Commencement Matters

Motorised Transport Grant Eligibility

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, to the House.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for choosing this matter and the Minister of State for attending. We know it off by heart at this stage so there is no need for me to go into the details again. I have had a number of cases on this motorised transport grant, particularly because I come from a rural constituency where there is no public transport and people need to bring their family members to appointments and take them out for therapy, etc. The withdrawal of this grant in 2013 has caused great stress, trauma and difficulties to these families. There was a guarantee given that it would be replaced with a new scheme in October 2013. We are now in July 2018 and nothing has happened since.

I have raised it continually during my time in the Dáil and in this House. I am raising it again now because of an issue I am seriously concerned about. I refer to a woman whose husband is quite ill. He is in hospital and she is bringing him to appointments a couple of times a week. Cars are breaking down on numerous occasions on the way to those appointments. This woman has saved the State thousands of euro by caring for her husband and she will not allow anyone else to care for him because he has brain damage, epileptic seizures and depression as well as word-finding, memory and understanding problems. It really is a humanitarian issue at this stage. I am not blaming the Minister of State but I hope he can report some progress and that there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

I thank and commend Senator O'Mahony for raising this important issue. I also commend his determination and perseverance on the motor transport grant proposals. I am happy to update this House on the progress of the health (transport support) Bill. The Senator will be familiar with the background to the closure of the mobility allowance and motorised transport grant schemes in February 2013. Following the closure of the schemes, no further motorised transport grants have been payable. The Government, however, decided that the detailed preparatory work required for a new transport support scheme, and associated statutory provisions, should be progressed by my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris.

The Government directed that the Health Service Executive, HSE, should continue to pay an equivalent monthly payment of up to €208.50 to the 4,046 people in receipt of the mobility allowance, on an interim basis, pending the establishment of a new transport support scheme. I welcome that. These 4,046 people are getting the €208.50 each month. The bottom line, though, is that Senator O'Mahony is right. A Programme for a Partnership Government acknowledges the ongoing drafting of primary legislation for a new transport support scheme to assist those with a disability to meet their mobility costs. The health (transport support) Bill is on the list of priority legislation for publication in the spring-summer session 2018.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel. I confirm that work on the policy proposals for the new scheme is at an advanced stage. The proposals seek to ensure there is a firm statutory basis to the scheme's operation, there is transparency and equity in the eligibility criteria attaching to the scheme, resources are targeted at those with the greatest needs and the scheme is capable of being costed and is affordable on its introduction and on an ongoing basis.

I recently brought a memorandum to Government for a new transport support payment scheme. Following consideration of the matter, it was decided to withdraw the memorandum from the Cabinet agenda on 8 May last. I intend to revert to Government in due course with revised proposals reflective of the discussion at Cabinet. While not wishing to breach Cabinet confidentiality, the view in government is reflective of Senator O'Mahony's view, namely, that we need to ensure that adequate funding is available for this scheme hence the debate and the delay.

It is important to note that the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme operated by the Revenue Commissioners remains in place. Specifically adapted vehicles driven by persons with disabilities are exempt from payment of tolls on national roads and toll bridges. Transport Infrastructure Ireland has responsibility for this scheme. Work is ongoing in various Departments, agencies and transport providers on how access to public transport services can be further improved. Under the national disability inclusion strategy, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has responsibility for the continued development of accessibility and availability of public transport for people with a disability.

Senator O'Mahony has on many occasions raised the issue of inadequate access to public transport, particularly in rural areas. I am aware of the stress this is causing for families and I hope to be able to report progress soon on the transport support payment scheme.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Can he confirm if he will be bringing a memorandum to Government before the summer recess or the final Cabinet meeting? If not, this matter will run into the sand. I do not propose to add to the speculation about an election or the supply-and-confidence agreement. This scheme is committed to in the programme for Government and it needs to be delivered. Can the Minister of State indicate a timescale for when he will bring a memorandum to Cabinet for consideration and approval?

In regard to the memorandum, I am considering three options. I know exactly what I want in terms of this scheme. I am sure Senator O'Mahony would agree with my proposals. I was not happy with what was proposed at Cabinet and I undertook to consider other options in terms of funding. My preferred option is the most expensive. There is a problem in that as we approach the Estimates process, there are other groups, such as senior citizens with disabled adults seeking residential care, in respect of which I am seeking approximately 400 additional places in 2019. The assessment of need issue is also on the table and families with young children with disabilities are also demanding funding. There are competing needs for funding. As far as I am concerned, the Government committed to the introduction of this scheme in the programme for Government.

I take the Senator's point about transport issues in rural Ireland, the stress this is causing for families, the amount of work these families do and the savings that accrue to the Exchequer as a result of that work. In answer to Senator O'Mahony's question, I hope to bring the memorandum to Cabinet before the summer recess, and at the latest, early September. As I said, I am currently considering three options and I will decide in the next week or two which option I will bring to Cabinet. I hope I will achieve the objective of bringing it before Cabinet before the summer recess but, if not, I will do so early in September.

The Minister of State will not want to hear from me again on this matter.

Schools Building Contractors

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, to the House to discuss the issue of a migrant worker who has been exploited by an unscrupulous employer. As there has been a huge amount of correspondence with the Department of Education and Skills on this matter I am sure the Minister of State is familiar with it. I welcome Mr. Porfireanu and his wife to the Public Gallery. I know from my background as a trade unionist that this case is not unique but it raises serious issues concerning the award of public contracts.

Mr. Porfireanu successfully made complaints to the Rights Commissioner Service under the Payment of Wages Act 1991 and Terms of Employment Information Acts 1994 to 2001 relating to his employment with this contractor. The contractor appealed those decisions to the Employment Appeals Tribunal, which upheld Mr. Porfireanu's awards in March of last year. The value of these awards is €14,246, which is a sizeable sum, the vast majority of which is unpaid wages. When this exploitation took place, Mr. Porfireanu was employed by P.J. McLoughlin & Sons on publicly funded projects in Coolock and adjacent to this House at the National Gallery. Attempts to contact the contractor to ensure he fulfilled his obligations to Mr. Porfireanu were met with frustration. Despite repeated attempts to discuss the matter throughout last September, no reply was forthcoming. Mr. Porfireanu was forced to engage a solicitor to seek judgment for registration in the Circuit Court and subsequently an execution order to the sheriff to seek to enforce the court order. The original award and subsequent judgment remain undischarged.

I refer to section 5.3 of the public works contracts, which provides that contractors must observe employment law and legally binding determinations of the Labour Court. The contractor self-certifies using standard form MF 1.13 that it is compliant in this regard. I am sure the Minister of State will agree that this was not respected in this case. Section 5 of the public works contract reflects the agreements reached on outsourcing in section 20 of the Croke Park agreement and section 3.3.5 of the Lansdowne Road agreement.

We should not accept that this contractor can be awarded public contracts and operate on those same contracts while failing to respect or comply with the decision of the State industrial relations processes and subsequent Circuit Court judgments. This contractor is currently engaged as the main contractor on two Department of Education and Skills projects in Westmeath and Kildare, namely, Curraghmore national school in Mullingar and the Mercy Convent primary school in Naas. The Minister of State will not disagree that Mr. Porfireanu, who is with his family in the Gallery, has been waiting too long to receive money that he worked hard to earn. This is an example of a migrant worker working here legally and being exploited by an unscrupulous employer, one which continues to be rewarded by the Department of Education and Skills. It is bad enough that this employer refuses to discharge an award of the State industrial relations mechanisms and is in violation of a Circuit Court judgment relating to that award but it is considerably worse that he is able to flout the terms of the capital works contracts.

Is the Minister satisfied with the current methods for ensuring that contractors awarded State contracts respect our industrial relations processes and does he have plans to ensure that contractors such as P.J. McLoughlin & Sons do not obtain State contracts while violating the rights of workers like Mr. Porfireanu? Also, will he help this man who is owed €15,000? P.J. McLoughlin & Sons continues to be awarded contracts by the Department of Education and Skills despite the fact that it is flagrantly in violation of judgments of the Labour Court. To be honest, it is but one of many such companies but the Minister of State needs to do something concrete to help this man to restore his confidence in this State. Mr. Porfireanu has done everything possible to try to get justice but the State has failed him on every occasion.

I thank Senator Gavan for raising this matter and I acknowledge his work in respect of workers' rights. I also welcome Mr. Porfireanu and his family to the Gallery.

As Senator Gavan will be aware, a building project is a complex contractual arrangement between the client, the main contractor, specialist subcontractors, domestic subcontractors, suppliers of materials, suppliers of plant and so on. In general, all subcontractors employed on education sector building projects are employed directly by the main contractor or indirectly by the main contractor through subcontractors. As provided for in legislation, it is a matter for all subcontractors to agree terms and conditions and a schedule of payments with the main contractor as their direct employer.

As these contracts involve contractual matters between private companies, my Department has no authority to intervene in these matters. I have checked this point. The Department, as funding authority, is not necessarily the employer under the public works contract on schools building projects. Where the Department does not own the site, the school management authority is normally the employer for the purposes of the public works contract. Many projects are devolved for delivery to outside agencies, such as education and training boards, the National Development Finance Agency, local authorities, etc. In these cases the devolved agency would normally be the employer for the purposes of the public works contract. Also, in respect of non-compliance with relevant employment law, enforcement and prosecution falls under the remit of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. Where the Department of Education and Skills becomes aware of issues of tax compliance or social welfare fraud, such matters are referred to the Revenue Commissioners or the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection or both, as appropriate.

The Department has taken a number of steps to deal with the use of bogus self-employment contractors on schools building projects. It has appointed an external consultant, Contractors Administration Service, CAS, to conduct random audits on schools building projects. Should irregularities be uncovered in terms of non-compliance with relevant employment law, enforcement and prosecution falls under the remit of the WRC and the Department reports any discrepancies found to it. If the audit uncovers any other matters of concern regarding tax compliance or social welfare fraud, such matters are referred to either the Revenue Commissioners or the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection or both, as appropriate. My Department does not have the statutory powers to investigate such complaints. This rests with the WRC, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection or the Revenue Commissioners, as appropriate.

It is worth drawing attention also to the advice on the WRC website on enforcement of decisions that "If an Employer/Respondent (Employer) fails to carry out a decision of an Adjudication Officer of the Workplace Relations Commission, or a decision of the Labour Court arising from an appeal of an Adjudication Officer's decision, within the prescribed time, an application may be made to the District Court for an order directing the Employer to carry out the decision."

I do have sympathy for any subcontractor or worker who is not paid either appropriately or what is due. I have held detailed discussions with officials of my Department on this issue. We are bound by legislation and criteria laid down by the Department. I have no problem with meeting the particular family with the Senator. I would be delighted to do so because I know the Senator does a lot of work in the area of workplace relations. I am not afraid to acknowledge that. I am not too sure what I might be able to do but I would be prepared to meet the family to see if we could go further on this issue. It does concern me.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply and I acknowledge that he has a record for protecting workers. I know where he comes from politically and I respect that. I welcome the offer to meet Mr. Porfireanu. I will take the Minister of State up on that and make an appointment. We will make it happen.

In respect of the reply he has given me I have two points to make, which I think the Minister of State already sees. This involves the main contractor, namely, P.J. McLoughlin & Sons. The Department is awarding contracts to a main contractor which has left this man short of €15,000 in wages and it has disregarded every State body in respect of that. The Minister of State pointed out the ability to go to the District Court but we have already done that. The sheriff has said she cannot intervene because several companies are registered at the address so she does not know whose property she is taking. We have exhausted the procedures. I have one suggestion on which I hope the Department could act as it just means getting it to move slightly and that is to write to the employer asking it to comment on the status of this case. The Minister of State could write from the Department of Education and Skills saying this has been brought to his attention and he would like to understand why this award has not been carried out. Something like that could actually help. I welcome that the Minister of State has offered to work with me on this issue. Let us set up an appointment and see if we can get justice for this man.

I will meet the man as soon as I possibly can. As this is a very important issue, I will certainly meet early next week, if that would suit the Senator. I would be delighted to do that.

There are a couple of points I need to make on behalf of the Department. I am told the Department was not involved in any contractual arrangement in this particular case and the Employment Appeals Tribunal did not bring the matter to the Department's attention at any stage, as the Department was not a party to the proceedings or the contractual matters thereunder.

I will take into consideration the proposals the Senator has made and will go back to the Department with them. There may be something I might be able to do. There may be something I am missing out on that might come to light when I meet the family next week with the Senator.

I appreciate that.

Sitting suspended at 10.56 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.