Ceisteanna – Questions. - Social Partnership Agreement.

Enda Kenny

Question:

1 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the implementation of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27074/02]

Enda Kenny

Question:

2 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach when he will next meet the social partners; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27075/02]

Enda Kenny

Question:

3 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent activities of the National Implementation Body; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27078/02]

Enda Kenny

Question:

4 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach the proposed work of the National Economic and Social Council during 2003; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27096/02]

Enda Kenny

Question:

5 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the meetings between the social partners, which were hosted by his Department on 16 and 17 December 2002; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27155/02]

Enda Kenny

Question:

6 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his discussions with the social partners on 13 January 2003; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1206/03]

Pat Rabbitte

Question:

7 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on the outcome of the talks with the trade unions and employer organisations regarding a new national agreement. [1239/03]

Trevor Sargent

Question:

8 Mr. Sargent asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent discussions he has had with the social partners concerning a successor to the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1281/03]

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Question:

9 Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Taoiseach his role in the negotiations for a new employer, unions and Government agreement on pay and other matters. [1511/03]

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Question:

10 Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Taoiseach the discussions he has had with the social and community pillar in the social partnership process. [1512/03]

Pat Rabbitte

Question:

11 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach the position regarding discussions with the social partners on the non-pay elements of a new national agreement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1584/03]

Joe Higgins

Question:

12 Mr. J. Higgins asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent contacts with the social partners; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1706/03]

Joe Higgins

Question:

13 Mr. J. Higgins asked the Taoiseach when he next expects to meet the social partners; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1707/03]

Joe Higgins

Question:

14 Mr. J. Higgins asked the Taoiseach the studies being carried out by the National Economic and Social Council; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1708/03]

Trevor Sargent

Question:

15 Mr. Sargent asked the Taoiseach the Government's proposals on a fair and inclusive society presented to the community and voluntary groups at the talks for a successor to the PPF; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1879/03]

Trevor Sargent

Question:

16 Mr. Sargent asked the Taoiseach the impact the progress in the national development plan is having on the talks for a new national agreement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1880/03]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 16, inclusive, together.

The tenth progress report on the implementation of the Programmme for Prosperity and Fairness, which was compiled for the 31 October plenary meeting and is available in the Oireachtas Library, and a summary report on overall progress under the PPF, also available in the Oireachtas Library, both set out in considerable detail the substantial progress made during the lifetime of the PPF. Obviously, it would not be practicable for me to go through every item of the 154 page tenth progress report. However, as the final PPF progress report shows, the PPF has been comprehensively implemented.

Regarding the national development plan, very good progress has been made in addressing the infrastructure deficits, both economic and social, that the plan was intended to tackle. In the context of negotiations on a PPF successor, the national development plan remains the crucial framework for the delivery of progress on the non-pay agenda. The Government has certainly made clear its full commitment to continued substantive roll-out of the plan over the period to 2006, while acknowledging that not all of the projects will be completed within the timescale originally given.

The first item on the NESC's work programme for 2003 was completion of its three yearly strategic review of economic and social developments and policy, entitled An Investment in Quality: Services, Inclusion and Enterprise. The overview, conclusions and recommendations of that report were published in November 2002. The council is now finalising the text of the main report upon which those conclusions and recommendations were based, and I expect it will be published shortly. In the course of its work on that report, the council has decided to undertake a study of housing and land policy. This report will be an important item on the council's work programme for 2003.

In the coming months, the council will determine the remainder of its work programme for 2003 and 2004. This will be done in co-operation with the other bodies in the National Economic and Social Development Office – the NESF and the NCPP.

My Department chairs the National Implementation Body, which was established under the adjustments to the terms of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness in December 2000. This body, representing Government, IBEC, CIF and ICTU meets as necessary to ensure delivery of the stability and peace provisions of the PPF. The body considers, in particular, the potential implications of any ongoing disputes of special national importance. It also provides opportunities for informal discussion of the broader issues relating to the social partnership process, from the employer and trade union perspectives. In the framework being considered as part of a new national agreement, it is envisaged that the National Implementation Body will continue in existence.

Together with the Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance, I met the employers and trade unions on Monday, 13 January following a briefing on the then state of play in the negotiations on a successor to the PPF. We presented the two sides with a set of proposals on six of the key issues under discussion – trade union representation, housing, inflation, statutory redundancy, the statutory minimum wage and pay, including implementation of the recommendations of the benchmarking body for the public service. We paid tribute to the efforts being made by all concerned to reach an agreement and urged the employers and trade unions to give favourable consideration to these proposals. We did so on the basis that a new national agreement represented the best way forward for all in the current climate, while acknowledging that we all faced difficult decisions in reaching an agreement. I noted that there was a significant overlap between the objectives of the Government, employers and trade unions and emphasised that the package we were putting forward represented the Government's best effort at charting a way through competing requirements. We looked forward to the early resumption of discussions with all of the social partners on the wider partnership agenda. Both sides responded warmly to the Government's intervention and undertook to consult their membership in the period ahead.

In the case of the public service, payment of 75% of the benchmarking awards, and of the general round increases, is dependent on verification of co-operation with flexibility and ongoing change, satisfactory implementation of the agenda for modernisation agreed between the parties, maintenance of stable industrial relations and the absence of industrial action in respect of any matters covered by the agreement.

A programme for modernisation of the public service agreed last week includes general provisions on modernisation and flexibility, as well as specific changes for the Civil Service, health, education and local government sectors. These provisions will enable the delivery of services in a manner, which more closely reflects the needs of the public. Performance verification groups, including independent members, will be established to assess progress in each sector.

Following a final plenary meeting with the social partners on Saturday last the employer-business, trade union and community and voluntary pillars have indicated their willingness to positively consider a programme encompassing a comprehensive set of proposals on the wider non-pay and social inclusion issues, as presented, subject to some further drafting changes.

The key national economic and development tasks to be accomplished relate to the following priorities agreed between the social partners: first, in macroeconomic policy, to consolidate the progress of recent years and achieve a medium-term growth rate capable of sustaining high levels of employment and facilitating the evolution of a more equal society – securing competitively low inflation, sustainable public finances and social, economic and environmental sustainability is central to achieving this objective; second, to build, maintain and share economic development and prosperity to ensure Ireland is provided with a level of physical and social infrastructure that is affordable and underpins economic development and participation in the fruits of that development by all sectors of our society; and third, to build a fair and inclusive society and ensure people have the resources and opportunities to live life with dignity and access to the quality public services that underpin life chances and experiences.

The objective across these chapters taken together is to seek, in an integrated way, to reinforce Ireland's consistent policy framework approach and to implement and deliver policy outcomes developed under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. The new programme sets out a process of engagement with the social partners on a series of ten special initiatives to be undertaken during the period of the programme, covering areas such as housing and accommodation, insurance, migration, the long-term unemployed, vulnerable workers and those who have been made redundant, tackling educational disadvantage, waste management, care, alcohol and drug misuse, the inclusion of everyone in the information society and ending child poverty.

I very much regret that farm organisations do not consider it possible to recommend the text, including a paper on agricultural matters, to their members. Their contribution to the social partnership process over the years has been significant. I understand they had expectations of specific commitments being made at this time in light of the difficult years most full-time farmers have experienced. The very difficult current position has not made possible agreement on these issues at this stage. However, I hope they will reconsider their position and see the merit of remaining within the framework of social partnership to advance their objectives.

It is hoped a small number of outstanding issues in relation to both the workplace and wider non-pay issues will be finalised over the coming days so that the Government can be in a position to present to the House very shortly a composite new agreement covering all the various strands. In the meantime, the text of the draft proposals on non-pay issues has been placed in the Library.

Media reports this morning indicate that a group of trade unions is preparing to campaign vigorously against the partnership agreement. Is the Taoiseach aware of these reports? Does he intend to meet the trade unions and individuals involved? Does he consider that such opposition poses a serious threat to the conclusion of a new agreement? In respect of the failure to improve public services in recent years despite the huge increase in expenditure, will the Taoiseach explain how, in the event of an agreement being reached, it will benefit the ordinary citizen in terms of increased efficiency in improved public services?

I am aware that, outside the main negotiating team from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and affiliated trade unions with which I have been negotiating, there are those who oppose the agreement. From my long experience of this process, I am aware that some unions and sections within unions traditionally oppose all national agreements and, regrettably, it appears they will take the same approach this time. We have done our utmost in these negotiations to deal with all the issues raised by various groups. A negotiating body represented the concerns of the union membership and we have endeavoured to deal with these in the detailed discussions held over the past three months. There are some outstanding issues on which I have to meet congress shortly. These are not necessarily the same issues on which some of the unions have concerns.

Public services have improved substantially in recent years. However, I can understand the Deputy's question in the sense that it is argued that the enormous increase in resources invested in the public services has not led to the improvements in services it should have brought about. It is for this reason that we changed the system in this set of negotiations to one whereby benchmarking payments, if they are to be made, must be accompanied by a more stringent and accountable mechanism. The Department of Finance has been adamant – correctly – that this should be the case.

A rather complex performance verification process, which is understood by all involved, has been introduced. This will mean independent groups with independent chairs will monitor the implementation of the modernisation initiatives to ensure the modernisation agreements are implemented before the payments are made. I am not saying the quality assurance groups which operated under the PPF were not good – they were – but the Department of Finance is insisting, due to the levels of resources we will pay under the benchmarking process, that the agreements on the very useful modernisation initiatives already agreed must be implemented. The Department has spent several weeks negotiating with the verification groups to ensure these systems are implemented.

Is the Taoiseach satisfied the modernisation concept built into the process will bring about sufficient improvements to pay for the benchmarking process without resort to increased taxation? Who will have to pay? Does he accept that the general wording on commitments, modernisation and flexibility in respect of the public service will be sufficient to bring about real improvements and productivity increases in the public service? Will he tell the House how this will occur?

The Taoiseach called on the farming community to reconsider the problems it has with the discussions and the agreement. At a recent meeting I held with the farming organisations, they made clear that they are very concerned about the European and global dimension to the problems they face. Will the Taoiseach invite them to meet him to go through the text of the document with which they were presented to help them reconsider their position? Farmers want to be part of progress, but have genuine concerns about career structures and farming incomes.

The Taoiseach referred to a fair and inclusive society which should emerge from a national agreement. Yesterday evening I took the opportunity to walk some of the streets in the vicinity of this House. How can the Taoiseach stand over circumstances in which people are still sleeping in cardboard boxes and under blankets within 200 yards of the national Parliament after the five best economic years we ever had? Surely this is an utter indictment and demonstration of absolute incompetence on the part of the Minister or Ministers responsible for bringing about such a society?

The Deputy asked three separate questions. Discussions on modernisation have been long and protracted. The reform and modernisation initiatives Departments want to achieve, not only in the Civil Service, but also in the health and local authority sectors, have been listed, documented and widely discussed. An amount of work was achieved under the PPF by the quality assurance groups because the 4% paid in October last year was linked directly to that. I do not want to be unreasonable about this. An enormous amount of progress was made under the PPF on many of these issues and substantial change was agreed to by the public service unions but an enormous list of items remained to be dealt with and for that reason the system is now changed. Performance verification groups will make sure that what is now agreed and documented can be implemented over the next three year period. That list is quite considerable. I hope it will lead to efficiencies which will help mainly the public services. It is designed to help the public, although it will cost money in terms of paying the public servants involved. I would be less than honest if I said I believed the efficiencies will save money. What we are doing is paying for improved services, flexibility and modernisation and the State must ensure that we do not pay without getting the modernisation. That is what has been documented.

The Department of Finance has spent months working on this and we have reached a satisfactory arrangement. Perhaps the State has not received everything it sought but it has a comprehensive agenda, some of which requires legislation. Most of it concerns straightforward issues that can be implemented by managers and I hope that happens. The part that requires legislation, which we will have to deal with in this House but which will be worthwhile, relates to the proposals agreed by the unions on implementing legislation to reform the recruitment process in the Civil Service. Some other areas will need further discussion with the trade unions but it is clear from the agreement that it is not a question of principle but the way it is implemented. I am very happy with that issue.

On the question of the farmers, Deputy Kenny is right. The farmers raised three main areas. They had major concerns about the European Union dimension and what will happen in the mid-term review. It is not so much a case of what will happen in the mid-term review but what will happen into the future. I have said before on the record of this House and I will say it again that we will do Irish agriculture an enormous disservice if we do not take seriously what is happening in agriculture in Europe and what is likely to happen in the world trade round. We have probably protected ourselves fairly well up to 2011 but it will dramatically change thereafter and I continue to urge people not to wait until this issue becomes a crisis in the future. It is not that I intend to be around to implement what happens after 2011 but if we do not get it right and make the structural decisions now, it will be an enormous problem. I tried on three occasions in my political career to push forward this issue but I do not believe it will continue to be pushed forward. It is very important that it be dealt with.

On the issue of the WTO, farmers have aired their views on that. On the third question about domestic issues, the farmers wanted specific financial commitments and wanted to reverse some issues which, quite frankly, we cannot do. However, if I can help I will. I do not want the farmers to be lost from the overall process. That is not necessary. I attended the IFA annual meeting last week and spent some considerable time talking to the leadership and to the general membership and I do not believe they want out of the process. I also heard what Mr. Pat O'Rourke of the ICMSA stated. They have all put an enormous effort into this area. They are very good attendees, not only on the agricultural issues but on all the other issues for which they sometimes do not get credit. They make a substantial input not only into the NESC formation but also on issues to do with social inclusion. The knock-on effect is how that affects rural development. I do not want to see farmers out of the process. If I can assist in any way I will do so and, needless to say, I keep up with what is happening in the overall agreement and I talk to all the members on a regular, if not very formal, basis.

On the third question raised by Deputy Kenny, I could go on at length about what is happening in the social inclusion area.

The Taoiseach has done so.

The Taoiseach does not have to prove it.

I spent four months working on this, so I am sorry.

We do not have four months.

I accept that and I will be brief on the last question. To answer Deputy Kenny's question about the homeless initiative, the Cabinet committee on social exclusion had a long session on this issue last week. I am very familiar with the figures and the cases. We are trying very hard to drive the various agencies to work even closer together to deal with the problem. Most of the 140 people on the streets at night in this city are there by choice for one reason or another, and some of them are good reasons. I understand their concerns. I have read the reports. There are many other people in hostels, which is a bigger problem, but they have their own views about matters. If the organisations work even closer together, we can help them even more. We have a bigger problem in that there are 1,500 families who would be classified as homeless. They do not have the same problems as mentioned by the Deputy but they are homeless. Last week's meeting endeavoured to put together a plan to get people to work closer together this year. For once, this is not a budgetary issue although in terms of affordable housing it is an issue, but we will continue to work on that.

Do the Taoiseach's remarks about the community and voluntary organisations saying there is nothing in the agreement for them mean that he will go ahead without them and exclude them? In regard to the affordable housing initiative and the provision of 10,000 houses, has the Government agreed to that? Will the Taoiseach indicate if 10,000 new houses will be produced as a result of this initiative and how soon will they be produced? I draw the Taoiseach's attention to the fact that the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, said in the House yesterday that that will not be the case. I also draw his attention to the Minister's answer yesterday in which he said that the initiative will be designed not to impact on the Exchequer or general Government finances. Who will build the 10,000 houses and who will pay for them? Will IBEC build them and will Fr. Seán Healy pay for them? I do not understand this. How are we to build 10,000 houses without that having any impact on Government finances?

There are two issues. I do not think the members of the community and voluntary pillar believe there is nothing in this agreement for them. Most of the groups are very happy with the ongoing progress although they want to see even more resources than what is in this year's Book of Estimates. That is not possible but in the various areas there is an understanding of what can be done and people accept the constraints, perhaps with some difficulty. We have outlined progress in over 40 or 50 areas that are affected by social exclusion.

On the second issue, the position is that the social partners, both employers and trade unions, believe we should aim for a figure of 10,000 affordable houses. They believe we can achieve that in year one. The Government's position is that it does not believe we will get to the 10,000 figure but with local authority housing, houses that are funded under housing agencies and the affordable housing initiatives, we can get as high a figure as possible. In the discussions the Department does not believe that 10,000 new houses is possible but we should try to get to as high a figure as is possible. Separate to that, we are sitting down with the social partners to see what other initiatives we can implement to increase the supply of affordable housing.

We can do much more in this area but the debate always comes back to the same issue, land. Both employers and unions have put forward views they want the Government to consider and I favour looking at those views regardless of whether they are feasible – it will become clear quickly enough whether we can implement them. To address Deputy Rabbitte's question, this would involve the State in one form or other, through the Housing Finance Agency or the other housing agencies, which come under the NDFA, involving itself directly in land purchase to have an impact on this problem. That is what is being suggested and, although I cannot be clear at this point whether it is possible, it is worthy of examination.

Will this come out of the existing housing provision? I cannot figure out from the Taoiseach's reply whether this has reality. Are these additional houses or are they the normal work of the building co-operatives, local authorities and housing agencies? Does this mean anything? It is important the Taoiseach clears this up. Who will build these houses and who will pay for them? Will the farmers provide the land so that Fr. Seán Healy can build them and IBEC can pay for them?

Unfortunately not.

We have clarified that. The Taoiseach should tell us because he knows how important this issue is. There is not a Member of the House who is not besieged in his or her clinic by people with housing problems. There are 4,189 such people in my small council area but we only produced 40 new houses last year. I am very interested in this matter and it would be fantastic for my constituents if 10,000 net additional affordable houses were provided next year.

A question, Deputy.

If there is a written agreement will the Taoiseach tell me what is in it in terms of who will build these houses and who will pay for them? Is it not the case that some community organisations are not at all happy with the progress of the discussions? Will the Taoiseach proceed to an agreement without them if necessary?

As Deputy Rabbitte said, this is an enormously important issue. Housing affects all the arguments about pay, directly and indirectly – I accept it is a big driving force in this area. For that reason we have been seeking ways with the social partners to maximise the highest possible amount of additional affordable housing. That is covered by the category of additional social housing, which obviously the State must pay for, or else, as in recent years, it is a case of putting more resources into community co-operative housing and social housing trusts. We must see if there are ways in which we can directly affect land values. That is what this comes down to.

The problem all the time, even with affordable housing provided by builders, is that the land value is so excessive that costs are too high even with affordable housing. The only way to intervene is for the State to supply the land, although that is not new – it happened up to the late 1970s. The scheme involved was admittedly a low level one, with money given to the Housing Finance Agency, but the State intervened directly to finance the scheme. It is possible to do so again but we will have to work out the mechanisms involved with the social partners. If that scheme, which existed until 1979 or 1980, was revamped it would be a significant help in increasing the supply of affordable housing.

The Minister for the Environment and Local Government said yesterday he does not believe we can get 10,000 houses, as the number is too high. We have not reached agreement on the figure but the construction industry is achieving very high levels of output year after year. I know from meetings with the CIF and the house builders that if we can give them affordable land they will be prepared to work on this, provided we have a satisfactory mechanism with which to do so.

The Deputy's last question related to the community and voluntary pillar. We may not have agreed on every item but we have done our best to carry that pillar with us.

The Taoiseach said sustainability is central to the partnership process but it is ironic, therefore, that anomalies still exist and that there is no room for the environmental pillar. I want that on the record. My question is similar to Deputy Rabbitte's question and would be answered much more quickly if the Taoiseach said there was to be a constitutional amendment on the property issue.

A question please, Deputy.

My question relates to the community platform, which has described the programme as a programme for austerity and vagueness. Will the Taoiseach respond to that criticism by being specific, for example, regarding the End Child Poverty Coalition's demand for a reduction in consistent poverty for children from 8% to 2% by 2007? Will the Taoiseach stand over that forecast? Will he review the failure by the Government to include refugees and asylum seekers in the process? Will he respond to criticism on that omission by the Irish Refugee Council?

On farming, will the Taoiseach be honest enough to say that the REPS allocation from last year, which I understand was approximately €350 million, will now amount to €190 million and is therefore obviously not an increase? It has been portrayed as an increase because €173 million was all that was drawn down last year. He should be honest and fair enough to allocate the same amount of money and ensure the REPS money is drawn down by easing red tape rather than cutting funding.

Will the Taoiseach appoint an Oireachtas committee to deal with homelessness? That issue keeps coming up because the Taoiseach says there is no problem and that people are on the streets because they want to be there. I ask the Taoiseach to help bring about agreement in the process by making someone accountable. It is an issue for many people.

To take the Deputy's points in reverse order, I am not saying there is no problem with homelessness. Of course there is a problem and there will be as long as people are homeless. The majority of the homeless action plans, which were part of the homeless strategy I launched some years ago, have been completed, including those for the main urban areas. Work has been under way for a long time on implementing the measures in those plans and it is expected that the outstanding plans will be completed this year. The youth homeless strategy and the homelessness preventative strategies have been launched. However, there are still problems as some people still have difficulties.

There is a problem with REPS as it is operated in a bureaucratic way but this is a draw-down issue. We get approximately 60% of the funds and the State then has to pay the matching funds. That is where the argument arises. In other years the State's contribution exceeded the figures given. When we were able to contribute, the State's contribution was high and we put a lot of money into REPS. It is a problem now we are having a difficult year and this is the main issue we are discussing with farmers. There is a resource problem this year and I am not saying otherwise.

Regarding social inclusion, I do not want to go through every programme but we have discussed many of them at length – NAPS, the child care programmes, benchmarking, the national drugs strategy, the Traveller strategy, the White Paper on Sport and Voluntary Activity, the legislative measures under discussion relating to the National Disability Authority, carer's benefit and the National Anti-Racism Campaign, which was mentioned by the Deputy. I hope we can reach agreement on that campaign in particular. We have discussed all these issues at length and have tried to reach a position where we can move on. For five or six years we were able to increase substantially the Estimates and it is difficult for people when we are in a period where that cannot be done. We are, however, funding the existing programmes.

The wealth gap increased in that time.

The programmes under construction in 2000, 2001 and 2002 are still in place and we are paying them. People must take account of the financial position. This year in the Estimates we had to take into account likely growth of just over 2% and the likely income stream, and we had to moderate our spending plans. That is why we cannot endlessly increase these subheads by 20 or 30%.

We are above the EUper capita income. The Taoiseach should face facts.

The Deputy is entitled to ask a supplementary question, he is not entitled to use all the remaining time.

That would be the day.

Is the Taoiseach aware that the End Child Poverty Coalition, a coalition of seven organisations launched yesterday by the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, highlighted the fact that 90,000 children live in consistent poverty and nearly 250,000 live in relative income poverty. The reality behind these statistics is that children are going to school badly clothed, ill fed and with few community resources. What is in this deal for them? Will the Taoiseach address the children whose case was so effectively highlighted yesterday by the End Child Poverty Coalition?

Is it not true that this deal is about pay and very little else and, even on that score, many workers have every right to be concerned, given that they are being left behind in a faltering econ omy with growing inflation? Why should people believe the commitments in this agreement on education, housing and child poverty any more than they might believe the commitments in the Fianna Fáil election manifesto, the programme for Government or, God help us, the national health strategy?

In this country in the past five years there have been enormous increases in all these services, with huge resources being made available. There is much better accommodation, care and after-care across all the areas the Deputy mentioned, as he knows well. In all these areas the partnership programmes have assisted in the development of services and the establishment of new services. That is why we increased child benefit by so much and raised the number of child care workers in the State by a huge margin.

I was happy to see the establishment of the coalition yesterday so that we can work together to improve and expand services into the future. That is what we have done under social partnership for the past 15 years and that is what we will continue to do in the time ahead.

Deputy Joe Higgins is waiting patiently. He has tabled three questions.

Why are some Deputies able to ask a supplementary question? What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

On the basis of proportionality, Fine Gael and the Labour Party are entitled to ask two questions. This is determined by the size of the party.

The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance recently made a late night dash to join the employers and the trade unions for the wage negotiations. I was reminded of the three musketeers making a midnight dash to rescue the beleaguered king of France but I am sure it was more choreography and spin doctoring than anything else. Why should Irish workers have confidence in the wage deal the Taoiseach is trying to foist on them when the reality is that in the first 12 months of it, inflation will be almost double the proposed wage increases, with a resultant dramatic fall in living standards? Why should workers have confidence in the deal the Taoiseach is proposing when the whole process, fraudulently called partnership, has seen during its existence a huge shift to profits and rent and away from the amount going to workers in wages?

Does the Taoiseach agree that the last instalment, the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, provided huge prosperity for the land speculator, the house developer and house builder but no fairness to the workers priced out of home because house prices have increased two and threefold? Does he agree that there was great prosperity for the majority of landlords who rack-rented outrageously with absolutely no fairness for the workers dependent on private rented accommodation? What fairness has there been for workers since the introduction of the euro, with prices increased through the most outrageous profiteering in the service sector?

The Taoiseach is proposing a continuation of that policy, with no provision to stop speculation, rack-renting by landlords or profiteering in prices while wanting to hold wages down, even going as far as threatening the right of workers to strike. This is a wage deal to hold wages down, covered up with a few meaningless additions.

We have heard about the democratic deficit in other matters. Does the Taoiseach agree there is a serious democratic deficit in social partnership? The Taoiseach praised the fact that consumers would be involved in verification. Why were they not involved in influencing the modernisation programme? This year public pay will increase at ten times the rate of non-pay elements and next year there will be a similar situation. Does this not mean we have to raise taxes or find new ways of funding, or there will be the ridiculous situation where nursing homes will be closed down because the Government is unable to pay the capitation element to keep them going and people are left in hospital as a result? How will we pay these costs?

The economy has benefited enormously from women entering the workforce in great numbers, particularly young parents. These young parents often face great difficulty in finding child care that is reasonably priced and at a good standard. Will the Taoiseach assure us that those young parents, who are making such a commitment, will see real change in terms of State support for child care as a result of the present discussions?

Deputy Higgins heard me say that we have to do more about affordable housing. I do not disagree with him on that point. It is not the case, however, that workers are working for a pittance. Our wage costs and our wage base in comparison to most of our European competitors have risen dramatically, creating an issue of competitiveness.

They have controlled rents in most of Europe.

We have legislation to deal with that.

The legislation will not impinge on the cost of rents.

It will impinge on the cost. Social partnership may have had its downsides but the vast majority of assessments show it has been enormously successful. There are 600,000 more people working. People's quality of life and standard of living have improved dramatically.

Not their quality of life.

The Deputy would prefer socialism.

The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is trying to upstage him.

We must continue to move it on. Deputy Richard Bruton asked me a number of questions, but I will not have time to answer them all. The issue of services was his main concern. The actions taken in terms of the modernisation programme and the changes workers have made will improve efficiency. As I said in reply to Deputy Kenny's question, I am not saying we should save all the money. There is a cost, but that is only reasonable if we want better services. I do not know how we can do it any other way. If we want to make our services more efficient and modern, we must pay our workers for giving the flexibility which is necessary. As to whether we must consider increased taxation to improve our services, that will depend on what happens in the economy. As we found out in the better years, a low tax society which generates a lot of activity will help to create more revenue. It is not a good time in the world at present. It is time to retract a little.

Deputy McManus mentioned child care. I agree with what she said that our society and workforce have gained from the huge changes in the past decade through the participation of women. It was for that reason we significantly increased child benefit. Deputy McManus will recall in the long discussions prior to that the arguments about whether we should introduce tax concessions or other arrangements. Some 90% of the groups involved wanted child benefit because it was the fairest way, although I thought the tax credit issue was a better way. It would have been cheaper from the State's point of view. However, there was no agreement by the organisations.

As regards child care, approximately €430 million is being spent in the current national plan on additional facilities. It is important to continue to do that. We must build up a significant infrastructure of child care facilities within the community sector. That is happening, although perhaps not quickly enough. However, it is changing dramatically. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is giving out grants and the number of areas has increased dramatically in the past two years. We must continue to do that. I accept that young working couples face an enormous burden as a result of huge child care costs and the fact that they do not have access to community child care facilities. Money is provided in the national plan for such facilities. Although they receive child benefit, they still face an enormous burden. That is why we must continue to increase child benefit because it is the fairest way to proceed. We must also put money into community infrastructure which is dramatically improving, even if it is not up to the number of places we currently need.