Dáil Éireann - Volume 336 - 15 June, 1982

Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Placing of Public Contracts.

26. Mr. P. Barry asked the Minister for the Environment whether he has received representations from the CIF to ensure the placing of public contracts with Irish firms.

Mr. Brady (Dublin South-East): The Construction Industry Federation and, indeed, other representatives of the building industry, have from time to time expressed concern to me about the awarding of public contracts to firms from outside the State. While this is a concern which I share, I have had to point out [29] that because of this country's obligations as a member state of the European Economic Community firms from other member states bidding for certain major public contracts cannot be excluded from such contracts on grounds of nationality.

Mr. P. Barry: Is the Minister aware of the concern in the construction industry of the awarding of public contracts in this State to firms from Northern Ireland, and what is his attitude towards those?

Mr. Brady (Dublin South-East): I might elaborate on what I have said because it will include this problem. I have had no specific recent representations from the Construction Industry Federation concerning the placing of public contracts with Irish firms though that has been the case in the past. This is a subject matter aired regularly at meetings between the Department and representatives of the industry. The most recent such meeting was held on 29 April last when it was alleged that the current problems in the industry were being exacerbated by the incidence of Northern Ireland contractors getting public contracts in the South. The situation in this regard has not deteriorated since early 1981 when an inter-departmental examination was carried out at the request of the Government. At that time the conclusion drawn was that the level of intervention by Northern contractors in the South was not such as to cause significant problems. On the other hand, this intervention added an extra element to competition which was to the benefit of public authorities. If the Deputy has any examples about which he is concerned I shall be happy to investigate them for him.

Mr. P. Barry: Can the Minister tell us what is his own and his Department's attitude to such contracts being awarded to firms outside the State?

Mr. Brady (Dublin South-East): Does the Deputy mean my personal attitude?

Mr. P. Barry: As Minister, what is his attitude?

[30] Mr. Brady (Dublin South-East): My attitude to it would be that work could be carried out within the 26 counties and by firms operating within the 26 counties. There is the element of what is termed the major contracts. I am sure the Deputy is aware of the value of what is classified as a major contract in EEC terms, currently to the value of £690,000 odd. Certainly at all times I like to see contracts being carried out by firms within the 26 counties.

Mr. P. Barry: Does the Minister realise that there is a contradiction between what he is saying here and what the Taoiseach said is the official Government attitude, that all Northern Ireland firms are to be invited by specific Departments to contract for work down here and, where possible, it should be given to them?

Mr. Brady (Dublin South-East): I appreciate the purpose of Deputy Barry's, question. That is why I asked him if he wanted to know my personal attitude.

Mr. P. Barry: No, his attitude as Minister.

Mr. Brady (Dublin South-East): That is what I did; if the Deputy will revert to what I said. I said what was my personal opinion——

Mr. P. Barry: I did not want the Minister's personal opinion. I wanted the Minister's opinion, as Minister, and that of his Department.

Mr. Brady (Dublin South-East): I think as far as the Department's attitude is concerned——

Mr. P. Barry: But the Minister cannot separate the two.

Mr. Brady (Dublin South-East): ——I have given an answer as regard representations from the Construction Industry Federation. If the Deputy is in any doubt as to what is the attitude of the [31] Department I suggest that he tables a separate question asking that.

Mr. P. Barry: No, it is not a separate question.

Mr. Brady (Dublin South-East): It is indeed.

Mr. Fitzpatrick (Cavan-Monaghan): Has the Minister any particulars for the Border counties, particularly for Cavan and Monaghan? Is the Minister aware that my constituency of Cavan/ Monaghan is particularly vulnerable to this type of unfair and unequal competition from the North? Is he aware further that contractors in my constituency are quite prepared to face equal and fair competition but they are vulnerable to unfair competition because costs are cheaper in the North and there are other, shall we call them, hidden subsidies Northern contractors can enjoy which cannot be enjoyed by their counterparts in the South? This is most unfair to Border contractors. It is all right talking about it being all one country but Northern contractors operate under different terms, they have more favourable conditions for transport, fuel and so on. The Minister may not be aware but I would ask him to bear in mind the fact that social welfare comes into it in some strange way or other, all of it adding up to very unfair competition.

Mr. Brady (Dublin South-East): I am not sure what was the actual question there.

Mr. Fitzpatrick (Cavan-Monaghan): I asked the Minister——

Mr. Brady (Dublin South-East): Perhaps the Deputy would allow me finish. He went on for quite some time, and covered a vast area. We are living in an open economy. If the Deputy is aware of any unfair competition — of the type to which he referred — he should particularise it rather than make a general statement without being able to pinpoint any case. I am very sympathetic to the building [32] industry, or to any firms experiencing difficulty competing with their business counterparts in the North of Ireland, but the Deputy must accept the case that this cannot be controlled by literally pulling down the shutters of protectionism.

Mr. Fitzpatrick (Cavan-Monaghan): The Minister is in charge of this area. With all due respect, it is up to him to find out about this unfair competition. I have referred to transport and fuel and I have directed the Minister's attention to people drawing social welfare in Northern Ireland, coming in and working here who, of course, can live cheaper than people working here but not drawing social welfare.

Mr. Brady (Dublin South-East): I have given the Deputy the assurance in my answer that matters of this kind are aired regularly between the Department and the authorities concerned. Therefore, I am happy that the matter is kept constantly under surveillance.

Mr. Quinn: Can the Minister cite any incident in recent times in which a local or public authority — subsequent to a contract being awarded to a Northern Ireland contractor — have taken precautions to visit the site to ensure that the irregularities which are now commonplace, in terms of allegations within the building industry, do not actually take place?

Mr. Brady (Dublin South-East): That is an entirely separate question which I shall be happy to answer if the Deputy tables it.

Mr. Dukes: Are we to understand that the line is more or less as follows: the Minister in his first reply indicated that there were certain EEC rules which limited local authorities' freedom of action in the matter; I think he said that. Secondly, we have the Taoiseach saying that, if anything, no active discrimination should be carried out on behalf of Northern Ireland firms, as was referred to by Deputy P. Barry. Thirdly we have the Minister who says——

[33] An Ceann Comhairle: A question, please, Deputy.

Mr. Dukes: I am trying to establish if I understand correctly what the Minister has said. Is it not the case that there is absolute and total confusion on this issue without any idea of coherent policy? Is it not further the case that there is a wide area of public contracts in respect of which we are not bound by any EEC rules and in respect of which the Minister, if he so wished, could apply the kind of guidelines he has given as being his personal view of how we should do things?

Mr. Brady (Dublin South-East): The confusion is in the Deputy's mind because I am left in no doubt, as the contents of the reply I have given to the House indicates, that the situation is constantly being examined with a view to the fairest possible competition being provided by firms operating within the State and that they are given the fairest crack of the whip. I do not believe the Deputy in this question got the point of what I call major contracts. Major contracts are over a certain value. I am quite sure the Deputy is aware of that from his EEC experience. It does not apply in every case so it would be wrong to give that impression to the House.

Mr. Taylor: What steps have the Minister's Department taken to ensure that workers employed on such contracts coming from outside the State are paying their due proportion of PAYE and PRSI? Is that situation monitored and, if not, will it be?

Mr. Brady (Dublin South-East): I am quite sure the Deputy realises that such a question would be best referred to the Department of Social Welfare. I will be happy, in the light of the Deputy's inquiry now, to take a look at it to make sure that every precaution is taken.

Mr. P. Barry: Have the Minister and his Department taken note of what the Taoiseach said were his instructions to Ministers that there was not to be quite [34] a bias in favour but certainly any contract being applied for by a Northern Ireland firm should be given very favourable consideration? Is the Minister's Department following that policy?

Mr. Brady (Dublin South-East): The Deputy is indicating what he struck out at the start of his comment by speaking about bias towards Northern Ireland in relation to such contracts. I do not share the Deputy's interpretation of what the Taoiseach said. The Taoiseach was referring to open competition for the entire country and I share his view in that respect. I am not too sure if the Deputy wishes to put a strange interpretation on that statement but the Taoiseach's recommendation was that consideration would be given to Northern Ireland firms. I share that view.

Mr. P. Barry: Is the point that the competition is not fair? This complaint has been given to the Minister by the CIF and it has been repeated by Deputies in the House this afternoon.

Mr. Brady (Dublin South-East): I answered the Deputy earlier by saying that if there is any particular instance where he thinks it is not fair I feel it would be more helpful to the House rather than give a sort of blanket set of innuendos, to particularise, to put it down and have the case examined.

Mr. P. Barry: The CIF gave the Minister's Department endless examples. They are on file in his Department.

Mr. Brady (Dublin South-East): If I am given instances I will have them investigated.