Leaders’ Questions

Yesterday anyone who was paying attention to this Chamber could see there was a problem with Labour Party Ministers and backbenchers.

Deputy Martin spent long enough missing when Brian Cowen was his leader.

Deputy Buttimer was off yesterday.

Is Deputy Buttimer back?

I was never gone.

He must have been hiding so.

(Interruptions).

Deputy Martin should not invite this antagonism. This is Leaders' Questions, it is not about who is present in the Chamber.

This morning the reason for the decision to stay away from the Chamber during Leaders' Questions has been revealed. According to all reports, the Government yesterday argued and then failed to reach agreement on what the Taoiseach has called the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation's personal agenda to reduce the basic conditions guaranteed by joint labour committees. This is not a small issue; it affects 200,000 people working in businesses throughout the country. There has been no progress on the issue in the weeks since the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation briefed the media on plans to go well beyond the recommendations in the independent report to Government. Now we have daily briefings and counter-briefings by competing Ministers.

At least we have Noel O'Flynn and John McGuinness on side.

Could we have a question please?

The Minister for Social Protection has told the media the proposed changes will significantly increase welfare costs and was supported in this by the Tánaiste.

This is the crowd that cut the minimum wage.

Would Deputy Martin please put a question?

In reply, staff speaking on behalf of the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation have replied that he is bravely facing down the Labour Party.

This is the crowd that cut the minimum wage.

When will this end? Is the Taoiseach going to stand by while the Minister tries to present himself as the tough guy of the new Government by ignoring an independent report and briefing against his coalition partners? Is the Taoiseach happy that one Minister's personal agenda is causing this confusion?

Does Deputy Martin want to get a few tickets for Bon Jovi so they can sing his favourite song, "Cowboy"?

I must assume Deputy Martin is speaking about the joint labour committees because he did not ask any question, he only remarked that some people were absent from the Chamber.

I want Deputy Martin to understand that I have every confidence in every Minister in this Government.

Even when they contradict each other.

Unlike the Deputy's crowd of not long ago, we will not find them outside buildings saying the IMF are not here, we did not do anything about that.

In respect of the responsibilities of the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, the programme for Government, the EU-IMF agreement and the recent jobs initiative contained commitments from the Government that we would proceed with urgency to substantially reform the system, particularly issues related to overtime and premium payments for Sunday working, the number of joint labour committees and the general functioning and supervision of the system. The Minister prepared a memo and there was a preliminary discussion at Government yesterday. There was no conclusion to the discussion because it was preliminary.

Instead of trying to score points, Deputy Martin should understand that we are concerned about creating jobs and employment for the maximum number of people in the country. For the Deputy's information, the structures that need to be reformed are agreed in principle by the Labour Party and Fine Gael. The people we are talking about are those who are locked out of employment because of antiquated structures and the system that applies. For the Deputy's information, the Duffy Walsh report stated there should be radical restructuring of this particular system. It requires a radical overhaul to make it fairer and more responsive to changing economic circumstances and labour market conditions.

If the Deputy is interested, the most recent CSO statistics for the first quarter of 2011 confirm a continuing drop in employment in the sectors most affected by the JLC system, which is why that system must be reformed. The retail category saw 5,700 fewer people in employment between the end of last year and the first quarter of this year. The same period saw 9,000 fewer people employed in accommodation and food services.

Because they were being paid too much, I suppose.

Of the 19,000 drop in employment in the last year, 15,600 — 82% — came from these two sectors that are directly affected by JLCs.

Because they are being paid too much — €300 per week.

Who cut the minimum wage?

That is the reason the Government is setting out to reform these structures, to give a fairer, more responsive situation and to prevent people from being locked out of employment. The Government sees the creation of jobs as a priority, not the taxation of jobs or employment; we want to see more people getting off the live register, where the figures are much too high. That is the reason for the proposition and the Minister set out in his memo areas where the JLCs can be reformed and the Government will continue its discussion on that and reach a conclusion on it.

There is also a High Court case on Thursday that will deal with a particular element of the system dealing with employment in these sectors.

The Duffy-Walsh report says the opposite to what the Taoiseach said. It says that if one reduces the rates——

I am sorry. We are not having a debate. The Deputy should ask a supplementary question.

——it would lead to a 10,000 jobs reduction.

The fundamental issue with hospitality and retail is the flat, domestic demand, the lack of consumer demand and spending.

That is over what Fianna Fáil presided.

Everyone, unions and employers included, have signed up——

(Interruptions).

Excuse me. This is Question Time. Could I have a supplementary question please?

(Interruptions).

There are 450,000 people unemployed.

It is amazing that you have time to come in at all.

The Deputy should please resume his seat. The Government side should please allow people to speak and the Opposition should allow the Government side to reply. This is a supplementary question, not a speech, for which Deputy Martin has one minute.

The Minister, Deputy Shatter, is provoking us.

Deputy Martin should not make a speech.

The truth is always provocative.

This is Leaders' Questions.

Yes, it is entitled "Questions".

It is a question on matters raised, a Cheann Comhairle. That is in Standing Orders. It is very clear.

Deputy Martin is entitled to one minute for a supplementary question.

It is very clear, a Cheann Comhairle. It is questions on matters arising and I should be allowed the space and time to do so and not to be interrupted by Deputies opposite.

I gave Deputy Martin space and time.

I have been interrupted consistently, a Cheann Comhairle.

I will deal with the interruptions.

Now that I have an opportunity to put the supplementary question to the Taoiseach, the independent report has been delivered but it is being ignored in favour of what the Taoiseach himself has called the Minister, Deputy Bruton's personal agenda to implement even more serious cuts. I put it to the Taoiseach that the Minister, Deputy Burton's apparent claim that the proposals would increase FIS and other welfare claims is significant and it deserves to be treated seriously, not undermined by Fine Gael as something that needs to be faced down. Surely the Taoiseach can accept that the spectacle of daily briefings of Minister against Minister should stop? Will he simply agree to implement the recommendation of the independent report on JLCs, get on with it and end the growing uncertainty for more than 200,000 workers about their basic terms and conditions.

Deputy Martin is over time.

They deserve that clarity and certainty, not the show that is going on at the moment between competing Ministers.

The previous Government destroyed the jobs.

Let me remind Deputy Martin about what the Duffy-Walsh report does say. The Deputy did not read his brief previously on a particular matter.

The Taoiseach skipped a lot of the pages.

The Taoiseach has a lot of reading to do too.

The overall findings of the report was that the basic framework of the JLC system requires radical overhaul so as to make it fairer and more responsive to changing economic circumstances and labour market conditions. That is what it says.

The Government should implement it then.

The Minister, Deputy Bruton, is doing his job. He has prepared his memo. He wrote to IBEC, ICTU and CIF with copies of the report. He has had discussions with the social partners. In doing his job he will bring back to Government a series of recommendations and the Government will decide on that, on the principle that we have agreed that there should be reform of the JLC structure to make it fairer and more responsive to changing economic circumstances.

It is obvious that people will have a range of views on any discussion that takes place on an issue as sensitive as that. That is normal. What we are concentrating on is making a situation fair, not locking out people from employment and ensuring the maximum number can be employed in these and others sectors. To do that, the structure must and will be reformed.

Who disagrees with that?

On top of that, the Government wants to give every possible benefit to initiatives where jobs can be created, such as the job search scheme which I launched this morning with the Minister, Deputy Burton, which will give 5,000 internships to young, eligible people.

The internship programme was announced last year.

I am sure the Deputies opposite support that.

We suggested it. The Government should implement the recommendations of the Duffy-Walsh report.

We are over time.

Every job or internship that can be created is of benefit to the country and the economy. That is the situation. Before Deputy Martin makes another comment about the Duffy-Walsh report, he should read it.

The Taoiseach will recall that some weeks ago I raised the issue of the impending crisis arising from the shortage of junior doctors. I named the hospitals which I believed would be affected and I asked the Taoiseach to intervene. I called on the Minister for Health to make a statement. He has not been accountable to the Dáil since 31 May. No statement has been made on the issue. Deputy Ó Caoláin also raised the issue of the plans to cut ambulance services for dialysis and heart patients in the west. Again, we have had no statement on that.

Will the Taoiseach indicate how many accident and emergency services will be either shut down or downgraded by the end of July? Will he confirm that the Minister for Health will restore the ambulance services to those patients in the west?

The Minister for Health will answer questions in the House tomorrow.

I expect the Deputy can pursue him in detail on any of the particular issues he wants to follow up. The Minister will give an up-to-date account of the exact situation, as of tomorrow, in respect of non-consultant hospital doctors being available. He has made it perfectly clear that he understands the medical situation, as he is a doctor, and he cannot stand over a situation where professional advice indicates that the——

Did he understand it before the election?

Is he on a solo run? Does he have a personal agenda as well?

——delivery of services would be unsafe because of lack of supervision for junior hospital doctors. As Deputy Adams is aware, the Minister has already reported to the House on the recruitment process abroad for junior doctors to be available after 11 July. It is true that a number of hospitals will find the situation very challenging in the sense of changes that will have to take place. The Minister will give an up-to-date report as of tomorrow when he answers questions.

That will be for tomorrow but what about the day after?

As Deputy Adams is well aware the budget deficit within the health area this year for hospitals alone is €99 million over target. It is not possible to do everything one would wish. We are faced with reality and a requirement to have patient safety at the centre of what we do and changes will be made in order to meet that requirement. The Minister will report to the House tomorrow.

I want the Taoiseach to reflect on what he said. There is no recollection on these benches that the Minister made a statement in the House. He made a statement to the media. He said some hospitals could not be safely manned, mar dheá. I asked him to name the hospitals but he has not done that. Once again, the Taoiseach has not answered the question about the ambulance service. I should have said for cancer patients not heart patients.

There is a litany of commitments by people now in government. Deputy Naughten, the Chairman of the health committee said he would resign——

The Deputy should ask a supplementary question please.

——if services were not restored in Roscommon. John Perry promised——

Deputy Perry, please.

Gabh mo leithscéal, the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, said that the cancer service would be restored to Sligo hospital within the first 100 days of government. We have litanies of promises. Many people are asking what is the difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, between——

Deputy Adams should ask a supplementary question.

——the previous Minister for Health and Children, former Deputy Harney, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly? Fianna Fáil closed emergency services in Dundalk, Monaghan, Nenagh, Ennis and Navan.

Could I have a supplementary question?

Fine Gael and Labour, my friends, are closing them at Roscommon, Mallow, Bantry, Loughlinstown and how many other places. People need to know. The Taoiseach accused me of scaremongering. He should address what is scaring people.

You closed the Europa Hotel a few times.

Tell them what is the story on the issue.

There is a world of difference between the parties. The first difference is that we have a Minister for Health who will change the system to one which will deliver adequate standards of proper health care for all patients. That cannot and will not happen overnight. I respect the work medical professionals do. I respect the pressure they are under, but the system that has been allowed to evolve over so many years has been wasteful and has not been up to the standard required in so many areas, as the evidence has shown over the years. That is the first difference between the parties.

The Government has set out a plan and programme to change the structure of the delivery of health services where patient care is central and paramount. That will apply right across the country. Transport will continue to be provided for those who need it, be it for cancer treatment, dialysis or other need.

On the question of naming hospitals in which the number of non-consultant hospital doctors is not up to standard or where there is no supervision for non-consultant hospital doctors, I cannot give that information today because the responses are not back from those who might take up positions as junior doctors. The Minister will report on that to the House tomorrow.

I regret this is something that has happened for so many years without being attended to. It will be attended to now. It would be far easier for me to stand up here and say everything is hunky-dory in every hospital in the country. It is not. Because of the situation in which we now find ourselves, changes must take place, and those changes must be carried out with a focus on patient care and the delivery of the highest standard of care by professionals with supervision and adequate accountability to this House. This Minister for Health will ensure this happens.

There are 358 patients on trolleys.

We have set up a special delivery unit to deal with waiting lists.

A Swedish ship that is part of the humanitarian aid flotilla to Gaza lies crippled in Greece by saboteurs acting in the interests of the Israeli Government. An Irish ship, MV Saoirse, funded by thousands of contributions from people in Ireland, is currently delayed in a Mediterranean port waiting to join the flotilla.

In an area half the size of Erris, or two thirds the size of the Dingle Peninsula, 1.6 million Palestinians have been blockaded — in reality, imprisoned — in the most horrific, inhumane and barbaric conditions that cry out for justice and for action. Half the population are unemployed and 300,000 survive on one dollar a day. Children are malnourished and there is a desperate shortage of medicines and building materials, all because of a barbaric, illegal blockade by the Israeli State.

The flotilla brings practical assistance, medicines and other supplies. It also represents a demand that the world stand up and seek an end to this crime.

Does the Deputy have a question?

As the Taoiseach knows, last year an aid flotilla was attacked and several innocents were massacred. In Leaders' Questions just one year ago, the current Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade bluntly demanded safe passage for the Rachel Corrie, which was at that time making its way to Gaza. Yesterday, however, when Deputy Boyd Barrett and I called on the Taoiseach to publicly demand unhindered passage for the flotilla, he failed to do so. Why is the Taoiseach so pathetically weak in demanding of the Israeli Government that it allow this critical aid to pass unhindered? Has the Government been lobbied in any way by the Israeli Government? Is he afraid to displease the American Government, whose Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, made a disgusting statement alleging that the humanitarian mission was "merely to provoke Israel into using its right to defend itself"?

The Deputy is over time.

Will the Taoiseach, in a supposedly sovereign Irish Parliament, publicly demand that the Irish citizens and all people attempting to assist the people of Gaza are unhindered in bringing their humanitarian aid to the suffering people in Gaza?

I have every sympathy with the citizens of Gaza. I have been there and met with group leaders and professional people who have been unable to do their best in providing services because they cannot travel outside Gaza. I had a good meeting with John Ging, when he was in charge, about the difficulties on both sides within Gaza. I am well aware of the difficulties and the pressure that people are under, particularly the many young people who are facing a future of unemployment.

The Tánaiste has made it perfectly clear that while we have respect and sympathy for the motives of the participants in the flotilla, the Government would strongly advise people not to travel to Gaza. The Israeli authorities have said that the naval blockade is still in force. This matter was raised at the European Council meeting last Thursday and Friday and in that regard, we wish for no activities similar to those that took place on the last occasion, with people losing their lives when Israeli forces boarded a ship. While I respect the motives of the participants, I advise them not to travel to Gaza while this blockade is in force.

Is the Taoiseach trying to stop them?

The European Union, while understanding the situation, would like to see the talks about the future of Palestine and Israel begin again for the umpteenth time. There is a basis on which the talks can start, and I hope Europe will play its part in helping them to recommence.

What has changed since last year, when the now Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs demanded safe passage for an Irish ship that was bringing aid to the people of Gaza? What the Taoiseach has just said is a disgusting and cowardly capitulation——

Could we have a supplementary question?

——to pressure from the Israeli Government. It is a disgrace that an Irish Taoiseach would stand up and discourage humanitarians from bringing critically needed supplies to a besieged people.

I ask the Deputy again for a supplementary question.

I ask the Taoiseach again to stand and call for the Israeli Government not to hinder in any way this flotilla, which is bringing critical supplies, as it travels to Gaza. I also ask him to demand of his EU counterparts to get some spine in their bodies, in contrast to the lily-livered statement they issued at the end of the summit in which the Taoiseach participated, merely calling for restraint. Why does the Taoiseach not say, in the interests of suffering human beings, that they have an absolute right to the supplies that every other country will get unhindered? Would he accept it if Ireland were blockaded and our people were dying from lack of medicines, malnourishment and so on, because of this type of hostile action?

As Taoiseach, I call upon the Israeli Government not to take any action that would cause injury or harm to people who have particular motives. The boat involved last year contained no aid. The European Union, for its part, will continue to use its diplomatic and political connections and initiatives to see that the political discussions on the future of the Palestinian people recommence, together with the discussions that must take place about the Israeli-Palestinian problem, which has gone on for many years. It is also fair to mention the fact that the Glencree Centre in Ireland has done a great deal of useful work in attempting to reduce the pressure arising from this problem.