1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has met the social partners recently; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39248/13]
Vol. 825 No. 1
1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has met the social partners recently; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39248/13]
2. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent contacts he has had with the social partners. [40736/13]
3. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will provide an update on his process of social dialogue. [40737/13]
4. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the groups he has met as part of the process of social dialogue. [40738/13]
5. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach his plans for the future of the National Economic and Social Council. [40739/13]
6. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach if he has met any of the social partners since the July recess; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40869/13]
7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent meetings with the social partners; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40919/13]
8. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the social partners he has met recently; if he will report on these meetings; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47755/13]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 8, inclusive, together.
As the House is aware, while this Government does not intend to return to the rigid social partnership structures of the past, we continue to engage in a wider process of social dialogue on an ongoing basis. The primary point of contact for this interaction is the Minister with functional responsibility. Ministers and their Departments engage in regular dialogue with sectoral interests within their policy areas. The Government values these interactions and contributions. I meet many former social partner organisations during the course of my work. For example, since the July recess, I met representatives of the IFA on 29 July; I launched the Small Firms Association's national small business award on 5 September; I addressed the IBEC president's annual dinner on 20 September; I met members of the wider farming community at the National Ploughing Championships on 26 September; and I addressed the Construction Industry Federation's annual conference on 27 September.
Multilateral engagement between sectors and the Government also takes place through the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, which comes within the remit of my Department. The council continues to provide a valuable forum for dialogue on the economic, social and environmental challenges facing the country and publishes reports on a regular basis.
The question I asked was whether the Taoiseach had met the social partners recently. What he seems to have outlined, in essence, is that he has not, but he has attended a number of conferences and launched an initiative for small firms. In view of the situation in the health service, I am anxious to ascertain to what degree meaningful dialogue is going on, either between the Ministers, as the Taoiseach said was the case, or between the Taoiseach and the whole of Government. We still await the health service plan, but it seems it has been deliberately withheld and that it might be published on Thursday when the Dáil is winding up for the recess.
The Taoiseach might laugh, but everyone else around here would say that everything possible is being done to camouflage and prevent any concentration on the deliberations about the health service plan. The Taoiseach is not beyond a bit of cynical media management and news management. I respectfully point out that with only two days to go, we have not yet seen the health service plan. I hope I am wrong and that the Taoiseach will allow for a debate this week on the health service plan in plenary session, or would that be too much to ask? The real point I wish to make is that I have never seen such low morale among those working in the health service now, at clerical officer level, at care assistant level, among those looking after the elderly and among nurses, doctors and general practitioners.
There is an absolute sense of there being a lack of governance within the health system. No one seems to know who is in charge or what lies ahead for staff. I am not just talking about the health service plan but about genuine fear and worry. No matter where one goes, from elective hospitals, hospitals with specific remits, such as orthopaedic hospitals, and major acute tertiary hospitals to community care environments, mental health care settings and residential settings for the elderly in the primary care sector, morale is at rock bottom because of Government policy. I refer not only to policy but to the real sense that everybody in the Government is dumping on the staff. There is absolutely no appreciation for what nurses, doctors, care assistants and staff working in the clerical grades are actually doing in the health system.
There is a need for more substantial dialogue between the Minister and those who work in the health service than we have witnessed to date. This is why I have asked what social partners the Taoiseach has met. Instead of launching initiatives, which I understand the Taoiseach must do because he is asked to do so, he should set it as a target for himself to meet staff working at the coalface in the health service. He should listen to their stories about their belief that the position is untenable and that the centre cannot hold. If there is another cut of €660 million this year, it will simply compromise patient safety and put people on the front line under enormous pressure. That is the reality of the matter. There is an urgent need for stronger engagement with all those who work in the health service. The Government should listen to them and respond meaningfully by way of a proper approach to health care policy.
As I stated, responsible Ministers and the various agencies that are answerable to them have primary engagement with the social partners, and they meet very regularly. We value those discussions. I take the Deputy's point that there is clearly a need for a discussion on many issues but I do not get much chance, given my job, to do as the Deputy desires. Yesterday, however, I was in Mayo General Hospital, a level 3 hospital, to open the renal dialysis unit. I had the privilege of opening the original section in 1995. Since people had to travel to University Hospital Galway, it was necessary to open further stations and isolation rooms for people with particular blood conditions. A revamp worth €2 million was carried out on the original renal dialysis unit and there are now 15 stations. The director of the unit and her staff moved out of the hospital to a temporary location for 12 months. All their patients, who are regular visitors for dialysis, were dealt with at the alternative location. It was never a union issue and it was never stated the move would not be possible. The staff moved last Friday to an absolutely brilliant, wonderful facility with ultra-modern equipment. They are so happy about that. The morale of the dialysis team in the hospital was exceptionally strong.
I had the privilege of turning the sod for the cystic fibrosis unit at the hospital. As the Deputy knows, one in 19 people in Ireland carries the cystic fibrosis gene. Cystic fibrosis is a debilitative genetic ailment that lasts a lifetime. The Pollock report of 2005, of which the Deputy will be very much aware, clearly indicated that treatments that are separate from those in a general hospital, thus ensuring no danger of cross-infection, improve the longevity of patients and the quality of their lives. The point I am making is that the morale of those who work with the cystic fibrosis unit in the hospital was actually responsible for the raising of almost €1 million in the past five or six years. While some funds were contributed by the Department of Health and Mayo General Hospital itself, the majority of the funding was raised by Cystic Fibrosis Ireland and Cystic Fibrosis West. They were absolutely focused on what they could do. When the Deputy asks whether I meet people, the answer is that I do so regularly. The question of morale and the provision of facilities is accounted for.
The health service plan will be published tomorrow. It has been finalised and it will deal with the provision of health services arising from the budget for 2014. Where are we headed? Obviously, a central part of the programme for Government is the development of universal health insurance. A first part of that is medical and free GP cards for those under six. The legislation in that regard is now being prepared.
I agree that there are elements that we need to examine. Why is it necessary to submit details on every occasion if one attends a unit five times per fortnight? We need to make a decision on the system we need to work on in terms of digital capacity. There is so much time to be saved and efficiency to be gained. There is so much real-time movement in major and smaller hospitals. The Minister has appointed some really focused people in the HSE to work on areas where we can make real improvements. As Deputy Martin knows as a former Minister responsible for health, it is ultimately a question of outcomes for patients and the quality of their lives.
What I saw yesterday, which I acknowledge was in my county, was the quite exceptional commitment of front-line staff in the areas of haemodialysis, renal dialysis and cystic fibrosis. Despite the fact that the staff of the dialysis unit had to move location and make extra journeys for sheets etc., there was never a complaint. There was never a compliant as it was said the changes were leading to better facilities for everybody. The Deputy would be very heartened if he saw the quality, space and engagement and the separation rooms for people with blood complications.
I do not disagree at all that there is need for discussion and identifying how problems can be ironed out and decided upon. I acknowledge that the forest that grew up around the HSE and health service over the years became impenetrable in many cases, and that it requires not only discussion but a decision on how efficiencies can be achieved and where savings can be made that result in better outcomes for patients. From that perspective, I do not disagree with the Deputy. However, we have moved away from the formalised structure of the past. Ministers who appear before Cabinet committees refer to their discussions with the social partners in respect of their respective areas of responsibility. This is a good way of ensuring central reporting where more than one Minister is involved and, eventually, reporting to the Cabinet. I am open to occasional engagement with people when they really want to say something directly to me as Taoiseach.
I am sure we are all very pleased that Mayo has dialysis services. I am heartened to hear about the cystic fibrosis unit. I join the Taoiseach in commending the work of Cystic Fibrosis Ireland and Cystic Fibrosis West but it is none the less telling that their voluntary activities and very energetic fund-raising efforts by citizens are required to fund health services. The service plan will be published against a backdrop of promised cuts of €666 million in the health budget.
The Taoiseach stated line Ministers have specific responsibility for engagement with the social partners.
There is no structured, thought-out and co-ordinated system for dialogue, engagement and the generation of ideas and initiatives, which is a pity and a lost opportunity for the Government. That is not to say those who are not elected as legislators or elected to government should have a special position in calling Government policy, but there are representative organisations which can be of great assistance to the Government at a time of economic trauma in finding a pathway out of our difficulties. The Taoiseach made reference to engagements with the Small Firms Association, IBEC, unnamed farming organisations and the Construction Industry Federation, all of which is to the good. What, if any, engagement has he had with representatives of workers and the trade union movement? These are obvious omissions from the list he read.
I ask the Taoiseach to comment on a commitment given in respect of legislating for the right to engage in collective bargaining. At his party's Ard-Fheis the Tánaiste said the Government would begin the process of legislating "in the coming weeks" to give employees the right to engage in collective bargaining. He went on to say it was necessary to reform the current law on employees' right to engage in collective bargaining so as to ensure the State was in compliance with judgments from the European Court of Human Rights. Does the Taoiseach agree with the Tánaiste in this matter? Is this something he has discussed or intends to discuss with the social partners? Has the legislation been drafted and when can we expect it to be published?
I also bring to the Taoiseach's attention to the specific set of circumstances that arose for workers at Marks & Spencer. He is probably aware that Marks & Spencer stores closed across Ireland recently owing to strike action taken by 2,000 employees in response to unilateral changes made by the company to their pensions and other working conditions. Further strike action was averted following the issuing of a Labour Court recommendation last Friday which was recommended by the Mandate trade union. Very serious issues arose in this dispute. Marks & Spencer has closed a defined benefit pension scheme unilaterally. Management failed to engage positively with staff, despite the fact that, according to the union, the pension scheme is in surplus to the tune of €17 million. In addition to the pensions issue, the company is seeking a reduction in the Sunday and public holiday premium, the elimination of the Christmas bonus, which will sound familiar to the Taoiseach, and a reduction in the number of section managers.
I am sorry, Deputy, but we are not dealing with the issue of Marks & Spencer now.
I raise this specific case to make the general point to the Taoiseach that in instance after instance across the State we have seen circumstances arise where workers have been left extremely vulnerable. We have seen cases in some disputes where workers were left with no option but to lock themselves into their place of employment to assert their rights. I have heard it said many times in the course of the current economic disaster that employers or those with a vested interest - bad employers it must be said - would not wish to waste a good crisis or a good recession and are, in a very calculated way, seeking to run down the entitlements and rights of workers, as well as the morale of working people in the State. It is important for the Taoiseach not to take an ad hoc approach to engagement with worker representatives. His approach should be structured and, whatever about the role of line Departments, he should have direct lines of communication open to workers and their representative bodies.
The National Social and Economic Council, NESC, advises the Government on strategic issues of economic and social development. Has it reported to him on the impact of forced emigration and Government policy in that regard? Is that something on which he has received advice from it? Has he sought advice on this issue or does he intend to do so?
I know that the Deputy shares my view on facilities provided anywhere in the country which improve the lot of patients. On the issue raised, I have spoken to people who have needed dialysis three times a week for eight to ten years, many of whom live in my own county and who used to have to travel to Galway for such treatment. Taking traffic into account and so forth, they were spending eight or ten hours a day, three times a week in travelling and receiving treatment. For them it is a great bonus. The staff who look after them recognise that having a facility closer to home is much better for them. While the Department of Health made a substantial allocation in this case, the majority of the funding was raised by Cystic Fibrosis Ireland and Cystic Fibrosis West.
On the issue of line Ministers, if we were to go back to the structure that was in place previously, it would be an open invitation for anybody with an issue to go straight through the structure directly to the Taoiseach and members of the Government. It is important for Ministers to be able to engage regularly with the people for whom they have responsibility. I am not saying I am not accessible to such persons. For instance, the Minister for Finance, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, the Minister for Social Protection and the Minister for Education and Science meet on a regular basis with a very wide range of organisations and entities dealing with social issues. Before the last budget, there was a raft of engagements with organisations which had made pre-budget submissions. My Department co-ordinates engagement on the European semester process, Europe 2020 and the national reform programme, on which a submission must be made to the European Commission next April. We will have to engage with the relevant Ministers and organisations and channel the information back into our preparation of the submission.
There is no legislation dealing with collective bargaining. The Government is considering how best to deal with the commitment in the programme for Government to deal with the European position on the recognition of trade unions. The matter will be pursued. While I do not want to get into the details of the Marks & Spencer dispute, as I understand it, the defined benefit pension scheme was closed to new entrants a number of years ago. I am glad that the discussions taking place have resulted in the workers being able to go back to work and that the stores are not closed at one of the most important times of the year for retailers. When there were indications recently that a strike at the ESB was imminent, I was contacted by lots of employees of the company at various levels who were concerned about a potentially catastrophic outcome for the country. They expressed their concerns very strongly to me. It is not the case that I am being closed off from anybody.
The NESC has not prepared a report for me on emigration.
The NESC reports to me on strategic issues about the efficient development of the economy and the achievement of social justice. It also provides a forum for engagement between the Government and social partners on economic, social and environmental issues. It has now integrated sustainable development into its work following the dissolution of the organisation known as Comhar, the Sustainable Development Council. The NESC has provided successive Governments with excellent research and analysis on economic and social issues of significant importance nationally. Following a request from the Government in 2011, the NESC secretariat produced two reports on climate change, an interim report in June 2012, Towards A New National Climate Policy, and a final report, Ireland and the Climate Change Challenge: Connecting 'How Much' with 'How To' in December 2012. This develops a basis for Ireland’s long transition to a carbon-neutral economy and society. This document is having an important bearing on the national dairy sustainability programme recently launched by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Ireland is the first country to be able to track carbon footprint in the dairy industry, which will be particularly important when milk quotas go in 2015.
In 2012, the NESC published several important studies on maintaining quality and standards in important public services. Last May, it produced a report on the social dimensions of the economic crisis and the subsequent fiscal adjustments, the evidence and their implications. Last month, it produced a report, Ireland's Five Part Crisis, Five Years On: Deepening Reform and Institutional Innovation, which identifies the need to integrate and balance three different types of public sector reform for the provision of high quality services, continuous improvement and policy adaptation. The report strongly supports the need for a fiscal framework that would enhance stability, prevent excessive debt and support growth. Such a framework, it suggests would facilitate policy experimentation by providing reassurance that spending on innovative initiatives is not part of a general loss of fiscal discipline or accountability. The central challenge is to increase innovation and accountability at the front line and to build a supportive centre that is capable of spreading best practice, leading policy review and learning for the future.
The council’s report also identifies policy and institutional developments specific to four selected policy areas, namely small and medium enterprise finance and investment, enterprise policy, green economy and labour activation. On the latter point, the report warns there is a need to address skills mismatches in training programmes. The Minister for Social Protection has been strong on seeking far more employers dealing with the live register. On the five occasions I have visited an Intreo office with the Minister, I noted this was beginning to be understood. In other countries, the multinational sector employs significant numbers of young people for training and internships which gives them valuable work experience.
It is an important consideration to have this high quality research and advice available to the Government, particularly at a time of great economic challenge. I expect and want the NESC to continue with that. These matters identified by the NESC in its reports have crystallised the Government’s thinking in certain important areas. With 18 consecutive months of a fall in the live register, the focus of the Minister for Social Protection is to work with SOLAS, an tSeirbhís Oideachais Leanúnaigh agus Scileanna, and the youth guarantee on how to build on the Momentum programme and JobsPlus and JobBridge, both of which programmes received high commendations from the OECD.
It is in everyone’s interest that we have the best ideas coming from the political process and skilled advisers such as the NESC. It would be no skin off my nose if Deputy McDonald’s party or Deputy Martin’s gave me three job creation ideas. Getting people off the live register and providing them with meaningful job opportunities does not necessarily have to come exclusively from the Government.
Has the Taoiseach met the trade unions?
No, not formally.
The individual line Ministers meet the trade unions and all the other organisations on a regular basis.
He met IBEC and the Small Firms Association, however.
Through the Chair, please, Deputies.
I meet individual trade union people regularly in various places around the country but I have not formally met the trade unions.
The Taoiseach said the Government does not intend to go back to the previous model of social partnership. Social partnership was never more than a fraudulent concept by which big business and financiers were allowed rip-roaring profits - the fruits of speculation. It allowed for the gouging of young people on the property market but held wages to restrained limits. It was not a partnership in any sense.
It is telling that the Taoiseach formally met with the Irish Farmers Association, which represents the largest farmers and ranchers, the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, which represents the largest businesses, and the Construction Industry Federation, which represents the largest developers and construction bosses. Some members of these organisations have regular access to the Taoiseach’s office through the IFSC’s Clearing House Group. However, he never met the workers, the victims of the policies that he and the Labour Party have imposed for the past three years.
The Taoiseach might remember we are commemorating the centenary of the 1913 Lock-out when brave working men and women stood and fought for the rights of workers to organise and have a decent life. They were starved, abused, batoned and bullied by the organised employers, the police, the authorities and the big business media of the day, Independent Newspapers. Does the Taoiseach find it acceptable that 100 years later, employers are still not obliged to recognise a trade union in the workplace if the workers want a union to negotiate on their behalf? Does he intend to bring in a trade union recognition Bill? What is his schedule for this?
Does the Taoiseach find it acceptable that businesses that receive considerable amounts of money from public bodies, funded by the taxpayer, can routinely ignore the structured machinery of negotiation, such as the Labour Court, when workers or their representatives ask that they attend hearings on particular cases and grievances? For example, a group of workers at Milne Foods in Birr, County Offaly, have been undergoing a series of one-day strike actions for a considerable period, seeking decent wages and conditions. Workers in the plant who are parents and who have five, six and seven years of experience are still on the minimum wage or on wages marginally above it, yet this employer-----
I will just wait until the Taoiseach finishes his consultation with Deputy Bannon.
He is providing me with information about the Deputy.
Milne Foods provides essential supplies such as vegetables, potatoes and salads to HSE facilities such as Tullamore Hospital, which represents a big contract for the company. Does the Taoiseach find it acceptable that this company can then refuse to go to the Labour Court when requested to do so and when the workers and SIPTU, which represents them, want the company to do so? The HSE has informed me by letter that it believed the employer had done so, but as late as last Thursday the employer refused to show up. What kind of country is the Taoiseach presiding over when employers can ride roughshod over workers on such low pay and difficult conditions, even those that are on public contracts funded by the taxpayer?
The Government will honour its commitment in the programme for Government in so far as European matters about trade unions are concerned. The Deputy states that I met representatives of the Construction Industry Federation and the Irish Farmers' Association. I think this is true. Glanbia is investing more than €200 million in the single biggest agri-investment in the history of the State.
I have no problem with the Taoiseach's meeting those organisations, but he did not meet working people who are dealing with austerity.
The consequence of that investment is that there will be 2,500 jobs on family farms in a region from south Leinster right up to Louth. I met representatives of the Construction Industry Federation and I told them that, just as the cowboys had been weeded out of the agricultural sector 20 years ago, we needed a construction sector that was capable of efficiently delivering high-quality buildings and was trustworthy. Many members of that sector are capable of that. We have some brilliant examples of wonderful buildings, but we need to get to a point at which the sector can contribute far more successfully to the development of the Irish economy. Who are these people? They are tradesman, contractors, plasterers, bricklayers, blocklayers, electricians, chippies and whatever else. I meet them all the time. Part of the reason the Minister for Finance brought in a scheme for 2014 and the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources brought in the REFIT scheme was to allow ordinary registered and competent workers to do these works all over the country. When Irish Water begins its water metering programme, we will require a local social dividend in the form of numbers taken off the local live register. These people are ordinary workers and I meet them all the time. They are very happy to be engaged here.
I was at the EDI Centre in Longford with Deputy Bannon last week. He was delighted. I presented 18 certificates of competence to different tradespeople. Who were these people? They were blocklayers, plasterers and carpenters. They did a ten-month course on a range of matters related to heritage conservation. We have so many listed buildings, walls, cemeteries and castles, yet we have scant high-quality courses to allow tradespeople to qualify in these areas. They are ordinary workers. They want to be out there doing things and they did this course in Longford which provides them with a validation for these works from a Scottish entity. The Deputy should not assume that just because I stand in this position, I am removed from dealing with ordinary people who do extraordinary jobs all the time. We need to have more of them involved. The certificates were a recognition of the work that they did themselves, which also led to employment.
I do not know about the difficulties that apply in the firm in Birr, but clearly the facilities that are available to settle disputes are well tried and tested, and there are various opportunities to get involved in that.
The company's representatives will not go.
I do not know the details of the suppliers to the HSE and Tullamore Hospital that the Deputy mentions-----
They will not go.
-----but there are various ways of having that machinery implemented in a way that resolves disputes. Obviously the Haddington Road agreement speaks for itself, as the vast majority of public servants have accepted that process and have engaged in moving on as a country. We have had to deal with difficult and challenging times, but we also have the chance to expand our economy and have more people working, which will provide easier access to normal budgeting. The benefits of that will be translated to the different regions and to as many people as possible.
In answer to Deputy Martin, I listened to all these organisations and individuals who told me that here is an issue that should be reflected in government policy. I do not get it right all the time, but the intention is to have more and more people in gainful employment, building their careers and family lives, and this is all part of it. I have never been one not to engage with people, but it is important that the Ministers engage on a regular basis with as many organisations and individuals as possible, and they do. We did a lot of that in the run-up to the budget. During our Presidency of the Council of the European Union, people from all over the country were feeding into that system about the implications for their individual sectors.
A number of voluntary and community organisations and trade unions have made statements or published reports recently which stated that poverty and homelessness are worse than ever and that urgent action is needed. The Government has been very quick to engage with banks and developers.
The Government is even encouraging property speculation again with these real estate investment trusts, presumably to benefit some of the big corporate speculators. This is beginning to produce worrying signs of a new property bubble in Dublin and spiralling rents which are worsening the homelessness problem.
Will the Minister respond to the pleas of voluntary and community organisations and trade unionists for urgent action to deal with homelessness and poverty, two very closely related phenomena? I have raised this issue with the Taoiseach numerous times over the last two and a half years. Two years ago when the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, started to reduce the rent caps she said it would lead to downward pressure on rents. She and other Government spokespersons told us it would bring down rents. I said it would not, but that it would lead to homelessness. The Minister said nobody would be made homeless and that rents would fall. Now we know who was right. Homelessness has got worse: that is a fact. Rents are increasing: that is a fact.
Will the Government admit it got it wrong and do something about it, as voluntary and community organisations dealing with the homeless and those in poverty are begging it to do? They all say the Government needs to build council houses. It is simple. The Taoiseach said he wants good ideas. Like others in this House, I have repeatedly offered him a good idea. If he builds council houses in large numbers he will put builders back to work, generate extra revenue for the State and save money on social welfare and rent allowance payments that are going into the pockets of private landlords. It is a win, win, win situation. Surely now is the time to take up that suggestion against a background where the Government's policy in this matter has failed.
It is not just me saying this. All the organisations, such as Focus Ireland and Threshold, have told the Taoiseach he must build council houses, the policy is not working and the situation is getting worse. The Taoiseach will not listen to me, but will he listen to them? Will he recognise that he could do immense social good, remove a social evil, put large numbers of people back to work and save money for the State in the long run if he starts to build council houses again instead of leaving the property sector to corporate speculators who are moving in on a crashed market, buying up the empty properties and jacking up the rents? The evidence is clear and unbelievably, after the country was beggared by a property crash, a property bubble is beginning to emerge in Dublin again. Could anyone believe that history could repeat itself?
That is all very interesting but could the Deputy put down the question? Deputy Boyd Barrett asked if the Taoiseach had met the social partners.
It is about the social partners.
We are straying into the area of the environment and housing.
It is about the issues the social partners have raised. I am asking if the Taoiseach will respond to them.
There is nothing in the Taoiseach's reply to say he met the people Deputy Boyd Barrett is talking about.
I am asking him to listen to them in the process of social-----
Then put down a question that is more specific about the issue.
The Ceann Comhairle did not cut across any of the others.
They did not go on and on.
They did. They ranged into issues-----
All right, Deputy. You feel hard done by every day, so go on for goodness' sake.
The Ceann Comhairle did not cut across the others.
I am very sorry Deputy. I should not interrupt you.
The Ceann Comhairle is the boss.
Last week in the run up to Christmas a group of voluntary and community organisations, many of the same organisations and trade unionists, asked if the Government would consider restoring the Christmas bonus for social welfare recipients, the least well-off in our society and pensioners.
We are really going somewhere now.
Go on Ceann Comhairle. It is Christmas.
Given the hardship that many suffer in the face of Christmas with all the pressures and demands with which the Taoiseach is familiar, will the Taoiseach respond to that call? If he is serious about engaging with the social partners in a process of social dialogue, will he heed that appeal to make some gesture to reduce the burden of Christmas on the least well-off and most vulnerable in our society?
I would not want to have any inequality between Deputy Boyd Barrett and Deputy Healy. I answered this question last week. It is not possible to restore the Christmas bonus. It would cost €261 million and we do not have that money. It has been gone for a number of years and will not happen now. I listen to Deputy Boyd Barrett. I hear him. I listen to those organisations. The Minister of State with responsibility for housing and planning, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, is doing much work on the homeless and the housing situation. I expect her to report to a Cabinet committee in early January and I expect to engage with numbers of the voluntary organisations myself.
This is a serious issue. Nobody wants to see anybody on the streets. It is Government policy to eliminate homelessness in the next number of years. It is not easy to determine what social or family circumstances make this happen. I like to think we can have a social housing programme. There have always been some difficulties with some of the organisations. We used to have a system of council housing programs years ago. Some were very successful and some not.
In the Dublin area I do not accept that there is the explosion of a property bubble. This must be managed very carefully. The construction sector delivers only approximately 6% of GNP. That is much lower than most other European countries. I understand that in the greater Dublin area permission has been issued for approximately 15,000 to 20,000 houses but they are not built because a good and competent contractor needs to be financed to develop a site, build the houses and have a stream of income coming through. That is an issue. Many construction jobs for ordinary workers could be generated were that to be put in place.
The Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan is working on this in terms of social housing. NAMA was to make 4,000 units available, which has not been concluded yet. There is a program and a commitment to see if we can deal with homelessness effectively and end it. It is a very sad time of year for people and I commend all the organisations which work in this area. At this morning's Cabinet meeting the Government approved substantial allocations to a number of voluntary agencies, such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which work with people who are, for one reason or another, underprivileged or caught out. I do not accept that we are facing a housing bubble as we had before. There is a shortage of housing. We need to build 20,000 to 25,000 houses per year. I know a number of smaller competent contractors who in the spring will start building numbers of units for which they have got permission and financial arrangements. I welcome that.
We have an interest in rent allowance and the new situation that will apply. This is part of the incentive of the reform of the social welfare system so that somebody who gets a job would not automatically lose his or her rent allowance. A transition system will be put in place. This is important to allow people to take up a job without losing all their benefits. This is an issue between the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Department of Social Protection.
There are complications in regard to access to information which I am trying to sort out. I expect to have a report on the issue early in January and hope we can move towards making it a reality in order that more people will see there is an opportunity for them to find work and take up a job without losing all of the rent allowance automatically. They will see a transition system put in place. The issue is slightly more complicated than people might have thought in the beginning, but I assure the Deputy I am working on it. I listen to the Deputy and others, as well as to the organisations. I will deal with the issue with the Minister early in the new year and hope to engage with a number of voluntary organisations. I hope in the broader sense that we will return to a programme, limited though it must be because of the financial arrangements required, that will start to deal with the problem.
In his reply the Taoiseach said he had met certain people. I seek clarity on whom he met. Will he confirm he has not met the ICTU formally as a body?
No, I have not.
Has he met SIPTU or Mandate?
The Taoiseach is clear that he does not want to return to the old partnership model, which is fine. Nonetheless, one of the biggest issues facing us which involves the social partners is pensions. ESB management, for example, did not cover itself in glory in how it approached the issue with workers, particularly how it managed the accounts and changed smartly from defined benefits to defined contributions, causing a potential difficulty for the economy. In other words, relationships between employers and trade unions are important, not just for themselves but also for the wider economic health of the country.
It seems significant that it has emerged today that the Taoiseach has not formally met the ICTU or significant bodies in the trade union movement. The issues in regard to Marks & Spencer and the ESB and the pensions issue are a time bomb of huge import for the economy, workers, employers and all of the rest of us. Sometimes, in the case of such big ticket items, it would be worthwhile for any Taoiseach to engage formally with the significant bodies that have a large coverage of members. A lack of such dialogue may seem great initially, but over time it can come back to bite in the context of fundamental issues that will present such as the pensions issue. We had such an issue last week at the Liebherr factory in Killarney. As a former Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, I am familiar with such problems. I recall having to ring SIPTU about the dangers and potential threats not only to the maintenance of existing jobs but also to new investments by the company. I put it to the Taoiseach that it is extremely important to have clear channels of dialogue open to senior leadership within the various sectors of the economy, be they trade unions, employers or others. It is a significant omission that this does not seem to be the case.
I do not know if it will be news to the Tánaiste that the Taoiseach is so lukewarm on the issue of legislating for collective bargaining rights. He has repeatedly referred to this issue as the European dimension of trade union activity. This is not about anything on mainland Europe but about the fact that workers in this jurisdiction do not enjoy collective bargaining rights as a legal entitlement. There is a clear commitment in the programme for Government to remedy this and the Tánaiste is on record recently as citing it as a must do item for the Government. He has at least given the impression that there is a sense of urgency attaching to the matter. I am very alarmed, therefore, to hear the Taoiseach's rather insipid response to the question I put to him. He has been in government for almost three years and it is a matter of some concern that he has not met the trade union leadership as representatives of the working people of the State, about whom he has a lot to say. Today he stated ESB employees were in touch with him recently. Why would they not have been? I would be shocked if they had not been. However, it is more shocking that he has had no connection or meeting with the ESB group of unions. That is the area in which he should be having conversations. It is good that he meets IBEC and the Small Firms Association. Unlike others, I do not have an issue with this. However, there is a big deficit when it comes to the unions. This raises a fundamental question about the Taoiseach's stewardship. He has not made it his business to meet representatives of the unions. I ask him to remedy this and ensure he meets them.
I ask the Taoiseach to be specific on this question. Will the Government introduce trade union recognition legislation to require employers to recognise and negotiate with workers in their places of employment who agree and move to set up a trade union?
The Government will honour and fulfil its commitment in the programme for Government in this matter. Deputy Micheál Martin mentioned the ESB. I was contacted by many ordinary workers in the ESB who certainly did not want to see a situation where electric power would be stopped and workers would be out on strike. I had no contact with the executive of the ESB or Mr. Ogle. Since my appointment as Taoiseach, I have met Mr. David Begg on a number of occasions. Deputy Micheál Martin raised the question of the plant in Killarney. This is a serious matter. I went through the plant once or twice. It is a major employer in County Kerry and has worldwide significance in terms of its product. The issue needs careful consideration.
If the Taoiseach kept the channels open with the ICTU and others, it would help.
I understand that and do not object to communication. However, I do not want to have a situation where the Taoiseach would be at the beck and call of the parties involved in every situation or where it became the Taoiseach's responsibility to meet all of them. We need to have the capacity to have the channels open but not on every issue that might arise.
The lights going out is a big issue.
When I was talking about Irish Water, Deputy Mary Lou McDonald spoke about my honeyed rhetoric. I thought she was going to say it was flowing, but she did not. Now she says it is insipid. I doubt if anything I do would be acceptable to her party. However, it is Christmas time and I will allow her comments to pass.