Wednesday, 6 November 2002
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Kenny: Today the board of CIE meets to make a decision to close by stealth a number of rail freight lines and, as a consequence, a number of rail passenger lines throughout the country. The consequence of this decision will be to force thousands of extra trucks onto overcrowded and inadequate roads. It is bad regional policy, bad rail policy, bad freight policy, bad road safety policy and bad governance, which is compounded by the fact that the strategic rail review has not yet been published. Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister for Transport to instruct the CIE board not to make such a decision until the strategic rail review has been published and the House has had a chance to discuss it in order that we can give our views on the future of rail policy at a time when the pleasure has gone out of driving because roads are congested and on road safety as the Government by stealth will force thousands of extra trucks onto overcrowded and dangerous roads?
The Taoiseach: —but Deputy Kenny is correct that the board of CIE will consider the future of rail freight at its meeting today in the wake of the IFI closure, in particular. The Minister for Transport expects to hear the outcome of those deliberations shortly thereafter to enable consideration of the future strategic direction of the rail sector in the light of the board's analysis of the situation and the strategic rail review.
The Taoiseach: In reply to the second part of Deputy Kenny's question, the Minister for Transport has engaged consultants, Booz-Allen & Hamilton, an international rail consultancy firm, to undertake a major strategic review of Irish railways, of which the purpose is to provide the Government with a basis for establishing a strategic policy framework for the future development of the rail sector over the next two decades. It will embrace both rail freight and passenger services; address urban, commuter and inter-regional rail services, and examine the long-term rail requirements of the country as a whole in the light of emerging spatial planning and regional development policies. The review is due to be completed by the end of this year.
The conclusion, in reply to the first part of Deputy Kenny's question, is that whatever decision is made today will hold until the completion of that work. Whatever decision is made will go to the Minister and no action will be taken. He will complete the review by his consultants, Booz-Allen & Hamilton, and take into account what has been said by the board. However, there will be one total decision which will not be influenced by anything that happens today.
Mr. Kenny: The position is that today the board of CIE will make a decision to close the rail freight section of its business. That means it will be closed before the end of the month and, therefore, before the strategic review is published. It also means less maintenance will be required on the lines affected and that this is a closure by stealth. The solution put forward by the Minister for Transport, who is not present, is to charge citizens to drive into this city, which makes a mockery of good governance, a good spatial strategy and good regional development planning. Hundreds of thousands of people would use the rail service if it was modern, efficient and professional. However, following the board's decision today, the rail freight division will be closed before the strategic review is published. If CIE decides to cease the rail freight service on a number of lines today, will the Government reverse the decision in the light of what emerges in the strategic review when published?
The Taoiseach: I will not interfere with a State board's right to make a decision, particularly one on which worker-directors sit, but whatever decision is made, it will not be enacted in any form until the strategic rail review is completed. The decision holds until that is examined by the Minister.
Mr. Rabbitte: I want to revisit yesterday's refusal by the Taoiseach to answer questions put to him about the effective dismantling of the community employment scheme. Is it the case that his own backbenchers share the concern of this side of the House at the destruction of community employment? Does the Taoiseach agree it is pointless putting questions to him after the publication of the Book of Estimates? His backbenchers are in need of support now from this side of the House. Does he acknowledge the beneficial and productive work being done in the community by community employment? Does he acknowledge that disadvantaged communities in particular will suffer as a result of the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment's proposals to reduce the number from 28,000 to 15,500 next year? Will he intervene to prevent her and the Minister for Finance colluding to inflict further pain on the communities most in need of the effort put in by community employment? Will he side with his backbenchers against the McCreevy-Harney axis? The work being done in parts of my constituency – I know Deputy O'Connor will tell the Taoiseach at the parliamentary party meeting later this morning about the valuable work being done in the community – is replicated in every constituency throughout the country. There will not be any point giving answers to the House after the publication of the Book of Estimates. Will the Taoiseach prevent that happening at this time?
The Taoiseach: As I said yesterday, I replied to the position for 2002. I am not in a position to reply for 2003. I am glad that community employment has become popular. I remember when the social employment scheme was first set up by Deputy Quinn – it later became the community employment scheme which I, as Minister for Finance, extended considerably – it was seen as an excuse for dodging the high unemployment figures of the day. I am glad the House is concerned about its enormous social value. A review is being undertaken by FÁS and the number will be clear in the Estimates. The figure for this year is 25,000. There are also training schemes. The PPF mandated a review of active labour market programmes, including the CE. That is currently in progress under the standing committee on the labour market which includes all the relevant people.
Deputy Rabbitte mentioned its value to the community. It is of benefit to the health and education sectors, although it has changed in terms of the latter as it now has a permanent role in that sector. There are some aspects of it which can be streamlined. There is little value in some parts of it, but other parts have enormous value. I am sure it will continue in the future after the review is completed. I and my backbenchers support it. The necessary resources are available to keep a meaningful number of people on community employment. It is a major difficulty when we have to give work permits to people from outside the country to do jobs that many people on community employment are well able to do and should be given an opportunity to do. That option should be there. It should not be seen as an end in itself or as a permanent job because that was not the intention. We will try to move people away from community employment and into meaningful employment. The review will assist in that regard.
Mr. Rabbitte: It is not a question of continuing the scheme in the future but of whether the Taoiseach will prevent the reduction of participants in the scheme to 15,500. There is no point telling the House the situation for 2002 as it is almost over. We are concerned about 2003 before the Book of Estimates is published. The Taoiseach referred to the review being carried out by FÁS. Is it the case that FÁS is carrying out the review only at the political direction of the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment? As regards the transfer of places to the Department of Education and Science, is it the case that they are already factored into this year's figures? If the Taoiseach is not concerned at the prospect of Deputy O'Connor raising this issue at the PLP meeting, I can threaten him with Deputy Conor Lenihan because he will also raise it.
Mr. Rabbitte: Will the Taoiseach side with his backbenchers or with the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, to prevent this happening?
The Taoiseach: I said yesterday I did not believe the figure of 13,000 or 15,500 was under discussion. It is not just a question of a review, but a review of active labour market programmes. It is useful in that regard. I accept the point about the benefit of community employment in areas where it is useful. It is not always popular to say that all community employment schemes are not useful. However, a large proportion of them are and that means we must continue to keep a large number of people on them. I will continue to argue that point. It will come up in the Estimates. It is important as part of the review that we do not portray community employment as a long-term job for people, while we continue to bring in an inordinate number of people to do jobs in the hotel, catering, security and labour industries. That is incorrect and it is of concern to the trade union movement, to me and to everyone else.
Mr. J. Higgins: I want to press the Taoiseach further on the decision of Iarnród Éireann. The Taoiseach said he will not interfere in a decision by Iarnród Éireann to close half its rail freight service. Who makes or should make transport policy in the State? Is it the Government or an appointed board which is supposed to carry out the Government's policies? Does the Taoiseach agree that in terms of Iarnród Éireann's proposal, rhetoric by the Government in favour of public transport must now give way to concrete choices? Does he agree the experience of all modern industrial societies, including our own, is that the promotion of road over rail transport is disastrous in terms of traffic gridlock, quality of life and the pollution of our environment? Does the Taoiseach agree that rail transport should be promoted over road transport and that the decision by Iarnród Éireann is going in the wrong direction?
The Taoiseach: I did answer him. I will give the answer in one sentence and then I will say a few more things. Whatever decision CIE makes today in its discussions, which it is entitled to make as a board and I will not interfere in that, the Minister has made it clear that it will not be acted on until the strategic review by Booz-Allen & Hamilton is complete. The Minister for Transport and the Government continue to put enormous resources into the rail safety investment programme to enable the extended use of rail transport. We have upgraded Heuston Station and many other stations. Suburban rail and DART services have been expanded.
The Taoiseach: Some 80 new diesel cars are being acquired. We expect to approve proposals for new mainline rail categories. We hope to enhance the bus services in major urban areas. The quality bus corridors, which people said a few years ago would not happen, are working effectively.
The Taoiseach: We will wait to get the Luas running before we get the metro. The Allen Hamilton report, the international rail consultancy report, will set out a major strategic view of Irish railways. No major decision will be made by the Minister until that report has been concluded.
Mr. J. Higgins: Does the Taoiseach agree it would be nonsensical for the CIE board to make a decision to accept the closure of half the freight transport service, as proposed by Irish Rail, when, as he suggests, the Government may reverse such a decision? Is that not a nonsensical way to plan public transport? In terms of one specific consequence of closing half the freight service, does he agree it would be detrimental, to say the least, if instead of a train travelling from Dublin to Sligo with oil, 75 megatankers had to take to the roads and clog them up further to make up for the discontinuation of that train? Does he agree that would be disastrous?
The Taoiseach: The board of CIE has to take account of changed circumstances in the wake of the closure of IFI, its main freight user. The reality is that freight is making substantial losses and is about to make even greater losses. The company must examine its overall position and take that into account. It would not be doing its job if this was not the case. The Minister then has to take account of what the board is saying, which must fit in with the overall international rail consultancy report, and consider the report, which will be finalised by the end of the year, before he makes final decisions. As Deputy Rabbitte said, the end of the year is not too far off.
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