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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 11 Apr 2001

Vol. 534 No. 4

Ceisteanna–Questions. - Programme for Prosperity and Fairness.

Ruairí Quinn


4 Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach if he will outline the areas of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness for which his Department has responsibility for implementation or monitoring; the progress made to date in regard to implementation of those areas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9631/01]

Ruairí Quinn


5 Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach the progress made to date in regard to the implementation of those areas of An Action Programme for the Millennium and the Review of an Action Programme for the Millennium for which his Department has responsibility; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9632/01]

Michael Noonan


6 Mr. Noonan asked the Taoiseach if he will report the progress which his Department has made in implementing those elements of the Action Programme for the Millennium for which it is responsible; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10530/01]

Jim Higgins


7 Mr. Higgins (Mayo) asked the Taoiseach the number of disputes currently being monitored or dealt with by the national implementation body; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10678/01]

Denis Naughten


8 Mr. Naughten asked the Taoiseach the number of industrial disputes which have been referred to the National Implementation Body established under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, which remain unresolved. [10733/01]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 8, inclusive, together.

Many of the areas in the Government's action programme for which my Department is responsible were subsequently reflected in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. As is clear from the latest PPF progress report and the progress report of July last on the Government's programme, which are both available in the Oireachtas Library, a considerable amount of the undertakings in both programmes have either been already delivered upon or are well on the way to being implemented.

The key areas for which my Department is responsible in terms of implementation can be broadly summarised as follows. Supporting the development and implementation of policy in a co-ordinated way across Departments, including servicing the activities of Cabinet committees in respect of Northern Ireland, European affairs, infrastructure and social inclusion; taking a lead role in respect of Civil Service modernisation, including regulatory reform; supports for the social partnership process, including the steering group on basic income; NESC and NESF, including national progress indicators and the action plan for the information society. They also include specific responsibilities in relation to Oireachtas reform, the re-establishment of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, the review of the law offices and the implementation of the recommendations of the McCracken tribunal. I have reported to the House on all these areas in recent times and I do not think it would be the most efficient use of Question Time to repeat all the details here again.

Another area, however, for which my Department is responsible is the National Implementation Body which was established on foot of the 4 December 2000 agreed adjustment to the terms of the PPF. The purpose of the body is to ensure delivery of the stability and peace provisions of the PPF and, in that context, it obviously considers the potential implications for the PPF of any ongoing disputes of special national importance. However, responsibility for the resolution of disputes continues to rest primarily with the parties concerned and with the pre-existing industrial relations machinery of the State, as necessary.

Is the Taoiseach satisfied with the progress that has been made in the health services, not in terms of the amount of money that has been lavished upon them which is not in doubt? How does he reconcile the increases in funding with the stinging critique published today by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul about what it describes as the chaos in the health services? Does the Taoiseach believe there is a problem in the health services? Does he believe the problem is more than just about money? If so, what action does he propose to take?

We have resourced the health service adequately and I do not believe we have reached the plateau of resourcing. I agree with Deputy Quinn that money is not the only solution to problems in the health service. At the same time, I do not believe that the health service is in crisis or in tatters. The health service is continually improving in terms of its output, the number of bed days, the number of out-patients, and the number of procedures. The increase in staff numbers, including up to 300 consultants, is positive but there is clearly more to be done on a number of fronts.

The manpower policy published one month back following an enormous amount of work needs to be negotiated and implemented. There will be much negotiation required to extend the hospital day and to extend facilities and services. I have long believed that costly medical procedures cannot be done in a seven hour day. However, the situation cannot change overnight but must be negotiated. Accident and emergency services is many hospitals are still deficient. There are plans to rebuild or relocate these areas in many hospitals. This has happened in many hospitals but many are still not up to the standard required. This year's capital programme again devotes enormous resources to solving a number of problems.

All of these issues, including the sub-committees and other work which the Minister for Health and Children outlines to the House on a regular basis, must be encompassed in the framework document. In that way, we can build on the enormous improvements made in terms of capital equipment, service provision etc., over the coming years. We must continue to improve resources in these areas for some years yet. Improvements are not only required in terms of staffing numbers; they are also required on the administrative side, not in terms of the war between medical and administrative staff but in terms of developing procedures which will provide for longer and more meaningful working days. These changes, which comprise a fundamental part of the strategy, must be negotiated.

As someone who has professional knowledge of medical accountancy and political experience as a former Minister for Finance, how can the Taoiseach reconcile what he has just said with the announcement on today's "News at One" to the effect that the Department of Finance has effectively blocked the appointment of an additional 1,000 consultants which most people, including those on the Medical Manpower Forum, would argue are necessary? Does the Taoiseach accept it is very difficult for ordinary people to hear that £60 million can, on the one hand, be promised to the GAA albeit in a good cause, without necessitating the passage of a single piece of paper through the Department of Finance, while, on the other, the Department can block the appointment of 1,000 consultants whose appointment could save lives?

We have already far exceeded the recommendations of the Tierney report, which is only a few years old, in terms of the recruitment of consultants. Some 270 consultants have been appointed in a short period of time. The Medical Manpower Forum report states that many more consultants are required and I agree with that. However, we had a position until recently where accident and emergency consultants were not available after 6 p.m. in our hospitals. While some improvements have been made in this area, it is ludicrous that such services are not widely available. The consultants are not entirely to blame for this as negotiations are necessary when people are asked to work different hours to those which have prevailed for hundreds of years. The recommendations of the Medical Manpower Forum must be implemented and they, together, with the recommendations of the strategy due to be published this summer and implemented over a definite period, will result in continued improvements in our health service. Those improvements will cost money. I have supported and argued for such improvements because I have had significant experience with health boards, apart from my former paid position in hospitals, to recognise that such improvements are necessary and that they must be resourced. We have not yet reached a plateau fundamental issues remain to be addressed and the Medical Manpower Forum and the health strategy will offer a sound base on which to proceed.

Recent announcements of massive increases in terms of capital equipment have been made in Portlaoise, Cork and elsewhere. Some £100 million has been spent in this area; expenditure on the new extension at St. Vincent's Hospital is not far off that figure.

I discourage any detailed incursion into health matters as the delivery of health services is the responsibility of the Minister for Health and Children.

I appreciate that but we are discussing the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, of which health is a major element. The Department of Finance has vetoed the appointment of an additional 1,000 consultants. The Taoiseach just indicated his support for these appointments and acknowledged that additional resources will be required for that purpose. Does the Taoiseach understand the public's frustration and anger that the Department of Finance is all-powerful in blocking the appointment of consultants necessary to save lives but is powerless in terms of the Taoiseach giving money to the GAA? There is an incomprehension and anger among the public, not because the GAA is receiving money – good luck to it and any other sporting organisation which receives funding – but that another group of people in society, whose lives are at risk, are being denied money by the Department of Finance.

The Deputy's argument does not stand up. The budget of the Department of Health and Children has increased from £2.5 billion to more than £5 billion in a few years. The Department's capital programme, the implementation of which is ongoing, involves the allocation of enormous capital resources of the order of £2 billion, provided for the first time in the national development plan, together with ongoing increases in the non-pay side. The new health strategy which is not covered by the PPF is being pursued. The bed capacity in acute and non-acute settings is being pursued under the PPF and improvements are also being made in a range of other areas, details of which are available in the Oireachtas Library.

Between now and 2006, the provisions of the national development plan must be implemented. Projects are already on the drawing board and the Department is being facilitated to proceed with these far quicker than previously. However, some health issues are not merely issues of resources although they may entail indirect costs as negotiations proceed. The Department of Finance has increased funding to the Department of Health and Children by 100% in under four years, an enormous increase by international standards.

Yet the health service is worse.

I do not agree that anyone believes it is worse. People on waiting lists always feel aggrieved; if they are on a week-long list, they still feel they should be seen sooner. However, improvements in terms of buildings, equipment, the range of services, the new Eastern Regional Health Authority and strategic planning are progressing steadily. I agree with Deputy Quinn that the consultative document on the additional staff and the framework document must be implemented. That will require huge resources and will not happen overnight.

Was the Taoiseach aware that the Department of Finance blocked the proposal?

Some 270 positions have been approved, including additional accident and emergency department positions. The Department of Finance wants to see changes in the working day and staffing levels in hospitals. Essentially, it wants to see some return in terms of productivity and that is not unreasonable. Comhairle na nOspidéal is filling posts as they are approved but it is not feasible to simply appoint a further 1,000 consultants in one go. The appointment of 1,000 consultants does not merely involve the appointment of 1,000 people; ancillary services and resources must also be provided. The structure of the health service must be improved and the health service itself does not argue otherwise. The framework document, due to be published mid-summer, will be considered by the Department of Finance.

The Taoiseach will be aware of the widespread concern, particularly among young couples, at the lack of child care facilities in this country. The provision of child care facilities was a primary concern highlighted by ICTU, IBEC and other social partners, including the voluntary and community pillar, in the negotiation of the PPF. Is the Taoiseach aware that some 85% of the funding provided for this purpose to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has not been spent? I refer the Taoiseach to recent questions tabled by Deputy McGrath seeking details of the total allocation and expenditure in this area and details on a county by county basis.

On at least two occasions last year, the Minister made very high profile announcements of major investments in child care. That is all mythology. Child care facilities have not been provided. The money was returned last year on the departmental balances. Approximately £3 million of the £20 million under one heading was spent. The same is happening this year to the extent that the Minister for Finance in his prudence at the end of the first quarter cut back the allocation because it would not have been spent. Will the Taoiseach look at the commitments to child care under the PPF which were supposed to be delivered by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and ask him why there is such little progress in his area of responsibility? I put it to the Taoiseach that the PPF is becoming frayed around the edges for many reasons, including the fact that the commitment to issues other than tax reduction and pay are being fulfilled in a very loose fashion, and many of them are not being fulfilled at all.

The Deputy can pursue the figures directly with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Under the PPF, the health boards have been provided with financial supports for a number of areas. The money is provided to a number of health boards which will distribute it separately. I believe the Deputy is referring to the direct grants to agencies under the PPF. Given that practically no money was being provided to community child care facilities throughout the country, it was agreed last year under the PPF that £40 million would be provided to help existing schemes. It took time for a number of these community child care schemes to get up and running. Under the national development plan, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform was allocated £250 million to develop child care facilities in the coming years. The objectives of the new resources are to maintain and increase the number of child care facilities. If the take-up on the money has been slow, that is a matter for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform because the resources have been made available. Many of the community child care facilities are almost totally funded by the State either directly through the health boards or by way of straight community grants. I saw a statement recently where the Minister allocated a further £5 million.

I will ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform why the resources are not being fully utilised. Under the PPF the resources promised have been surpassed at this stage. I will check the matter with the Minister because, following the initial start-up period, facilities should be set up for seeking grants.

I appreciate the Taoiseach's comments and agree with him that an allocation of £250 million for child care purposes to be paid by way of grant through the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform seems a decent commitment to child care. However, the problem is that this is just an estimate. The money is supposed to roll out over three years but less than 15% of what was allocated was spent last year. As the summer months approach, no progress is being made this year either. While the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform makes frequent announcements about extra allocations for child care purposes, the money is not drawn down county by county.

There is something seriously wrong here. I say in all sincerity to the Taoiseach that this is one of the problems with his Administration. On the one hand, the health budget has been doubled, while in most parts of the country the service is actually worse, therefore, the spending is not effective. In the area of child care the plans and money are in place. However, the Minister does not seem to be able to allocate the resources and the money rolls back into the Exchequer at the end of the year. The Taoiseach has a serious "can do" problem in getting things done right across the range from public transport to health and child care. This is the biggest problem facing the Administration. I put it to the Taoiseach that there is a huge breakdown in Government between theory and practice.

I have already answered Deputy Quinn in regard to the health issue. There are more people, more bed days, more patient facilities and there is more throughput in hospitals right across the board. It is unfair on the Department and the health boards to say otherwise.

There are two aspects to the child care question. Given that the health boards provide financial support to pre-schools, disadvantaged areas and so on, the money is paid straight to them. I am surprised they are not using up the resources and I will raise the issue with the Minister. The implementation of the child care measures is being facilitated by the interdepartmental policy committee on child care. There is a national co-ordinating child care committee, the county child care committees, and an equal opportunities child care programme and appraisal committee. While the Department plays the role of vice chair of the committee on child care the national co-ordinating child care committee is represented on the appraisal committee. All the main players work together and are on the one committee. The health boards participate in the national committees and the establishment of county child care committees has been facilitated by the relevant health boards. Subject to a check, all the groups are working together as part of the national co-ordinating child care programme. Given the demand that exists, I would be surprised if they do not use the full amount of money paid either directly through the health boards or by the committee.

(Mayo): Will the Taoiseach address the subject matter of Question No. 7 on the National Implementation Body? Is it not a fact that this body which was set up to police the industrial relations clause of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness is simply not working? Is it not a fact that the nurses, teachers and the gardaí have been on strike, that each sector in Aer Lingus has been on strike in the past six months, that there has been a rail strike, and another is threatened, and that this day week there will be nationwide black-outs? Is it not a fact that one of the cornerstones of the Celtic tiger, the PPF and its predecessors was that we could offer a stable industrial relations climate, but that is now effectively gone? Is it not true that the partnership, spirit and underpinning industrial relations stability we could offer is gone?

No, it is not. Given the thousands of industries throughout the country, there have been only a small number of disputes. However, these public sector strikes were more high profile than one would wish. It is unfair to blame those who work hard on the National Implementation Body for disputes that took place before the body was set up. This body was set up at the beginning of the year and has been involved in a number of high profile strikes. It was involved in the recent Aer Lingus strike and in the earlier strike in February, with which it was successful. They were triggered by either ICTU or IBEC who believed there was a breach of the agreement of 4 December. The body has been very busy in relation to a number of these high profile disputes. There is now a threatened ESB dispute which I hope will be resolved.

I said in this House last week that difficulties surround some of these disputes. There is no point in my highlighting these inter-union difficulties because that will not help to resolve them. The Labour Court, Labour Relations Com mission and the implementation body are doing their utmost to deal with the issues. To date, they have had reasonable success in most of the disputes but, ultimately, their role is trying to bring together the sides at the end of a process. IBEC and ICTU do not wish to become involved at the beginning of the process. They prefer to play a role at the end of the Labour Court's work by reminding people of their responsibilities and bringing them together either under IBEC or ICTU because they believe the mantle of blame does not always lie with one side. These bodies play a useful role.

(Mayo): It is not really IBEC in that all the disputes I mentioned – the high profile ones and those really hitting the consumer – are in the public sector. Effectively, industrial relations problems in the public sector are causing the problem. From the point of view of the effectiveness of the National Implementation Body, is it not a fact that ICTU is on that? From the point of view of resolving many of these disputes, the disputes arise from inter union rivalry – for example, in the case of Aer Lingus and, by extension, in the teaching profession. From the point of view of resolving inter union rivalry, which seems to be the key – in other words, competition between the unions as to membership and numbers – that is where ICTU comes in. It should be playing a vital role in banging heads together and keeping the spirit of partnership which has underpinned the agreement and the success of the Celtic tiger. Something needs to be done otherwise there is no point in having the National Implementation body, particularly if ICTU cannot play an effective role within it.

We have had a number of high profile disputes, a number of which have centred around Aer Lingus from last autumn to this week. I know the difficulties that lie behind them. I assure the Deputy that all my information is that ICTU has been doing its level best at all levels to try to help in this area. It cannot at all times control the unions or the shop stewards involved. In fairness to it, it does its level best. In any of the ones in which IBEC – maybe this does not involve the more high profile ones – is asked to become involved, they certainly work together. ICTU and IBEC when requested in their various roles, even if it is not directly under their remit, do their utmost to work on an issue. There are some particular difficulties and I will not go into personalities and the other issues involved.

I compliment the Labour Court. It has made some very good progress this week on the Aer Lingus dispute, as it did on 7 February. It is not easy because there are knock-ons and people in different positions watching relativities, but it is doing its utmost. I have no difficulty in urging the National Implementation Body, as others do, to continue to remind those who signed the amended agreement of 4 December that they have responsibilities. Over the last two months or so, the public service committee of the congress, in particular, has shown its position to be very strong and clear on this.

Does the Taoiseach agree that the agreement of 4 December was signed by three parties – not only congress and IBEC but also the Government – and that it was signed on the basis that the budget, which was due to follow quite soon afterwards, would be significantly enhanced in terms of the pay deal that was part and parcel of the PPF? Surely the Government has a role, on foot of what Deputy Higgins said, specifically through the Department for which the Tánaiste has responsibility. She takes no interest in industrial relations – the labour component which was in the original Department of Enterprise and Employment. Surely that Department, in addition to the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court, has a direct role to play in terms of the personnel management functions of the Department of Public Enterprise in the main and the relevant State companies which are the subject of the disputes to which Deputy Higgins referred and which affect virtually every citizen when they impact in the manner they do. Why is the Government not taking a direct role in ensuring that the relevant line Department – in this instance, the Department of Public Enterprise – is properly resourced in a manner that enables it to perform its task because it is clearly not doing it at present?

The Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, has the remit that Deputy Quinn and I had at one stage. The Labour Relations Commission is now there and it has a substantial amount of resources, as does the Labour Court, to carry out some of those functions. The officials in that Department still involve themselves in it. Over the last decade or so, we have endeavoured to resolve most of the disputes through the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court. That is the right way to do it. The implementation body of which I spoke is to remind people and to ensure delivery of the stability and peace provisions of the PPF. That is one of its functions. I do not have any knowledge of a lack of resources in the Minister of State, Deputy Kitt's, area of responsibility. On the Deputy's question on the budget, the Government more than honoured the commitments signed on 4 December and that has been accepted by all the social partners.

Does the Taoiseach accept it is bad management to increase administration staff in the North-Eastern Health Board by almost 100% at a time when the nurse/patient ratio in Monaghan General Hospital is the lowest in the country? The Taoiseach mentioned that a number of very valuable announcements have been made regarding moneys being spent on hospitals throughout the country. Would it be possible for the Taoiseach or the Minister for Health and Children to come to Monaghan in the near future to make a similar announcement there because we badly need it?

I am sure if the Deputy puts down a question to the Minister for Health and Children, or if he is listening to him—

It is already gone.

—he will take up the invitation to visit Monaghan and Cavan hospitals and see the services there. The resources allocated to the Northern Eastern Health Board have continued to rise rapidly over the last number of years.

Should the funds not be spent at the coalface – on nurses?

That is a matter for the Minister for Health and Children.

I would like to pursue a point raised by Deputy Jim Higgins and Deputy Quinn with the Taoiseach. Is the Taoiseach aware of the widespread concern that the Government as an employer is reneging on its responsibilities towards workers and that when industrial disputes break out or are signalled, the Government's attitude is to leave their resolution to the industrial relations machinery of the State as if it had no responsibility itself?

For example, is the Taoiseach aware that last month the CPSU, which represents 11,000 civil servants, voted by 3:1 to withdraw from the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness because the pay of its members had fallen so far behind other public servants? Will all 11,000 members of the CPSU be allowed to drift on until this becomes a crisis when the Government will go to the Labour Court or some other forum in the industrial relations machinery of the State rather than taking hands on responsibility as an employer?

As regards the State and the Government as an employer, whether in the semi-State area or otherwise, I regularly hear the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke, being blamed for being too hands on in some of the semi-State companies. Within the Civil Service, the public service committee of congress, which includes the CPSU, were in support of the change of 4 December. It subsequently voted against it. It has already presented its report for benchmarking and its case. It has balloted for strike action but it has also presented its case because it believes it has fallen behind. People in this area of the Civil Service have many choices outside and they have been leaving those categories in particular. Their case will be examined and that has been made absolutely clear to their leadership. I wish them well in their case which they have to make and pursue under the benchmarking process. That mechanism is there. The Government worked very closely with the public service committee at congress which represents the views of that union and all the other grades as well, and has given an enormous amount of time to their concerns. There is probably no area of the Civil Service that is watched as closely as the public service group at congress.