Thursday, 16 April 2015
Order of Business
The acting Leader of the Opposition, Senator Leyden, raised the issue of the imminent bus strike. The National Transport Authority, NTA, under legislation, has statutory responsibility for decision-making in regard to how best to balance direct award and tendered PSO bus services. Following a wide-ranging consultation process, the NTA decided in late 2013 that 10% of the existing PSO bus market should be tendered. Up until the recent trade union withdrawal on 30 March, the NTA was proceeding with the public procurement process while participating in an LRC facilitated process to address CIE employee concerns on the implications of this market opening. There has been intensive engagement for some time on employee issues. It is the view of the Government that the LRC discussions will allow employee concerns to be addressed satisfactorily.
The introduction of competitive tendering has the potential to save taxpayers' money, encourage cost competitiveness and enhance service quality. International experience indicates that competitive tendering is beneficial in providing subsidised PSO bus services. Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus will be able to bid in the tendering process when it commences in mid-2015. Last year, in a bid to support the companies, Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann were paid more than €90 million in PSO payments by the taxpayer, over and above the passenger fare income to provide public bus services. A further €90 million in funding was also provided for new buses and the upgrade of the fleet.
The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Donohoe, recently put on record his commitment to securing an increase in the subvention provided to the companies to deliver additional services and increase frequencies for commuters. This year, for the first time since 2008, the level of PSO contribution for bus and rail services is being maintained at the same level as last year. However, taxpayer support for improved bus services should be given in conjunction with a degree of competition. It is disappointing that the NBRU and SIPTU withdrew from the discussions being facilitated by the Labour Relations Commission. These discussions had been aimed at addressing employee concerns about how the tendering of 10% of the routes might impact on them and significant progress was being made. There was particular focus on facilitating the vast majority of employees remaining in either Dublin Bus or Bus Éireann, if either company did not succeed in the tendering process. This was on the basis of growth in the bus frequencies on the routes remaining with Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann. The talks were focused on protecting the terms and conditions of any employees who do not transfer to other operators. It was made clear during the discussions that pension provisions would also be maintained.
The threatened industrial action should be called off, in my opinion. One of the objectives of the LRC negotiations was to enable the vast majority of existing employees to remain within Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann. In addition, the terms, conditions and pension benefits of employees who transferred would be maintained. Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann have the potential for a bright future in the growing PSO market. As said by Senator Leyden, the threatened industrial action can only damage the companies and disrupt services to the travelling public at a crucial time of the year in the context of tourism. I hope that the unions will continue to negotiate with the Labour Relations Commission and dispense with the proposed strike action.
Senator Bacik called for a debate on the Seanad reform report, which debate was also called for in the House yesterday. I will engage with the chairman of the group in relation to a debate on the report in this House taking place during the first week in May. Senator Bacik also referred to the cyberbullying legislation to be tabled by Senator Higgins. The Senator is correct that this is a matter of grave concern for everybody in this House and for the general public. The affect of cyberbullying on young people in particular is dreadful. We have heard of so many incidents in that regard. I welcome that Senator Higgins proposes to introduce legislation which will allow us to discuss this issue in the House.
On the education admissions policy which was also raised yesterday by Senator Jim D'Arcy, I will endeavour to have the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy O'Sullivan, come to the House for a debate on that matter. The Minister will be in the House next week for a debate on another matter.
Senator Barrett and several other Senators expressed their sympathy to the Buckley family on the tragic death of their beautiful daughter.I am sure we would all like to be associated with a vote of sympathy for the Buckley family on the tragic death of their beautiful daughter. We all join the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in thanking the police in Scotland for their assistance and professionalism in dealing with this very tragic case. Our hearts go out to the Buckley family and all their neighbours in Mourneabbey. The neighbours have been so supportive of the family in recent days.
Senator Barrett referred to bus tendering and favours putting 10% of bus routes out to tender. I note his points on the postal services. They have been raised by the joint committee on several occasions.
Senator Coghlan's intervention on the plight of councillors is timely. There is no doubt that the workload of councillors has increased significantly since the local elections. Councillors' electoral areas are much larger than heretofore. Some stretch as far as 60 miles, which is far broader than many constituencies throughout the country. There are fewer councillors to deal with problems. They have more committee meetings to attend and there is an 80% attendance requirement if they are to receive the representation allowance of €16,500. The allowance is taxable and subject to PRSI and the universal social charge. In many councils, meetings are called during working hours, which discriminates against people who are working and prevents them from attending meetings to represent their constituents. It has been highlighted, and we all know, that conferences have been eliminated, with the exception of training conferences and conferences of the representative associations. Councillors were assured the representation allowance would be increased to compensate them for the undoubted increase in their workload, but this has not happened. As Senators Coghlan, Wilson and others mentioned, this is unfair and unjust. It would not be allowed to happen in any other profession.
The councillors are undoubtedly at the front line of our democracy and the Government needs to treat them with respect, which is not the case at present. I am certainly willing to work with the representative associations to arrange meetings with the Minister, if they so wish, to address their legitimate concerns. I hope and am confident that councillors have the full support of this House in their just endeavours to seek just recompense for the work they are doing. I certainly agree with the sentiments expressed by all councillors. Senator Craughwell mentioned in the Commencement debate yesterday the question of PRSI and the fact that no benefits are derived from it.
Senator Kelly referred to the murder of Fr. Niall Molloy and expressed disappointment over the review of the case. He called for a full commission of inquiry to investigate the event. Obviously, it is matter for the Government and I am sure it will be considered. A commitment was made to have a review and it has taken place.
Senator Wilson mention the plight of councillors, as I stated, and called for a debate on local government reform.
Senator Naughton referred to Startup Galway and to the encouragement of entrepreneurs and start-up companies. She outlined that 63% of companies intend to increase their workforce. She referred to people returning home to take up the jobs and make use of the skills and expertise they gained abroad. This is a very welcome development.
Senator Hayden referred to the help the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade gives people abroad. She referred to repossessions and the protection of tenants and called for a debate on that matter. I am trying to arrange such a debate with the Minister for Finance.
Senator Michael Mullins referred to the 24-hour crackdown on speeding, an EU initiative. The crackdown will occur over the next 24 hours. There is a need for people to be vigilant and to keep road safety to the fore in their minds at all times. The Senator congratulated the new president of Macra na Feirme, as did Senator Comiskey, and she praised the work of the organisation over the years.
Senator Terry Brennan referred to the medieval and beautiful town of Carlingford and expressed the wish that County Louth will not be forgotten in the Ireland's Ancient East scheme that has been announced. I am sure it will not be allowed to happen.
Senator Comiskey referred to the Seán Mac Diarmada house. He has mentioned this on the Order of Business previously. He referred to the need for more improvements to facilitate access to the cottage.
Senator Noone referred to the proposed new Luas line from Broombridge to the airport. I am sure we will have an opportunity to discuss it when the full report is made available.
Senator Feargal Quinn referred to the resignation of the surgeon dealing with organ donation. As the Senator rightly pointed out, the surgeon is an expert in this area and has given wonderful service to the health service over many years. I am not aware of the circumstances of his resignation. I am sure the HSE will be monitoring the situation.
This is related to the point made by Senator Crown, who mentioned the compulsory retirement of an eminent specialist consultant on age grounds. People who are very capable and want to continue should be allowed to continue. I do not know what is preventing the individual in question from continuing but I share Senator Crown's concerns. I hope common sense will prevail. It is not evident on many occasions. I hope eminent staff who wish to continue will be able to do so. As the Senator rightly pointed out, we are having difficulty recruiting people to fill various positions. Therefore, we need to rethink the policy in such circumstances.
We all join Senator Crown in expressing sympathy on the death of Dr. Mary Redmond, the founder of the hospice movement. She did tremendous work throughout the country. She was a solicitor and was on many boards. She will be sadly missed by all who knew her and the whole country.