell. Together with the 46 schemes already completed or substantially completed, including a number of localised schemes within Limerick city, this means that the OPW and local authorities have completed or are now actively working on projects to protect 80% of those properties to be protected in this decade.

There is currently in place a joint Limerick City and County Council and OPW steering group for delivery of schemes in County Limerick. The OPW has agreed to fund two engineering resources and a senior staff officer in Limerick to work on delivery of the schemes. The senior executive engineer and senior staff officer are now in place and the executive engineer post is to be filled. A project brief for the procurement of engineering and environmental consultants to develop a flood relief scheme for Limerick city was advertised on the e-tenders platform in July 2020. It is intended to appoint consultants in December 2020. Once consultants are appointed to progress the flood relief scheme, consultation with statutory and non-statutory bodies, as well as the public, will take place at the appropriate stages to ensure that all parties have the opportunity to input into the development of the scheme.

I thank the Minister of State for the update. I accompanied the Minister of State, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan, on his tour of Limerick and the flood relief projects in Coonagh and King's Island that have been mentioned. He is also very familiar with Castleconnell, the Mountshannon Road, Annacotty and Montpelier, as well as the projects throughout Limerick city.

I welcome that additional staff are to be appointed. I ask that the appointment of design teams be expedited, although I know the design team is already in place for Castleconnell. These matters must be rectified as quickly as possible and I welcome the Minister of State's commitment in the House today.

Is Deputy Ó Murchú spreading his tentacles to Limerick?

Not to waste a question or answer on CFRAM, as a colleague from another constituency has put down a question, I assume the Minister of State has an answer to my question on flood protection.

The Deputy is testing my patience.

I refer to such measures in Dundalk, Drogheda and across County Louth. Will the Minister of State very quickly synopsise the timeline for those flood defences?

I apologise as I am replying on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan, who has good reasons for not being here. I am really not qualified to answer the Deputy's question so I will need to revert to him directly if that is all right.

I thank the Minister of State for his honesty.

eGovernment Services

Eoghan Murphy

Ceist:

109. Deputy Eoghan Murphy asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the status of the eGovernment strategy. [26680/20]

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the latitude he afforded earlier. I was worried that we would not get to the question. We will not get enough time to discuss it. The Minister of State has already answered the question by saying the new strategy will be updated in the first quarter of next year. I know it might not seem like a very important matter, but so many of my constituents are now dealing with Government services and local authorities via electronic means such as email. When it does not work out for them it gets very difficult. We as Deputies should not have to be the middlemen between our constituents and Government services. A great strategy was in place for this important area. I had some involvement in it years ago.

The private sector is adopting a lot of new technologies which open multiple pathways of communication. One feature of private sector practice which I do not like is the use of algorithms or bots to answer questions so that a customer does not actually deal with a real person. I do not think public services should go down that road because it will not be to the satisfaction of the people involved.

We are not quite at the point of bringing in bots to answer questions here.

Hopefully not, but it is happening in the private sector. I have only found it to be a frustrating experience. When people interact with public services and public bodies they should interact with an individual where possible, including through the use of email and phones. That new strategy is very important. It is great to see a new Minister of State who is able to take charge and drive that strategy, because in small ways it has a big impact on lots of people throughout the country.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
The Dáil adjourned at 11.05 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 30 September 2020.