Other Questions.

Unemployment Levels.

Seán Barrett

Question:

6 Deputy Seán Barrett asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if she is satisfied that sufficient action is being taken to stem the tide of rising unemployment; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41860/08]

Pat Rabbitte

Question:

14 Deputy Pat Rabbitte asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the latest estimates available to her Department from FÁS regarding the potential number of job losses in the construction sector up to the end of 2009; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41764/08]

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

15 Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the extent to which she has made provision or will make such provision for the retraining of persons who may have lost their jobs in the course of the economic downturn; if the resources available to her Department are sufficient to meet the full anticipated cost of such requirements; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41849/08]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6, 14 and 15 together. The rise in unemployment, while regrettable, must be seen in the light of the unprecedented growth in the economy and in employment in the past number of years. Overall employment growth was driven by significant growth in employment in the construction sector. Such levels of growth could not last indefinitely. The resultant rise in unemployment is now compounded by the downturn in the global economy and a general slowdown in employment in all sectors. Ireland is not alone in finding itself it this position; many countries throughout Europe and around the world are experiencing similar difficulties in their labour markets.

FÁS, as the national training and employment authority, is providing a range of proactive job-related services, supports and programmes, to assist individuals to return to the labour market. Last month's budget contained an additional €9.5 million allocation to FÁS specifically to fund additional initiatives to help those who have been made redundant. FÁS and the Department of Social and Family Affairs are working together so they can respond quickly to the increase in unemployment.

FÁS has, with the local employment services provided by area-based partnerships, geared up its employment services further to provide increased capacity for expected increased referrals from the live register and will be providing a range of certified, short, flexible, modular programmes in construction sector activities which are expected to remain buoyant despite the slowdown in construction, including, for example, in sustainable energy and environmental and related activities. These programmes are designed to activate the unemployed to re-enter the labour market in another job role. A number of programmes are already in place and the frequency and range of these will be expanded over the coming months.

In 2009 FÁS will open evening classes to people who are unemployed without payment of a fee. This intervention is aimed at meeting the needs of those who were recently active in the workforce and who now find themselves unemployed. FÁS and the Department of Social and Family Affairs have agreed that redundant apprentices will be referred immediately to FÁS rather than wait for three months on the live register. FÁS has also established a training fund to enable a speedy response to identified re-training needs for low skilled and redundant craft workers.

FÁS has also put in place a series of actions to facilitate redundant apprentices in completing their studies. These include redundant apprentices being allowed to progress to their next off-the-job phase of training without having to do the next on-the-job phase. A register of redundant apprentices has been established to identify these people at the earliest possible point in time and FÁS has prioritised the need to locate an employer to sponsor the completion of the apprentices' off-the-job training.

In addressing the issue of redundancies, FÁS liaises with other relevant stakeholders such as Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, the city and county enterprise boards and the Department of Social and Family Affairs. It also works closely with the agencies to identify and support individuals who wish to start their own business.

The enterprise development agencies of my Department, including IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland, are working to ensure we continue to grow the economy and jobs, even in the current more challenging environment. The pipeline of new business for which IDA Ireland is competing is as strong as at any time in recent years. To facilitate this, we need to ensure our competitiveness is sustained into the future.

There is uncertainty around the number of job losses that may occur in the construction sector, with various labour market projections available. The latest FÁS Quarterly Labour Market Commentary, for the third quarter of 2008, estimates that construction employment will fall by 11.2% this year and by a further 19.4% in 2009.

These are challenging times and Ireland, as a small open economy is particularly prone to the effects of a global economic downturn. However, we are continuing to develop the necessary policies and initiatives to tackle rising unemployment.

We have asked many questions about unemployment at Question Time recently and I know there will be more over the coming year. However, the overriding impression I get from the Minister's office is that there does not seem to be any serious understanding of how bad the situation is. Does the Minister of State realise that since Deputy Coughlan took up her job as Minister, when Deputy Cowen became Taoiseach, 80,000 people have lost their jobs, enough people to fill Croke Park?

Does the Deputy think we are stupid or something? We are not stupid.

The Minister does not seem to appreciate that.

The Deputy must make his remarks through the Chair.

Does the Government realise there are now more people signing on than when Fianna Fáil came to office in 1997?

Is the Deputy blaming that on me being in the Department? That is just another sweeping remark.

What I am saying is the situation is worse than it was when Fianna Fáil came to power. Take the standardised unemployment rate ——

Is the Deputy so naive as to think that global economics have no impact on what is happening in the world?

Do the Minister and Ministers of State opposite understand that what is happening in the world is not the same everywhere? In Ireland, the standardised unemployment rate is now 6.8%. We have overtaken seven or eight countries in the past few months, since the Minister took office, and we will overtake the European average by January or February. Do they realise how serious this is and that they cannot wash their hands of it?

Some companies in Poland are in recession also.

Is Deputy Devins dealing with this question?

I remind Deputy Varadkar that some weeks ago he said Ireland was the only country in recession.

That was the case at the time.

Many European countries, including some that are much bigger and stronger than we have ever been, are officially in recession. The Deputy is very selective in what he says.

Deputy Varadkar obviously does not know what is happening in the world.

Ministers and Deputies on this side of the House are very aware of the situation because we meet it every day in our clinics. We are attacking the problem with all our strength. It is a two-pronged attack. We are engaging with the people who have been made redundant and are upskilling and retraining them. We are also looking at foreign direct investment and development of our indigenous industries through Enterprise Ireland and the IDA. The amount of money that is being spent on both programmes is increasing dramatically. This is a challenge, but to imply the Government is totally unaware of the situation is to live in a never, never world.

It seems the Department is unconcerned.

The budget did not contain even one significant initiative to deal with unemployment. The only initiative taken on the issue of unemployment in the budget was to make it more difficult to qualify for jobseeker's benefit and restrict the period over which it is paid.

I have asked about county enterprise boards previously. Will the Minister agree to strengthen the role of the county enterprise boards by removing the limitation on the type of enterprise the boards can support and by raising the limit on the number of jobs an enterprise can create, which is currently set at ten? We must move from negativity to positivity. If an enterprise wants to create 11 jobs, it cannot do so and such enterprises fall between the cracks between the enterprise boards and Enterprise Ireland and the IDA. It is local jobs that will rescue us from the dire situation we are all in.

The Fianna Fáil Party has great connections with the building industry, but let me put a suggestion to it. The Labour Party has suggested that a major school building programme to move the 40,000 children from prefabs into proper classrooms and a national insulation scheme to make our houses more energy efficient and reduce carbon emissions and household energy costs be initiated. Does the Minister of State not agree this would create jobs? The job creation scheme in place is going nowhere.

Most people would agree that the poor person's bank is the credit union and like myself, most people started off in life by borrowing €3,000 or €4,000 there. When Deputy Pat Rabbitte was Minister, he widened the scope for lending by the credit unions, through the Credit Union Act, so they can now lend significant sums. The other day we heard of a lady who could not get an additional overdraft of €5,000 to help her protect jobs. Thankfully, credit unions can now lend sums of €50,000 or €60,000.

Will the Minister ensure the Financial Regulator, who operates under the aegis of the Central Bank, does not restrict the ability of the credit unions to lend such sums? Credit unions are liquid and are not in the same mess as the banks, because they maintained a rigid discipline. Most credit unions with savings such as €150 million would only lend €80 million of that. They can also pay 3% or 4% of a dividend. These are the poor person's bank.

Can we encourage credit unions to become part of the process of promoting jobs and get them to lend money for this? Should we not bring in the directors of the credit unions and other financial institutions and tell them this is a critical time for our economy and we need all hands on deck to ensure small enterprises are given the life blood they need — the oxygen of credit to maintain and create jobs? The issue for many small and medium enterprises is not profitability, but the availability of credit.

Does the Minister of State agree that sometimes we must borrow to stimulate the economy and create jobs to tackle unemployment? Is he aware cutbacks on the current and capital sides may depress further economic activity? What new creative and radical proposals has he in mind to generate new jobs in our economy, particularly in disadvantaged areas?

Will the Minister of State condemn the outrageous attacks by some politicians, commentators and those on the right on our public service and public sector workers? Does he agree the public service has made a major contribution to employment and to delivering public services to people? Does he agree it is time to end these types of attack?

I welcome the move to provide a fast track for people to FÁS. However, when we say the Minister is unaware of what is going on, we are pointing out that there are things that could be done to prevent jobs being lost in the first place.

What, for example?

I tried to mention them earlier, but the Minister gave me a list of something else. The Minister could make cash available. That is what is needed. All the training in the world is no good without cash, but the Minister is doing nothing in that regard.

The finance spokesperson for Fine Gael keeps telling us to cut expenditure.

He would cut it by more than we did, 5.5% in each Department.

All I asked was that the Minister come up with some initiatives and comment on them.

The Labour Party wishes to spend more.

The Minister simply read out a list of what had been done historically. That is irrelevant and I wish to hear of new measures that will work.

The Deputy has made his point. I understand the Minister of State will deal with all these matters.

Several points have been raised with which I will try to deal in the limited time available. Deputy Penrose made a good suggestion that Enterprise Ireland and the county and city enterprise boards should not be arbitrarily confined to ten jobs. This is a matter on which the Department is working actively.

Hear, hear. I thank the Minister of State.

While the point is being made to all Members on the ground, this issue is being worked on actively.

The Leader programmes constitute a source of a huge amount of money. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, recently announced a substantial increase in the funding for the Leader programmes over the next number of years. As for the schools building programme, I remind the Deputy that in the budget this year, funding for the school building programme has been increased from the allocation last year. From memory, I believe the allocation is slightly more than €340 million, which should stimulate some sections of the construction industry. Moreover, FÁS is actively involved in retaining and reskilling construction employees in the green homes and sustainable energy sectors.

Deputy Finian McGrath raised a couple of issues and referred to borrowing for capital expenditure, which the Government is already providing for. The research and development tax credits were increased in the budget from 20% to 25% and constitute an important measure both to attract foreign direct investment and to stimulate indigenous industries to engage in research and development. The Government is very aware that every company, be it a small enterprise with three to five employees, or a large multinational, should be actively considering research and development. As the Minister announced earlier, the innovation voucher, which is worth €5,000 to a small company, can be the lifeline to prevent it from going out of business.

As for the public sector, while the Government is aware of the huge number of great people who work in the public sector, it is also aware there must be public sector reform, which is ongoing at present.

I thank the Minister of State. The Dáil is very calm.

It is the Cathaoirleach's soothing voice.

Official Engagements.

Joanna Tuffy

Question:

7 Deputy Joanna Tuffy asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if she will make a statement on her recent visit to the United States; and the details of specific agreements concluded while she was there regarding investment or job creation here. [41755/08]

I visited the east coast and the mid-west of the United States from 1 to 7 November on a promotional programme, organised by IDA Ireland, which is the agency with statutory responsibility for the attraction of foreign direct investment to Ireland.

The objective of this visit was twofold. My first objective was to cement relationships with US companies that have a presence in Ireland and to explore with them, in conjunction with IDA Ireland, the potential for further investment here. My second objective was to meet a number of companies that have not yet invested here and from which the IDA are hoping to attract new investment for this country. The purpose of my meeting with these companies was to support the ongoing engagement by the IDA with them.

The programme involved meeting with chairmen, chief executive officers and other senior executives of leading companies in a broad range of sectors, including life sciences and information communications technology, ICT. The feedback from these meetings confirmed to me the high standing in which Ireland is viewed as a business location by leading global companies.

They are aware of, and impressed by, the high standards of performance that are achieved by Irish management and staff within foreign-owned companies that have operations here. The meetings also underlined to me the importance of the Government's commitment to strengthen research and education capabilities, while retaining the flexibility and responsiveness of our operating environment and low tax regime.

I am optimistic that new investments and jobs will follow in time, particularly given the positive views expressed to me about Ireland and the high standing in which Ireland is viewed as a business location by leading global companies.

I compliment the Minister on her mission to the United States. It is important that she should continue that role regarding foreign direct investment with IDA Ireland. Did the extreme importance of Ireland's young, vibrant, well-educated and highly-skilled workforce, its low tax regime and flexible policies come across during her mission? While I acknowledge such projects have long gestation periods, is the Minister hopeful in these difficult times as a result of her visit?

I was surprised by the study or survey that purported to reveal discontent among multinationals regarding Ireland's supposedly high costs and poor infrastructure despite the investment in infrastructure of a great deal of money in the past 15 years. Did this issue arise, was it bubbling below the surface or did anyone refer to it? I do not anticipate that anyone did so. How did the survey results that up to 60% of such multinationals were dissatisfied in one form or other surface? I was greatly surprised by the alleged contents of the survey, which I have not seen. I understand it was secret, although it appears to have entered the public domain. While I am not familiar with it, I read reports of it. Its contents surprised me greatly because our educated workforce, flexibility and motivation, the infrastructure Ireland provides for many firms that come here, together with its lower corporate tax rates constitute huge elements of attraction. Was anything bubbling beneath the surface that gave the Minister cause for concern or that she might be obliged to re-examine to ensure Ireland remains as competitive as it was?

While the Minister was in the United States, did the debate on our low-tax regime arise? What was the mood in the United States among politicians and business people?

With regard to global companies, the importance of US investment and other European countries, the Minister also should think beyond the box in respect of other countries as there is a bigger world out there. While the Minister was involved in respect of China, we also should be trying to attract investment from other countries.

Given the presence of low-cost labour in other countries, does the Minister have concerns for industries in Ireland that may be unable to compete on the international market and which could lose many jobs?

The access we received was superb. The views expressed by those who are in Ireland at present is that this is a good place in which to do business. Ireland is perceived to be pro-enterprise and has a flexible and talented workforce and this is the basis on which many people make decisions to come here. Ireland's investment in research and development is of great importance to them. Moreover, its centres for science, engineering and technology, interaction between industry and the commercialisation of intellectual property are highly important. Ireland needs to be at the high-value end, which is the type of product in which I was trying to invest and encourage into Ireland. We met a number of new, emerging types of businesses. As the Deputy noted, that will take some time in gestation. That said, our message is clear that Ireland still is a good place in which to do business.

On the issue of costs, some naturally have reflected on that issue, most particularly in the context of energy and, in some cases, labour costs. However, much of this was offset by our talent pool. In addition, the Government is cognisant of the input costs that cause difficulties to a number of companies and has new initiatives to consider and support this issue. Moreover, the reiteration in his Budget Statement by the Minister for Finance of Ireland's 12.5% corporation tax rate was greatly welcomed.

In the context of the changing political dynamic in the United States, much of which concerns fears that are not necessarily well-founded, the view that Ireland is in any way perceived as a tax haven was not present. Ireland's absence from the OECD's Richter scale in this regard is of great importance to us. Therefore, I continue to be of the view that Ireland will see further investment from our foreign direct investment community. This is not to suggest it will not be without its challenges, as I would be naive to say that.

As for travelling abroad, I visited Zurich last week, where I engaged in much networking with ICT businesses. Next week, I intend to travel with 60 companies to Dubai and Abu Dhabi to examine new opportunities for them. Members are aware the Taoiseach has travelled to China and I intend to go to Japan. Moreover, there will be further works carried out by my Ministers of State, including the Minister of State with responsibility for trade, who is on such a mission at present to attract and provide opportunities for foreign direct investment and to afford indigenous companies opportunities abroad.

Departmental Agencies.

Jan O'Sullivan

Question:

8 Deputy Jan O’Sullivan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment when she expects to receive the report commissioned from the Comptroller and Auditor General into the effectiveness of FÁS’s financial management and control systems; if, pending the receipt of the report, she will take action arising from allegations of financial irregularities; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41765/08]

In his report on non-commercial semi-State bodies published in May 2008, the Comptroller and Auditor General reviewed the issues raised in one specific FÁS internal audit report.

I discussed this matter with the director general of FÁS and have expressed my concerns about the issues raised by both the Comptroller and Auditor General and the internal audit report, and in particular, the need to secure value for money in public expenditure. On my instruction, the Secretary General of my Department wrote to FÁS on 30 June 2008 seeking the formal assurance of the director general that the practices outlined in the audit reports of FÁS and the Comptroller and Auditor General had ceased and that adequate systems and controls were in place to prevent any recurrence and requesting details of the remedial actions taken by FÁS in respect of the issues raised by the audit reports, with quarterly progress reports on the implementation of the audit reports' recommendations. The director general replied on 1 July confirming that the unacceptable practices referred to in the audit reports had ceased. A further response was received at the end of October, which set out the progress being made on the issue of controls on procurement and the observance of the procurement policy of FÁS.

Following discussions with the chairman and director general, I decided that there should be an external investigation into the effectiveness of the financial management and control systems generally in place in FÁS, rather than be limited to aspects raised in the internal audit report that gave rise to the special report. The Comptroller and Auditor General has acceded to my request to consider doing such a review. My intention in requesting this review is to ensure that appropriate public procurement procedures exist to prevent or detect irregularities or wrongdoing and to examine and report on the activities of the FÁS corporate affairs area since 2000 to achieve reasonable assurance as to whether there were any occasions of potential fraud or irregularity in that area other than those already brought to light by the FÁS internal audit unit.

It is a matter for the Comptroller and Auditor General to determine the scope of his investigation. He has indicated that, in doing so, he will take into account the deliberations at the Committee of Public Accounts hearings on the FÁS element of his special report. The timing of the investigation is a matter for him but, as the Minister responsible for FÁS, I am understandably anxious for it to proceed as quickly as possible so that I may address any issues arising in respect of the financial management and control systems in place within the organisation.

It would appear that the Tánaiste wants a specific investigation. From her inquiries with FÁS and her Department, is she satisfied that the steps taken on new procedures in accountancy and auditing will be put in place, thereby ensuring no recurrence of a matter that may be the subject of an investigation? We should not prejudge an outcome until after a full investigation has been carried out.

Some 500,000 people must be retrained and reskilled. The Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, is involved.

I do not want to cut across him, but will the Tánaiste ask the Minister of State to set out a programme whereby this aspect of FÁS's mandate can be accelerated? It will not be an easy task, but it could be worthwhile. FÁS has done much positive work and many fine people work for it, but perhaps more people should be on the ground. One of the Ministers of State referred to how many people there are on the ground as opposed to in offices, which is important.

The Tánaiste has overall responsibility for FÁS, but we should not ignore the importance of the role of the director general and the board in being on top of these issues. The board may have been able to do a better job in preventing problems. Does the Tánaiste still have full confidence in both?

It is a matter for Deputy Penrose to make his own determinations. I have received a written assurance from the director general that the matters raised in the audit committee have been addressed and that correct procedures have been put in place.

Regarding the board, I have met its chairman regularly, who every Deputy would agree is a fine individual, and its director general. I have also met senior staff members of FÁS in the context of driving its agenda of targeting and supporting people. We have greater interaction with the Department of Social and Family Affairs. The Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, is driving the issue of lifelong learning and reviewing labour market measures to determine where there are greater opportunities, particularly between the Department of Education and Science and my Department. Like the House, I do not want training for training's sake.

Nor should scarce resources be targeted anywhere other than at those most in need. It is the intention of the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, and the rest of our team to progress matters as expeditiously as possible.

Does the Tánaiste still have full confidence in the director general and the board?

I have answered that question.

She just answered.

I did not quite hear a "Yes" or "No".

I appreciate the Deputy's views and I know that FÁS offered to take him and his party's leader through the issues, but that only his leader took up the offer. I believe the Deputy indicated that he was not interested.

That is not the case. We were supposed to go this afternoon, but FÁS cancelled. The Tánaiste is quite wrong.

Departmental Appointments.

Joe McHugh

Question:

9 Deputy Joe McHugh asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the process used to select the new chair of the board of Enterprise Ireland; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41932/08]

Members of the board of Enterprise Ireland are appointed under section 9 of the Industrial Development (Enterprise Ireland) Act 1998. The Act provides that members shall be appointed by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, and that the former shall designate one member of the board as chairperson. The Act specifies that a member of the board shall not serve for more than ten consecutive years.

On the resignation of the previous chairperson of Enterprise Ireland some months ago following completion of ten years of exemplary service to the board, I immediately sought a suitable replacement. I was pleased that Mr. Hugh Cooney was willing to accept my invitation to join the board and to assume the position of chairperson. The Minister for Finance had no hesitation in giving his consent to Mr. Cooney's appointment. I am pleased with Mr. Cooney's appointment and I am satisfied that he is eminently qualified and suitable for his new position.

On the last question, if I may digress, Mr. Rody Molloy, the director general of FÁS, has met Deputy Kenny.

I met Mr. Molloy separately.

The Deputy should finish his question.

This is a question on Enterprise Ireland.

FÁS has offered to allow us to examine some of its records. We have accepted, but FÁS has been unable to find a suitable time. The Tánaiste might want to check her facts.

And change the record.

And to change the record, of course.

Someone should not be barred from holding office because he or she contributed funds to Fianna Fáil, but it creates questions among the public. Was any effort, direct or indirect, made by the Taoiseach to lobby the Tánaiste on this appointment? In future, would it not be more appropriate for such decisions to be analysed by the appropriate committee, as is the case in the United States and elsewhere? Fine Gael has drafted a Bill to that effect. Does the Tánaiste agree that this provision would remove some of the concerns people have about contributors to Fianna Fáil being appointed to important offices by ensuring proper scrutiny of this area and that decisions are not made as they are currently?

The views expressed by the Member opposite are a disgrace.

Let the Tánaiste answer.

He obviously does not know the man.

He is speaking in general.

The Deputy does not know of his capacity or capabilities——

I do not. That is why I would like an answer.

——as many in the House do. That the man made a small contribution to a party in a personal capacity, which he was more than entitled to do, in no way influenced anyone. I did not know of the contribution. It is scurrilous of Deputy Varadkar to imply that there was any lobbying for the position.

That was his question.

I took a considerable period of time----

I asked a question and the Tánaiste has not answered.

Inferences were made.

Let the Tánaiste reply.

Following the retirement of the previous chairman, I took considerable time to ensure that the next appointee would give the board the necessary direction and support. He has given both. Perhaps the Deputy might revert to the fact that his Government appointed a contributor, Mr. Lynch, with whom I have worked and who is eminently qualified to sit on a board. If someone makes a contribution to a political party or a local cumann or branch, should he or she be barred from participating on a board?

I specifically stated that it should not be a bar.

As always, the Deputy has made an inference to win the populist vote. Mr. Cooney, who is well known by many Deputies, is eminently qualified, has significant capacity and is someone who knows what is occurring in the country. His skills and talents will add to the board's eminence. It would be more appropriate for the Deputy to familiarise himself with my appointee before throwing mud at him.

The Minister did not answer either of the questions I posed.

Employment Rights.

Tom Sheahan

Question:

10 Deputy Tom Sheahan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if she will amend the Industrial Relations Act 1976 to preclude the inclusion in an employment regulation order or registered employment agreements an obligation that employers pay double the minimum rate on Sundays; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41259/08]

Ulick Burke

Question:

27 Deputy Ulick Burke asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if she will amend the Industrial Relations Act 1976 to allow employers covered by employment regulation orders and registered employment agreements to plead inability to pay; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41244/08]

I propose to answer Questions Nos. 10 and 27 together.

I presume the Deputies are referring to the Industrial Relations Act 1946. Under the provisions of that Act, employer and worker representatives voluntarily enter into collective bargaining negotiations with a view to concluding an employment regulation order or registered employment agreement. The State is not party to such negotiations and, accordingly, I have no plans to amend the Industrial Relations Act as proposed by the Deputies.

Minimum rates of pay and other conditions of employment for workers in certain sectors are set down in employment regulation orders, EROs, made by the Labour Court. These orders are legally binding and are determined on the basis of proposals drawn up by the employer and employee representatives on the relevant joint labour committees, JLCs. The latter are independent bodies and are composed of equal numbers of representatives of employers and workers in a particular sector, with an independent chairman.

An employment agreement is an agreement made either between a trade union and an employer or employer organisation or at a meeting of a registered joint industrial council, which relates to the pay or conditions of employment of any class, type or group of workers. Employment agreements may be presented to the Labour Court for registration. Where the Labour Court is satisfied that an agreement presented satisfies the statutory requirements, it will register that agreement. The effect of this is to make the provisions of the agreement legally enforceable in respect of every worker of the class, type or group to which it is expressed to apply and to his or her employer, even if such workers or employers are not party to the agreement.

In the context of our voluntarist approach to collective bargaining, JLCs covering certain sectors, including the catering and hotel sectors, have agreed terms and conditions, which include the payment of premia for Sunday work, to apply to the workers covered by their respective remits. These terms make no provision for an inability to pay clause because they are essentially agreements on the going rate for the job reached by employers and workers themselves. It is not a Government imposed rate.

I am aware of concerns that have been raised by some employers regarding the impact of Sunday premia payments. Deputies on all sides have raised this matter with me on numerous occasions. I am conscious of the pressures on and concerns of employers and employees in the hotel and catering sectors. Any adjustment or variation in the rates applying to Sunday work in these sectors or any provisions that would allow for an inability to pay plea by an employer remain matters for agreement by the parties represented on the JLCs or those who are party to an REA, as appropriate.

The operation of the joint labour committee system was recently considered by the social partners in the course of their negotiation of the Towards 2016 review and transitional agreement. We have initiated the process to amalgamate the two joint labour committees in the catering sector. Advertisements relating to this matter were placed in national newspapers in the past week.

Even if one is an 18 year old student who works on Sundays, the minimum rate of pay is over €20 per hour. It is difficult for many small businesses in the catering and hotel sector to meet such rates of pay and, as a result, they are obliged to close. Many businesses no longer trade or serve food on Sundays. I hope the new joint labour committee will address this matter. Is the Minister of State satisfied with regard to the legality of the current EROs? Is it constitutionally correct for the Oireachtas to give the Labour Court power to set minimum terms and conditions?

Is the Minister of State satisfied that all those involved are acutely aware of the importance of competitiveness in the economy at this point?

I urge Deputies to use their influence in order to ensure that people are aware of the pressures that exist, particularly in the hotel and catering sectors. There is a commitment in Towards 2016 to strengthen the JLCs. Some members representing hotels recently launched a court challenge but as yet there has not been any outcome in that regard.

We are aware that major pressures exist. I urge the representatives of the workers and employers on the JLCs to meet and discuss this matter. I have received representations from Members on all sides, from employers and employees in respect of this matter. If Deputies have any influence in such matters, they should urge the JLCs to convene and strike a rate that reflects the existing reality. Many people are losing their jobs, businesses are experiencing major difficulties in attempting to trade on Sundays and restaurants are closing. There are several restaurants in my constituency that no longer open on Sundays. I again urge Deputies to use their influence.

The Chair wishes to acknowledge the co-operation it has received from all Members during Question Time.

As usual, we acknowledge the efforts of the Acting Chairman.

The Acting Chairman never mentioned Tallaght.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.