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Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions (Continued)

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1003 No. 7

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(Speaker Continuing)

[The Taoiseach: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin] The State is the only player here that has stood up to its responsibilities. It then tried to see if it could do more within the legal framework available to it. We initiated and facilitated talks which were chaired by the chairman of the Labour Court, Mr. Kevin Foley. They concluded in December and he issued a report reflecting the outcome of that process. As a result of that process the Government said it would accept the recommendation to provide €3 million to support career guidance, training, education and business start-ups for former Debenhams workers.

Essentially, what the Deputy is saying is that we should just increase the statutory redundancy for every other liquidation that happens as the way out of this. That would facilitate rogue employers left, right and centre throughout the country to exploit the taxpayer forever in terms of liquidation processes and the employers not fulfilling their legal obligations to workers. Mr. Foley refers to the 2016 collective agreement in his report and states that "it is clear that the agreement has no legal application in 2020". Legally, the Government cannot just top-up redundancy payments from the Social Insurance Fund and the Deputy knows that. He knows the very real legal constraints on the Government, but he has chosen to ignore them and just label the Government as not caring and having no interest. These are false assertions. They are designed and articulated by the Deputy for political ends. That is how he engages in this situation.

In terms of other enterprises, we believe companies have obligations. They should fulfil their collective agreements with their employees - absolutely. From our perspective, the State is open to reviewing legislation with regard to giving further protections to workers and also to strengthen the situation for workers in the general workforce in any way we can.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett First, my only interest is to see 1,000 Debenhams workers, who have gone through an extraordinary struggle and have been treated despicably, get the justice and fair redundancy they deserve. It is similar for the Arcadia Group's workers, another group of workers faced with the same situation because of the failure of this and successive Governments to address this abuse.

I put to the Taoiseach a concrete example. The Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, IBRC, which was bailed out by the people, put a €5.5 million fund of enhanced redundancy in place out of its assets so the workers who earned less than €120,000 could get enhanced redundancy. This was despite claims at the time by the Government, similar to this Government's claims, that it could not be done. The former Minister, Michael Noonan, said it could not be done, but it was done. It was done by the same liquidator that is telling Debenhams workers it cannot do it. The Taoiseach must answer that. Why cannot the Government, in the particular context of Covid but also more generally, impose a levy on employers, such as a Covid levy or solidarity levy, to provide enhanced redundancy? By the way, the Debenhams workers paid for their redundancy. They paid €1 million per year for 20 or 30 years. They paid for it and they are owed that redundancy by the State.

The Taoiseach: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin The two situations are not comparable at all. No ex gratia payments were made by the Government in respect of the liquidation of IBRC.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett The people bailed it out.

The Taoiseach: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin None was made by the State at all. The Deputy knows that the Debenhams liquidation is a court-supervised liquidation.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett It was the Labour Court-----

The Taoiseach: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin It is one with which the Government could not interfere. The Oireachtas liquidated the IBRC in an all-night sitting. The Oireachtas did not liquidate Debenhams. There are fundamental differences and the Deputy knows it, but he is being populist in his presentation of the issues.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett It was the Labour Court.

The Taoiseach: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin That is what he is doing and has been doing, with others, since the commencement of this dispute. I do not doubt the Deputy's sincerity about looking after the workers, but he also creates platforms to increase support for his movement. That is in a lot of the approaches he adopts.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Thank you, Taoiseach. Your time is up.

The Taoiseach: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin The Deputy seeks to apportion blame. The State is not a guilty a party to this. It has upheld its obligations to the workers and, believe me, we tried everything we could within the law to support the workers in terms of facilitating arbitration and so forth. That is our position.

Deputy Matt Shanahan: Information on Matt Shanahan Zoom on Matt Shanahan Previously, I highlighted that University Hospital Waterford, UHW, has the lowest budget and lowest staff-to-bed ratio of all nine model 4 hospitals in the country. Parity of esteem is not extended to this hospital by the South/South West Hospital Group. UHW has just passed the tragic milestone of 40 patient deaths from Covid-19 in one week. Additional emergency morgue capacity has had to be sought. It now has one of the highest numbers of Covid-19 inpatients in the country while continuing to have the lowest number of healthcare personnel available to them. The crisis situation sees patients contracting Covid-19 in hospital while the front-line staff are beyond burnout caring for them.

Additionality promised to this hospital is a mirage. The cardiac care waiting list has doubled in the intervening period of a catheterisation laboratory build saga that has long since descended into the realms of farce. We note discussion of building a new hospital in Cork, despite the significant elective capacity that exists there. It appears that it will take three years to deliver this new hospital, while the second-largest hospital in the south of Ireland can continue to wallow in a mire of want and need, with no relief beyond baseless commitments and transparent platitudes.

In the higher education sector, Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, saw its last new teaching building go through planning 24 years ago. Constrained of capital funding for over 20 years, WIT has defied all the odds to position itself as the leading institute of technology nationally year after year, winning the Institute of Technology of the Year for the third time. It is attended by two thirds of all third level students in the south east and generated over €21 million of the €22 million research money brought into the region last year. Despite this exceptional record, we understand the technological university process appears to have turned negative, with outside political influence wishing to see WIT's leadership credentials dismantled. The Taoiseach, the Government and the line Minister have taken the decision that despite being the institute of excellence in the region, WIT should not be confirmed to retain the headquarters and governance of the proposed new merger structure from the outset. It appears that proven leadership, performance and vision are to be hostages to political patronage, a recipe to deliver the educational equivalent of a half-bred camel rather than the promised thoroughbred racehorse.

The Government's position ignores any analysis or due diligence and probity. It countermands the aspirations of Project Ireland 2040. Considering locating the headquarters and governance outside Waterford will significantly destabilise third level educational efforts in the south-east region and the region's ability to continue to attract and retain high-end foreign direct investment, FDI. Where is the equity and transparency from the Government in respect of UHW and Waterford Institute of Technology retaining the academic lead and headquarters of the proposed technological university in the south east?

The Taoiseach: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin Unprecedented resources have been allocated to the health services this year, including in Waterford. That will continue, in the context of both Covid-19 and non-Covid health services. There are unprecedented resources across the board, including in University Hospital Waterford. The Waterford catheterisation laboratory project is happening in terms of the tendering process and so forth, and the Deputy knows that. We will see that brought to fruition given that the tendering process is close to completion. The Deputy has been apprised of that with regard to the second catheterisation laboratory. Discussions are ongoing on the progression to seven-day extended hours working on an incremental basis during 2021. We all know Covid has impacted on non-Covid health services across the board and in all hospitals due to the fact that elective procedures and outpatient services have had to be reduced.

As regards the technological university of the south east, the Deputy's comments are unfair. The most important point is that there will be a technological university for the south east. That is critical. People have campaigned for it for years. I recall that when I was Minister for Education I was responsible for the most significant expansion of footprint for Waterford Institute of Technology in terms of acquiring new lands for the campus to develop and expand. The Government is committed to expanding the footprint of Waterford Institute of Technology as part of the movement to university status.

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