Seanad debates

Thursday, 28 October 2010

4:00 pm

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Coughlan.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I also welcome the Tánaiste and the approval by the budget committee of the European Parliament of €7.4 million from the European Union Globalisation Adjustment Fund to 850 former workers at SR Technics. Nearly 1,200 highly skilled workers lost their jobs in 2008 and have been waiting since for assistance in getting back to work. I do, however, have serious concerns. The Government was slow off the mark in applying for assistance from the fund. It waited until October 2009 to make its initial application and when additional information was sought by the European Commission, it waited until May this year to send it. As a result, nearly two years have passed since the SRT employees lost their jobs. Why did it take so long for the initial application to be sent and why was all of the information required not included? It is not as if it was the Government's first experience of making such an application. In December 2009 Proinsias De Rossa contacted the Commission which informed him it was still awaiting additional information from the Government. Why did it take until May this year for this information to be sent?

I also have grave concerns as to whether the former workers will be able to benefit in the fullest possible way from the use of the funds before the implementation period expires. After making inquires to the Department of Education and Skills yesterday, I was informed that the implementation period in which the services funded under the SRT fund could be used was from 29 October 2009 until 9 October 2011. Any moneys not spent within this period will be sent back to the European Commission.

A former SRT worker from my local area is attending All Hallows College on Grace Park Road, which is part of DCU. He is taking a BA degree course in adult learning. DIT Bolton Street cancelled a similar course owing to the unavailability of the EU globalisation fund money. All Hallows College, however, decided to allow the students to take the first year of the course on the basis that the money would follow. About 60 other former SRT workers are in the same predicament. They are doing a four-year course but will not be allowed to continue after this year unless the EU money becomes available. They are very angry that no application was made until October 2009, despite the fact that they were laid off in April 2009.

The Minister should have known from her experience with Dell that the application should have been made straightaway. The former workers fear that any unused money will have to be returned to the European Union in November 2011 and believe the money should be used to pay for their entire four-year course until 2013. It should be noted that on top of the €7.4 million from the EU fund, another €4.1 million will be provided by the State. It goes without saying that if part of the EU fund must be returned, part of the €4.1 million will also not be spent. One could be forgiven for thinking that the prospect of saving at least some of the money may have been a key motivator for the Government in delaying the application process. It would be absolutely devastating for former SRT employees if any part of the fund was returned because of the delays.

The final stage of the process is for the funding to be approved by the European Parliament and the vote has been scheduled for 11 November. This will not present a problem. However, if the Government is really serious about helping former SRT employees, it is high time it proved it. It needs to establish the appropriate structures immediately to make sure the funds will be utilised in full within what is left of the implementation period. Because time is not on our side, it must liaise directly with former SRT workers immediately to address their employment needs. An initial briefing took place last week, but reports have indicated that it was unsatisfactory.

The funds are of the utmost importance, as they will provide funding for career guidance services, training, third level education and the development of business skills, but the Government must act quickly. Workers at SRT have been treated badly by the State and have waited far too long for action. The Government must act now to put the essential processes in place. The lessons from past mistakes with Dell and Waterford Crystal must be learned; no money must be returned. I am reliably informed that as of 10 June, only €2 million out of a total of €22.8 million for Dell workers had been spent. Obviously the rules of the scheme must be adhered to, but there must be as much flexibility as possible to allow the redundant workers achieve their goals. As the Tánaiste will be aware, many are in their 50s and every week is critical.

A report compiled by MEPs who visited Dell made the following findings. The Government was too late in getting measures started for workers. Officials admitted to finding it difficult even to identify eligible workers. There was poor communication with workers which led to mistrust and misunderstandings. Workers were confronted with measures they did not need or want and felt left alone. There were concerns over the level of administration being put in the way of workers. The Irish system was incapable of responding flexibly to the fund. The European Commission needs to follow this up more closely for the workers' benefit. We must not repeat the mistakes and must learn from them.

Photo of Mary CoughlanMary Coughlan (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Education and Science; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil as ucht an deis a bheith agam chun freagra chuimsitheach a thabhairt don Seanadóir. On 22 September 2010 the European Commission announced its approval of an application from Ireland for European Globalisation Adjustment Fund co-financing assistance in support of redundant workers formerly employed at the SR Technics aircraft maintenance facility at Dublin Airport. The Council of Ministers subsequently approved the Irish application on 26 October and it is understood the European Parliament will make its decision on the application known in plenary session towards the end of November.

The EGF application is for a total of €11.46 million of which the EU contribution sought is €7.45 million. The remaining 35% of total costs will be met by the Government from Exchequer and national training fund sources. The Government has not been waiting around in the interim until all component parts of the tripartite EU approval mechanism are in place. As soon as it was clear that major redundancies were to occur at SR Technics, the national training authority, FÁS, went to the facility to provide guidance and advice to all workers who wished to avail of it. To date, FÁS estimates that 850 former SR Technics workers have availed of its guidance services and 800 training course places have been provided. In addition, approximately 100 workers have availed of vocational education committee and third level educational supports.

A range of enterprise supports is available through Enterprise Ireland and the city and county enterprise boards. Former SR Technics workers may avail of a wide range of supports for which EGF co-financing assistance has been sought, including occupational guidance, training, educational opportunities and enterprise supports.

In terms of complementary programmes, the Government last month completed a process whereby all SR Technics apprentices were offered the opportunity to complete phases 5 and 7 of their apprenticeship with the Air Corps. This is an innovative approach not undertaken before in the State and a number of apprentices commenced their on-the-job placements in Baldonnel Aerodrome in the last week of September.

An information meeting was held at the ALSAA complex in Dublin Airport on 20 October 2010 for redundant SR Technics workers to inform them of the supports being provided with anticipated EGF support. A large range of service providers were present and it is estimated that several hundred redundant workers attended the event.

The Department is seeking to complete a public procurement process to establish a national co-ordinator for EGF implementation commencing with the SR Technics co-ordination. In the interim and until this process is completed, all State agencies and relevant educational bodies involved in service provision for redundant SR Technics workers are co-operating to ensure appropriate supports continue to be provided.

Any delay in this application being approved to date was outside the control of the Irish authorities and there was no lack of urgency on Ireland's part. A comprehensive application was made last October and it was not until January 2010 that the European Commission sought additional information centring on the potential relocation of some SR Technics facilities elsewhere in the EU, namely, Malta. The Irish authorities subsequently made every effort to reassure the Commission that there was no direct relocation of Irish jobs elsewhere in the EU, which such intra-EU transfer runs contrary to eligibility under the EGF. This was done in the context of the commercial company in question having relocated outside Ireland. Discussions continued with Commission officials culminating in a meeting in Dublin in late March. In early April the Irish authorities formally responded to the Commission's further information request in a manner which subsequently saw the Commission approving the application last month. The EGF approval process has, from experience, taken considerable time - between six and eight months - to be finalised, but in the interim, measures of the type I have outlined continued to be provided to SR Technics workers. I was Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment at the time and the Minister of State, Deputy Calleary, on my behalf, met the Commissioner to expedite the application.

With regard to the question of the time period of EGF assistance, the EU regulation governing the fund stipulates this to be 24 months from the date of submission of the application. I agree with the Senator that this mechanism presents difficulties for member states in that there is an emphasis on them to front-load funding without guarantee of reimbursement to specified limits from the fund. This is particularly so in the current adverse economic and financial climate. A number of member states, including Ireland, have made their difficulties with the current mechanism known to the European Commission. While the Commission is reviewing the EGF regulation next year, it is not anticipated that amendments will be made quickly, if at all, in this context to the benefit of the redundant workers from SR Technics.

I will pursue the matter with the Commissioner and with a number of our MEPs with a view to providing a fairer opportunity for people in the continuation of further education and I will evaluate the matter with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey. While I appreciate there is angst, fortunately some of the former SR Technics workers have been re-employed in Dublin Aerospace and in other new opportunities, and the Air Corps has taken the apprentices. I appreciate the Senator's views on long-term programmes of third level education over three or four years and I will keep a close eye on the matter for him.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I thank the Tánaiste for her response and for coming to the House to respond to the debate. The key matter to be learned is that there needs to be flexibility in everything we do. We need a can-do approach rather than highlighting the barriers preventing us from doing things. We must have no repeat of the failings that occurred elsewhere. Regarding the delays, I believe the average for such fund applications across the EU is approximately eight months and as this has now taken 13 months, it is well overdue. The Tánaiste referred to some aspects of that delay. Given the need for speed on these matters it is unsatisfactory that we are taking four or five months longer than the EU average.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Is it agreed that the third item be taken next? Agreed.