Ceisteanna — Questions. - Partnership 2000.

Richard Bruton

Question:

3 Mr. R. Bruton asked the Taoiseach if he will have arrangements made for all progress reports on Partnership 2000 to be laid before Dáil Éireann. [8139/98]

Proinsias De Rossa

Question:

4 Proinsias De Rossa asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on the progress of the review of monitoring procedures of Partnership 2000 as required under clause 11.8 of the agreement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8142/98]

Proinsias De Rossa

Question:

5 Proinsias De Rossa asked the Taoiseach when the next quarterly meeting of the four pillars to monitor the operation of the Partnership 2000 agreement will be held; the likely items for the agenda; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8143/98]

Progress reports on the implementation of Partnership 2000 are produced quarterly by the Partnership 2000 secretariat in co-operation with all Government Departments and social partners. The primary purpose of these progress reports is to facilitate the monitoring and review of the operation of the partnership agreement. In future, I will arrange to have the reports, when finalised, laid before the House.

In accordance with commitment 11.8 of Partnership 2000, the monitoring procedures for Partnership 2000 were reviewed following the NESF report No. 16 entitled, A Framework for Partnership — Enriching Strategic Consensus through Participation. The Government announced on 19 December 1997 its decision to reconstitute both the NESC and the NESF on a statutory basis. It is my intention to bring forward legislation later this year and in the interim both bodies will continue to operate on a non-statutory basis.

The terms of reference of the two bodies have been revised to ensure their activities are fully complementary. The membership of both bodies has been changed to reflect more fully the various strands of the social partnership process. Nominations for membership of NESC and NESF have been received from each of the social partner pillars and I expect both bodies will meet in the near future.

The next quarterly Partnership 2000 monitoring meeting will take place on Monday, 27 April 1998. Items on the agenda for the meeting include discussion on the sections of Partnership 2000 dealing with enterprise, jobs and small business, and agriculture and food.

I thank the Taoiseach for agreeing to lay these reports before the House. I was surprised to read a newspaper report which indicated the Government had failed to achieve an increase in participation from disadvantaged students at third level and as a Member was unable to get access to those reports. Clearly those reports were being made available to the media but not to the Oireachtas. That is a significant improvement. Will the Taoiseach comment on the apparent dramatic failing in relation to attracting students from disadvantaged backgrounds to third level? The figures suggest an increase of only 50 whereas my recollection was that each year there was to be an increase of 500. At the next Partnership 2000 monitoring meeting on 27 April will the Taoiseach consider adding to the agenda the whole issue of house prices? The reality is that if house prices continue to spiral, the basis of partnership will be broken. A person on the average industrial wage is not eligible for supports from public bodies either for public housing or shared ownership and cannot possibly hope to purchase a house in the present housing climate. This will be a serious problem in relation to the long-term survival of Partnership 2000. At his initiative will the Taoiseach put on the next agenda of the monitoring group the question of addressing this issue?

To go into detail on either of those matters would not be in order except to say that the participation level over the years from the socially excluded areas or areas where the demographics indicate there are high levels of unemployment and social exclusion had, traditionally, been extremely low. These are areas with which the Deputy and I are well acquainted. There are a number of initiatives in which the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, Minister of State, Deputy Kitt and the Minister for Education have been actively involved. The Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, has tried to give further encouragement under a range of measures. The Deputy will be aware of a number of the initiatives, on which they have answered questions recently.

The Deputy will be aware that the social partners have, as he has done, highlighted the issue of house prices. The Bacon report will be available within two weeks and will be discussed here and elsewhere within the social partners.

Is it the Taoiseach's intention to circulate the draft legislation which is being prepared in relation to NESF and NESC for consultation by these bodies, given that it is proposed that the terms of reference of both bodies should change? Is there an organic link between the relationship between NESF, NESC and the Cabinet subcommittee on drugs on social exclusion? If not will he agree that such a relationship is desirable?

Consultations with both bodies on their essential remit are completed. I do not think draft legislation was considered, but certainly the structure, the remit, the distinction between the two bodies and the terms of reference of the two bodies have been set out so that both can follow their brief without duplication. NESC would continue to produce strategic studies as it has done in the past 14 or 15 years while NESF has been involved in the ground issues. Both remits are being discussed in detail with them, not in terms of legislation, but certainly the make up of the bodies and the distinctions between them. Is the Deputy suggesting that draft heads of a Bill be considered?

Given that the two bodies will be put on a legislative basis for the first time, it would make sense to consult the bodies concerned about the nature of the legislation to avoid a situation where bodies of this kind have to lobby to get legislation already approved by Cabinet changed.

On the basis that the two bodies are part of the whole partnership body, it would be a nonsense to allow that to happen but I shall check the position. The remit, structure and participation of both bodies was examined prior to Christmas. I shall check on whether there are outstanding issues. On the question of involvement of the organisations with the task force, the National Economic and Social Forum has been analysing the programme, Partnership 2000. As far as Partnership 2000 is relevant, there is a direct link. If it was not for something in Partnership 2000 there would probably be no link. The chairperson of NESF has been anxious for a number of years, as have successive Governments, to ensure that agencies which are assisting any of the pillars, particularly the pillar of social exclusion, play a close role. She has called most of the organisations in this area to the NESF to put their views and have a direct input to its reports. That has proved useful in the past few reports.

Would the Taoiseach agree that the NESF and NESC have worked very well on a non-statutory basis which affords them a degree of flexibility and a capacity for organic growth? What is the point of putting them on a statutory basis which will build in the sort of rigidity into their membership which we have seen, for example, in the Seanad vocational panels where organisations which have virtually ceased to exist are represented and have nominating rights?

I do not wish to give too short an answer but the Deputy raised this matter in the House in the autumn. I took the line that this was the direction in which these organisations had been progressing for some time. They were into a system in which there was an understanding with them that they were evolving and being placed on a statutory footing. There is an argument in what the Deputy is saying about flexibility. That argument is proved in so far as NESF has changed quite an amount since it was established. However, this process has already moved on apace under this and the previous Administration. People in these organisations, and those who are a party to them, believed in this process. I have since raised these issues. However, those involved in these organisations wish to see them placed on a statutory footing. If that is the way we are to proceed it should not stop this House ensuring that we build in flexibility through the legislation. I must remind Deputy Bruton that this process began while he was Taoiseach.

That does not mean it is right.

I do not wish to make an issue of this.

I am not saying that everything we did was 100 per cent right.

I am not making an argument but when the Deputy raised this matter in October I looked to see that this was something which was supported and moved forward.

The Taoiseach is making a bad argument.

I know what the Deputy would have been saying if I had announced that I was stopping this process.

The Taoiseach does not know what I would have been saying.

I do know what the Deputy would have been saying. He would have been criticising me for doing something which he supported six months or a year ago.

I am supportive of social partnership but I think this is a bad move.

Is the Deputy saying that this is a bad move even though he was committed to it a year ago? I am looking at this issue and I have questioned why it was progressed in this manner. Why was it not left alone? The Deputy knows the reasons and I do not have to outline them.

The Taoiseach knows that coalition obliges us to do many things which we would rather not do. I wish to return to the point I raised earlier concerning the relationship between the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Social Exclusion and Drugs and the NESF and NESC. Unless there is an organic link between these bodies and the policy decision makers in Cabinet one will find many gaps emerging in how Government deals with the issues. These arise as a result of Partnership 2000 and many other initiatives and require urgent attention. I raise this matter because it has been brought to my attention that the Shanty group in Tallaght made an approach to the Taoiseach's Department concerning a project it wished to promote which crossed many Departments. The group was told that the Cabinet sub-committee does not take direct representations on specific projects. I understand why this is the case but there is a requirement for a mechanism whereby groups can access the decision making process in a simple way.

The Deputy should put a question.

The Deputy is aware that we have dramatically increased the resources we are putting into this area. Over the next few years £60 million will be spent. This does not include money spent from the education, welfare and health Votes. An evaluation is taking place for which the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Deputy McDaid, is responsible. This will report at the end of August. This evaluation will try to ensure that the many agencies in the 13 local drugs task force areas spend the money in the best way. We are also evaluating whether the service which is being provided is having an effect. I believe it is but it must be properly evaluated. I will have no difficulty if this review highlights the need to implement policy and increase the substantial resources and efforts being committed close to NESF. This is something which Deputy McDaid will do.

As regards the monitoring procedures for Partnership 2000, is the Taoiseach aware that the median average earnings of the top 10 per cent of wage earners in 1987 was 4.1 times that of the lowest 10 per cent? By 1992 this figure had increased to 4.9 times that of the least well off. Is he aware that, by and large, Mountjoy Prison is populated by people from five areas of Dublin?

The Deputy should seek information, not give information. This is Question Time.

I am asking the Taoiseach if he is aware——

The Deputy appears to be giving more information than he is seeking.

I am asking the Taoiseach if he is aware that for children from poorer backgrounds orthodontic waiting lists mean that their teeth become disfigured as they cannot afford to pay for treatment? Is he aware that those on preretirement pensions who do not qualify for free travel must pay for chiropody services even though a couple might have an income of only £107 per week? Is he aware of the hospital waiting lists and the housing conditions of people, particularly those in inner city Dublin? Will the Taoiseach ensure that social exclusion is put centre stage in the mid term review of Partnership 2000? It is time that these people began to share in the benefits which most of us are deriving from the Celtic tiger.

I am aware of these issues. I am also aware that the services, resources and staffing levels have been increased dramatically in recent years. There are still difficulties and problems but we must continue to build on the work which has been done in recent years. It would be wrong not to acknowledge the huge amount of work which has been done, particularly in the last six or seven years. An enormous number of statutory and voluntary workers are now being resourced to work in these communities.

Will the Taoiseach look again at the wisdom of putting these two bodies on a statutory footing? Would he agree that it is similar to the situation in which every Regional Technical College wishes to become an institute of technology and every institute of technology wishes to become a university? These institutions wish to create a life of their own rather than provide a service. Would he agree that it would be useful if these bodies looked again at their requirement to maintain flexibility in membership so that no organisations at a particular point in history gets a right to representation which might not be appropriate in ten to 15 years' time? This would exclude other organisations from membership as a result of the rigid statutory basis. We all know how difficult it is to change legislation once passed.

I will take the Deputy's views into account.