Ceisteanna–Questions. - Social Partnership Agreement.

Ruairí Quinn

Question:

1 Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach if he has received the National Economic and Social Council report, Opportunities, Challenges and Capacities for Choice; if so, if the Government accepts the recommendations in the report; if he has discussed the contents of the report with the social partners; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22381/99]

Ruairí Quinn

Question:

2 Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach the progress to date of talks with the social partners regarding the possibility of a new national agreement to replace Partnership 2000; when these talks will conclude; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22382/99]

John Bruton

Question:

3 Mr. J. Bruton asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on the recently published NESC report on pay and partnership. [23149/99]

John Bruton

Question:

4 Mr. J. Bruton asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on the opening of talks hosted by his Department on a successor agreement to Partnership 2000; the schedule of meetings for these talks to continue in the coming weeks; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23332/99]

Ruairí Quinn

Question:

5 Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on his meeting with the social partners on 9 November 1999 at the opening of talks to consider a possible successor to Partnership 2000. [23389/99]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.

Negotiations on a new social partnership agreement were launched yesterday week by the Tánaiste, the Minister for Finance and me. All the social partners acknowledged fully the enormous contribution which partnership has made, in both economic and social terms, while at the same time recognising that much more remains to be achieved.

Substantive negotiations are now getting under way and, as with previous agreements, the proceedings are subject to confidentiality strictures in order to protect the negotiating positions of all. However, each of the social partner pillars, including the Government side, has made clear on many occasions in the recent past their own priorities and concerns.

I requested the NESC in November 1998 to prepare a strategy statement on the new national programme of social partnership. I very much welcome that the NESC has responded to my request with a comprehensive and imaginative strategy. The strategy statement outlines a vision for the development of society over the coming decade which reflects the aspirations of all sectors of society while addressing the challenges faced by Ireland in the new global world economy.

The Government welcome the conclusions and recommendations in the strategy statement, which outlines how the NESC believes its vision can be effectively realised. As with previous social partnership agreements, this NESC statement will serve as a focus for negotiations on a successor to Partnership 2000.

As to the timeframe for concluding the negotiations, we will need to see how the negotiations go before making any predictions on that score.

I have a number of questions given that five have been taken together but will co-operate with the Chair by asking two specifically about the national agreement. What is the Government's timetable for completion of the agreement? Why so far has the Government failed to bring forward convincing proposals for performance related pay in the public service?

There is no fixed timeframe for completion of the agreement. The earlier rounds of Partnership 2000 will end around Easter so there is not a particular urgency to complete it but it would nice to make as much progress as possible before Christmas. On the public service pay issue, in July 1988 I indicated the urgent need to relate public service pay more closely to performance. Discussions with the public service committee have been ongoing in this. The NESC strategy confirms the greater emphasis on the relationship between public service pay and performance. That is the general context of the Government's approach. While there has been much discussion and some agreement, those discussions are not completed.

InThe Irish Times report of the main recommendations of the NESC report, published on 2 November, the fourth recommendation was to the effect that further reductions in income tax should be introduced with priority being given to personal standard rate allowances; in other words a bottom up approach rather than a top down approach. Will the Taoiseach indicate if the Government has accepted that recommendation in the spirit in which it was made by the social partners within NESC which also included the Government representatives?

The Government is represented. All the conclusions put forward on how these things should be done will be taken into account by the Minister for Finance.

The asylum seekers in the Progressive Democrats will have their way as always.

If, as I assume, the Taoiseach read the NESC report, what did he think of it? Did he find it a rather bland statement of conventional wisdom containing few hard decisions?

I read the report but Deputy Bruton will acknowledge that what we have is the short version. We will now get the detailed and comprehensive report. There is not a great deal in the report that is new to the agenda. Most of it goes back to the past and looks forward to the new period and highlights a number of areas we could look at. Perhaps in the detailed statements we will see some of its broader thinking. Having said that, the NESC argument is that something that has worked well should not be radically altered but that some refinements should be made.

Take one of the hard issues that I think is not dealt with in the NESC report which I was disappointed with. If we bring such people around a table they should take some hard edged decisions that would help politicians to take even tougher and more necessary decisions. That seems to be absent from what I consider a bland report. What about immigration, an issue which will not go away? What is the Government's policy on immigration in view of the acute labour shortages in Ireland today, skills shortages at all levels? Is he in favour of it? How much immigration does he want? Where does he want it from? How does he propose to facilitate it? How does he propose to ensure that humanitarian considerations are given their proper place alongside the economic needs of our country?

I will not answer questions on every detailed aspect of what is and is not in the NESC report as I would have to answer for every brief. Generally, the Government has clearly welcomed immigration; 44,000 gross is the latest figure predicted for this year. By and large all those people are coming back. Practically all, given that they are at an age that allows them, are coming back into the labour market. They will also go into the housing market and that is welcome. We do not know whether that level of immigration will continue and whether the economy will continue to grow at the rate of almost 10% – the figures next autumn will show that the rate is close to that level. In terms of immigrants we are following the UN High Commission rules more liberally and on a more humanitarian nature probably than most European countries. I am in favour of that but at the same time we have to be careful in how we do it. We cannot allow a perception to prevail where our systems are overwhelmed. We have to balance it so that people will be in different parts of the country and must protect them as best we can. We support that idea and it will be reflected in the Bill which is near finalisation.

Will the Taoiseach agree that immigrants, whether coming to work in Intel, from California or Kurdish refugees escaping the oppression in Iraq need to be housed and that the Government's national plan—

The Deputy is straying into an area that might be better dealt with by way of a separate parliamentary question.

On a point of order, may I explain? We are talking about pay. One of the chief determinants of pay is the price of a house and if the Government does not build enough houses—

I am merely pointing out to the Deputy that he is straying into an area that could be better dealt with by way of a separate parliamentary question, rather than as a supplementary to this question.

The Taoiseach has already given some information.

I have allowed some lati tude on it but I do not want to see it developing into a question of detail on the matter.

I will do my best not to cause the Chair difficulties. Does the Government's provision for housing, especially local authority housing, take adequate account of the pressure of immigration on the housing market?

We have a comprehensive programme to address this issue, not only with regard to local authority housing but across a range of issues, including housing in the community and voluntary sectors. I agree with the Deputy's view that when people come into this country they should be cared for. Pressures have arisen in this area. At present a number of hotels, including four star hotels, and guesthouses in this city are full with immigrants. They must be dealt with in a more comprehensive manner and that is the policy of the Departments that are trying to co-ordinate this issue.

I am sure the mothers and fathers of people who were forced to emigrate in the 1980s will be delighted to hear that this Fianna Fáil Taoiseach is now prepared, as he said, to allow people back at a time—

I said welcome people back.

Allow people back is what I heard. The 1980s was a time when one of the Taoiseach's predecessors and former boss was indulging himself in expensive shirts.

Éamon de Valera promised 100,000 jobs but he failed to tell people they were in America.

That is infantile.

Does the Government accept the recommendations of the NESC report and, if so, does it accept a key recommendation that income tax cuts should focus on low pay? The mechanism for doing that is the budget and it is for the Minister for Finance to determine.

The Government issued a statement welcoming the publication of the NESC strategy. It set out its views on it. While it is not the practice of the Government to accept everything put forward by this body, I generally accept what is in this report. The Deputy has carefully selected one of its recommendations. However, had a similar recommendation, made in 1986, been followed there would still be enormous tax rates because at that time the NESC believed that the headline tax rates—

This is 1999. Many things were going on in 1986.

In its effort to achieve a consensus NESC sometimes takes the approach of "a little of whatever you are having yourself". That does not mean the Government must accept such an approach.

That is a very frank statement.

While everybody may want to take the approach of "a little of whatever you are having yourself", the Government must take decisions.

Sometimes that is the Taoiseach's approach.

We have made our views clear. The Government welcomes the conclusions and recommendations of the NESC report. The NESC believes they should be followed if its vision is to be effectively realised. The Government said they would be considered carefully in the context of a successor agreement to Partnership 2000 and an input to other important policy decisions. It is not a question of baldly accepting them.

So there will be not be a mini-budget.

I know the Deputy would welcome the fact that 44,000 people have returned to this country. It is a mirror image of what happened 12 years ago when 44,000 left the country every year for five consecutive years.