Wednesday, 27 April 2005
This is the last opportunity we will have to raise the matter of carnage on the roads with the Taoiseach before the May bank holiday weekend. This year, to date, unfortunately and tragically, 118 people have been killed on our roads. This figure, unfortunately, reflects an increase on a month to month basis as against 2004. I have occasion to travel extensively around the country and recently I have noticed a huge increase in motor cyclists travelling at grossly excessive speeds on some of our roads, well over 100 mph. It is impossible for some motorists to see them coming behind.
It is obvious that in order to change the culture of dangerous driving, with particular reference to speeding, that the law of the land needs to be implemented. Does the Taoiseach regard it as sufficient that the traffic corps has been increased by only 33 gardaí this year, barely one for every county? Is it good enough that after two and a half years only four out of a possible 70 offences are covered by penalty points? Is it good enough that the special high level group on road safety which met in a blaze of publicity after an horrific week last September has not met for six months? Will he explain to the House and the nation the current status of speed cameras?
I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on this issue before the long weekend, the first summer weekend, and acknowledge the work the Garda is doing in this area. The traffic corps has been extended. During the past six or seven years an enormous amount of effort has been put into road transport and road safety issues. Every year we have reviewed that work and have tried to improve on it. While the number of deaths over a few bad weekends are high, road safety continues to be a huge priority of the Government. It is not just the traffic corps that is involved in the efforts to try to prevent accidents and monitor speed limits. Speed cameras have been extended throughout the country but there are not enough of them. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has asked not only the traffic corps section the Garda in general to be more vigilant on the motorways. While the numbers designated to do this work are small the reason the Minister sought 2,000 extra gardaí in his plan last year was to be able to substantially increase the number in the traffic corps.
Work has continued on the penalty points initiative and the associated breaches. The genuine effort of everybody involved to extend the penalty points system has worked extremely well. Deputy Kenny made the key point that speed on roads is the problem. Our roads have improved, our cars have improved, the number of Garda involved in this initiative has increased but people are engaged in speeding. One cannot have a Garda on every road, motorway and back road to monitor people's driving habits.
We have to appeal to the good sense of drivers. In fairness when one looks back over the figures, taking the enormous increase in traffic, including trucks because of our growing economy, into account, the accident figures proportionately are not out of line but one death is a death too many.
The content of much of the Taoiseach's reply is somewhat akin to what he said to Deputy Gay Mitchell in one of his more famous outbursts some years ago.
Having missed one flight from Dublin Airport last week and having had to cancel another due to chaos at the airport and in travelling approximately 1,000 km last week I came across one Garda check point. I wish to deal with the Taoiseach's comment in regard to speed cameras being extended throughout the country. It is two years since Deputy Naughten was informed that there were only three speed cameras in the whole of Ireland, five years after the Government promised to have them installed. Two years ago, these three speed cameras were being rotated around 20 speed camera boxes. In reply to a recent question tabled by Deputy Olivia Mitchell, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform admitted that nine of those 20 speed camera boxes are out of action. He went on to say that it takes between two and eight months to repair a speed camera box. Given what the Minister for Finance said yesterday that €100 billion would be spent on infrastructure over the next 20 years, North and South, it is incredible that it takes between two and eight months to repair a wooden box on top of a pole. Seven years on there are three speed cameras but only half the number of boxes that are operable and it takes eight months to repair one of those. It is no wonder that making appeals to the mentality of drivers is in vain given the increasing speed on many of our roads. If the Taoiseach has occasion to travel the roads I invite him to look at what is happening in regard to motor cyclists in particular. It is impossible to see them coming from behind given that they are travelling at speeds of well over 100 mph. It is a shame the Government is not in a position to apply speed camera boxes and speed cameras to implement the law of the land that he promised would be implemented seven years ago.
I would like to see the powers to deal with road traffic issues fully implemented, particularly at long weekends when road use is far higher than on average weekends. I would like to see a concerted campaign by the Garda Síochána to deal with these issues. I did not travel 1,000 miles last week but I am aware Garda road blocks are visible on routes as on a recent journey of not more than 60 miles from Dublin I encountered three Garda road blocks. The statistics show that 14% of road deaths and injuries are caused by road conditions while 86% are as a result of driver behaviour. The Government has expended significant moneys on the improvement of road conditions and facilities for drivers but some people do not take adequate care. I accept that some people drive at 100 mph and some do not observe any of the road traffic laws. All the Garda Síochána can do is strictly enforce the law. Penalties can be imposed on those who are found breaking the law. Speed cameras are in operation. When more than €1 billion is being expended on roads I cannot explain why it takes nine months to repair a speed camera, if this is the case. At a time when annual expenditure on roads is €2 billion I do not understand why a speed camera cannot be repaired. I hope I am not being held responsible for that——
I accept Deputy Kenny's point that speed cameras should not remain unrepaired for more than a few hours. Resources being devoted to improvements in infrastructure and to issues of road safety are designed to make the roads safer. However, car and truck traffic volumes are creating——
I make no apology for returning to the crisis in accident and emergency units, especially given the inadequacy of the Taoiseach's response yesterday. Surely the Taoiseach appreciates that for an elderly woman retained five days and five nights on a trolley in the Mater Hospital it is very little comfort when he rhymes off to the House his version of statistics about hospitals where he claims only a small number of patients are on trolleys. He stated that in the case of Monaghan General Hospital, nobody was retained on a trolley until Deputy Ó Caoláin informed him there is no accident and emergency department in that hospital.
Does the Taoiseach think the nurses who are members of the INO, SIPTU and other trade unions, are out protesting during their lunch hour behind picket boards because there is no problem? Does he accept that the crisis is acute in hospitals such as Tallaght, Beaumont, the Mater, St. Vincent's, Wexford, Galway and others? Does he agree that in a country where so much money has been raised in taxes, elderly people who have paid their taxes all their lives are entitled to be accommodated in hospital care with a minimum of dignity and this is being denied them? Fianna Fáil backbenchers have already started to mutter behind her back about the Tánaiste's competence. This is fine coming from a party whose super-clean hero has escaped leaving a legacy of €2 billion behind him and more health strategies and reports than the fiction department of Eason's.
What will the Taoiseach do in response to the INO request for his intervention, given what it calls a national emergency in accident and emergency departments in several hospitals up and down the country, details of which I am sure the Taoiseach has received, as I have, in my e-mail traffic since I raised this matter yesterday?
Since this matter was raised yesterday, approximately 3,300 people have been through the accident and emergency facilities. Thankfully, 90% of those people did not require trolleys but unfortunately 10% did. I regret that some people are spending several days on trolleys. It shows the system is not as perfect as we would like as we would like it to be 100%. I outlined to the House yesterday the hospitals where this problem is particularly acute and where long delays occur. I also pointed out that facilities have been improved in many areas. New facilities in Cork University Hospital opened last week which are two and a half times the size of the existing accident and emergency department. I opened facilities at Roscommon County Hospital earlier this year and facilities have been opened at Naas General Hospital. The new facilities at James Connolly Memorial Hospital have been described as one of the best accident and emergency departments in Europe.
Facilities at St. James's Hospital and at St. Vincent's Hospital will open shortly. The Mater Hospital is an acute hospital and will commence building a new hospital shortly even though it has taken the hospital some years to commence building. The Government has provided the resources.
Home care packages are being provided to support an additional 500 older people and which will free up beds. Step-down care beds are being purchased in the private sector for those in acute hospitals who are suitable for such care which will make beds available. Last December the Minister for Finance announced funding of €70 million. It is to be hoped the hospitals will get on with those projects because they were all announced last December.
The Government is endeavouring to deal with the acute problems in hospitals as speedily as possible. In answer to Deputy Rabbitte's question I do not believe the nurses are protesting other than that they believe there is a problem. Approximately 1,000 nurses work in accident and emergency departments and they deal with the daily problems. The Government needs their goodwill in order to extend rosters and examine the situation during the busy periods. Consultant and others must be encouraged to work more. People do not get sick at particular hours but rather at all hours. These issues must be examined.
I do not think the Taoiseach appreciates the number of people who are suffering in distress and being treated in very undignified circumstances and the number of staff working in impossible circumstances. No category of staff other than frontline nurses and doctors would give the type of commitment that is being given in the conditions in some of these hospitals.
The Taoiseach talks about initiatives. For example, the former Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, announced €170 million for the provision of 800 community beds in July 2002. However, not one of them was ever provided and the Irish Examiner, the Minister's local newspaper, confirms they are cancelled today. The Taoiseach has also spoken about the home care initiative. I will read the relevant paragraph from a reply to an applicant for the scheme:
I wish to inform you that the allocated funding for this scheme is now fully committed and no additional payments can be made at this time. Accordingly, you have now been placed on a waiting list for consideration.
This is typical of the answer applicants receive to inquiries about the so-called initiative announced by the Tánaiste.
Where is the capital programme and where are the step-down beds? Where is the ten-point plan announced by the Tánaiste in terms of its efficacy in these circumstances? The Government parties have been in office for eight years but people are still expected to work in circumstances akin to Third World hospital care facilities. People in pain are kept overnight on trolleys in many hospitals while the Taoiseach continues to rhyme off statistics about what the Government has done in an economy that for more than 12 years has been expanding at a rate unprecedented in the history of this State.
On a point of order, I wish to clarify for the record that we are treating accident and emergency patients in Monaghan Hospital, albeit in a treatment room. Some 11,000 patients are treated annually. This morning we had to cancel operations for want of beds in the hospital.
This is why we are investing excellent resources to try and improve the situation. In many hospitals, including Cork University Hospital, Roscommon Hospital, Naas General Hospital, James Connolly Memorial Hospital, St. Vincent's Hospital and the new building in the Mater Hospital, we are constantly trying to improve facilities.
In total, this initiative will provide support for an additional 500 older people this year. People are already being moved from acute beds into top-class nursing homes, private facilities in most cases. The Government will continue to work in this regard. We are buying beds from the private sector for step-down care. Provision is being made now rather than next month or the month after for hundreds of patients who no longer need to stay in hospital but require some intermediate care for up to six weeks before going home. This process is well under way.
We regret that there are people still on trolleys but we are actively working to improve facilities and the standard of care available.
I said yesterday that proposals are being finalised in regard to improvements in acute medical units for non-surgical patients in Tallaght, St. Vincent's and Beaumont Hospitals. Hopefully the hospital management teams will work to best use the money given to them by the Minister for Finance for the initiatives announced by the Tánaiste.
We have also tried to improve access to GP services, an area of considerable importance. Unfortunately, no GP services are available after 6 p.m. in some parts of Dublin city. This has begun to change, however, and we are providing assistance in this regard.
The package we have put forward, including the provision of MRI facilities for diagnostic tests and the screening facilities in Beaumont Hospital, represent practical actions. We are trying to take action that will help the situation rather than holding a protest.
Does the Taoiseach feel ashamed or in any way humiliated that a multinational construction company, Gama Construction, believes it can, in 2005 — in the Ireland which the Taoiseach claims to lead — set out to starve its Turkish workers into abandoning their fight for the wages it stole from them with the same arrogance and cruelty that William Martin Murphy and his cohorts treated the Dublin working class during the infamous lockout of 1913? The hidden wages which we fished out of a bank in Amsterdam are being transferred to family accounts but there is a long way to go. However, this is only a minority portion of what the workers are owed. Outstanding is the massive overtime for the 84-hour weeks which they routinely worked. Also outstanding is the issue of those fixed-wage employees who worked the same hours for an incredible €800 per month and for whom there are no wages in Amsterdam. Gama Construction criminally gave no wage slips and criminally shredded timesheets. Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to employ immediately a cohort of accountants with proper authority to process this massive overtime bill and to serve it within days?
As Gama callously cuts off the food to its workers on stoppage and has threatened to evict them, will the Taoiseach demand and ensure this does not happen and will he provide cover for these employees with bridging social welfare payments? Lest any eyebrows be raised about this, we should remind ourselves that the State and semi-State contracts which Gama won have saved the State at least €30 million. Other bidders lost out to Gama on the basis of its exploitation regime. This money is owed to the workers.
I read during the week that the new Pope has asked his flock to pray for him, "that I may not flee for fear of the wolves". Will the Taoiseach and the Government stand up to this ravenous wolf called Gama which is looming over the construction industry and threatening vulnerable workers, migrant workers and, by extension, the rights and conditions of all workers? Will the Taoiseach stand up to Gama from today and ensure this scandal ends forthwith?
As the Deputy knows, because he has worked with us on this over the last number of months, we have been endeavouring to deal with the outstanding issues on all the points he has raised. The first objective is to complete the work we have been involved in for several weeks in negotiating with Gama's legal advisors who are currently our only contact with the company. This is not the best way to deal with the matter but it has been forced upon us.
We are trying to bring resolutions to the outstanding issues and to devise an acceptable verification process in regard to the transfer of funds to the personal accounts of Gama workers. We are actively engaged in this regard. A number of employee accounts have been processed including those of the workers who have returned to Turkey. Certain issues were raised with the company last week and we are awaiting a response on those matters.
A separate issue is the difficulties in regard to the overtime sheets and the excessive hours worked. This is essentially an industrial relations issue and thus a matter for the Labour Relations Commission.
Some 118 workers were involved in the first instance and approximately 100 in the second. We are endeavouring to make progress in this matter and it will be helpful to put the matter to the Labour Relations Commission. We have no problem taking the actions suggested by the Deputy in trying to assist the verification process. However, it is an industrial relations issue and must be dealt with by the Labour Relations Commission.
I understand the welfare issue is under consideration. I hope the company will not dare to evict those workers on stoppage for whom it provides food and accommodation. I have already made that position clear to the legal representatives of the company, and I do so again here today. Such actions would not be acceptable. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment is involved on a daily basis, and some people in my Department who are working on the social partnership process have also been involved on a daily basis. Some of the workers have finished their work, and there are disputes around that. That issue is being dealt with. There are approximately 1,000 Gama workers in the country. I am talking about two lots of 118 and 100, and we are watching what is happening among the broader Gama workforce.
No workers should go anywhere, and certainly not back to Turkey, until they get the money owed to them. Otherwise, they will clearly never see that money. With typical generosity, working people throughout this country are being hugely supportive of the Gama workers, who were cheered by residents of the Ballymun flats the other day, as they marched seeking justice. The Government must live up to the expectation that justice be done to all working people. Moneys that are due to Gama from State or semi-State contracts should be frozen immediately and, if necessary, sequestered to pay for the overtime due to the workers.
I want the Taoiseach to state definitively that the workers need day-to-day spending money. I want him to say that their food will be restored forthwith. That is a major issue. SIPTU has come to the rescue in the short term, which is very good, but that is not a solution. Is it not incredible that the only experience of Irish laws——
——that these migrant workers have experienced is the flouting of it by the company that brought them here on the invitation of the Tánaiste, and that the company is able to hire the most expensive lawyers in Dublin over the workers' unpaid wages to get High Court protection, preventing the truth of its exploitation regime from coming into the open by blocking the report of the labour inspectorate, which has done some very good work in this regard? Will the Taoiseach come back to us on the issue of the workers' food, on that of welfare payments and on that of accountants being deployed immediately?
As I said, we have encouraged the parties in the dispute to use the IR machinery to deal with the overtime issue and we are already giving whatever assistance we can. A large amount of people are working on the issue of the workers receiving their money, identifying what is due to them. I did not say — I do not think Deputy Joe Higgins accused me of this — that people should leave the country, but a number have gone already. It is about getting their money back, and some workers have gone themselves. That is the issue. On the matter of the workers' food, I understand that SIPTU is working and helping in that regard, and I have said that the workers should not be removed from their accommodation.
On workers coming to this country, Deputy Joe Higgins knows that, a few years ago, when price inflation on major contracts was zooming up, everybody in this House was calling on the Government to open up contracts and to attract more people into the country. That was a big issue in this House. It is not about me, the Tánaiste or any other Minister. The country was trying to deal with infrastructure problems and we were trying to get people in. Those who come here, however, have to follow the proper law and must conduct themselves on the proper basis. The labour inspectorate has worked hard to get to the bottom of the matter, as have Ministers. I also acknowledge Deputy Joe Higgins's role in the matter.