National Minimum Wage (Low Pay Commission) Bill 2015 [Seanad]: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to introduce the National Minimum Wage (Low Pay Commission) Bill 2015. Given the purpose of the Bill, it is also worth taking stock of the progress we are making more generally in terms of our economic recovery. Over 100,000 extra jobs have been created since the start of 2012, when the Government's Action Plan for Jobs was launched. The latest live register figures from the Central Statistics Office show that in the year to May 2015, the level of unemployment fell by 40,500 or 16.2%. The unemployment rate is now 9.8%. In the 12-month period to May 2015, there was an annual net increase in employment of over 40,000, bringing the total number in employment to 1,930,000.

Most of the increase in employment was in full-time employment, which increased by 52,000, while part-time employment fell by 2.4%. The long-term unemployment rate fell from 7.3% to 5.9%. Tax revenue has increased, primarily as a result of the improving economy, while the social welfare bill has fallen in line with falling levels of unemployment.

What these figures illustrate is the success of the Government's strategy of creating the conditions for job growth and helping people back to work, particularly decent work. The Action Plan for Jobs is accelerating Ireland's transition to a sustainable jobs-rich economy, while the Pathways to Work programme is ensuring that as many people as possible of those taking up work are from the live register. However, we still have a long way to go to ensure that every person in Ireland who wants a job can get a job, a goal this Government intends to achieve by 2018. I am also acutely aware that long-term unemployment levels, while heading in the right direction, are still far too high.

Now that the recovery is beginning to be felt, however, those in work quite reasonably feel that the economic recovery should be reflected in their wage packets. A return to wage bargaining is visible in many sectors of the economy, and IBEC's recent pay survey found that 57% of companies plan to increase basic pay this year. According to that survey, the median pay increase is set to be 2%, and other surveys suggest that this figure may well be higher. So long as pay increases are commensurate with the performance of both the enterprise and the economy and do not hamper the emergence of job opportunities or have an impact on competitiveness either locally or internationally, then such increases can only benefit the economy and strengthen domestic demand.

The national minimum wage in Ireland is relatively high by international standards. Bearing in mind that social transfers differ from country to country, and also taking the cost of living into account, Ireland's rate is the sixth highest among the 22 EU member states that have a national minimum wage. The most recent figures from the Central Statistics Office show that just under 4.4% of all employees were being paid the adult experienced national minimum wage of €8.65 per hour, or sub-minimum, in quarter 4 of 2014.

As it stands, under the provisions of the National Minimum Wage Act 2000, the national minimum wage can be adjusted by ministerial order in the following ways: following a recommendation in a national agreement; in the absence of such a recommendation, following an examination and recommendation by the Labour Court on foot of a request by a substantially representative organisation of employees or employers; or unilaterally by the Minister, whether or not a recommendation under section 12 or 13 has been made. The ESRI, in its 2006 analysis of the last Labour Court recommendation, concluded that adjusting the minimum wage by a substantial amount on an irregular basis, with lengthy gaps between increases, is more likely to have a detrimental impact on employment and contribute to uncertainty for employers and actual and potential employees than more regular and, therefore, smaller and fairly predictable up-ratings. For this reason, a significant benefit of the new approach provided for in this Bill is that minimum wage rates will be assessed annually and any adjustments in future will be incremental and less disruptive for business than the steps seen in the past.

Making work pay continues to be a cornerstone of this Government's agenda, and setting up the Low Pay Commission is one of the key commitments in the statement of Government priorities agreed in July last year. The commission was launched last February, chaired by Dr. Donal de Buitléir, and is currently operating on an interim, non-statutory basis. It has sought and received submissions, which are currently being considered, and I expect its first report by the middle of July.

The Low Pay Commission is a nine-member body comprising an independent chair, three members with an understanding of the interests of low-paid workers, three members with an understanding of the interests of employers, particularly SMEs and those operating in traditionally low-paid sectors, and two members with relevant academic backgrounds. The duties and functions of the Low Pay Commission will be, on an annual basis, to examine and make recommendations to the Minister of the day on the national minimum wage that are designed to assist as many low-paid workers as is reasonably practicable, in such a way that the minimum wage, over time, is progressively and incrementally increased, having regard to changes in earnings, productivity, overall competitiveness and the likely impact any adjustment will have on employment and unemployment levels.

Alongside examining the national minimum wage, the commission will also be tasked with examining matters related generally to its functions under the Act, and it will be asked to undertake a considerable body of work each year. The Bill provides that the commission can be requested to examine a particular matter within two months of its establishment in 2015. In future years, such requests will be made to the commission by the end of February each year.

The commission will be statutorily independent in the performance of its functions. While it is not provided for in the Bill, it is intended that it will adopt a consensus-based approach to its reports and recommendations. In discharging its function, the commission will be required to ensure that any advice or set of recommendations it makes to the Government is evidence-based, utilising agreed data, carrying out research and consultations with employers, workers and their representatives, and taking written and oral evidence from a wide range of organisations. Alongside this hard data, the commission will consult with workers and employers who are directly affected by the national minimum wage. This real, lived experience will be vital for the commissioners when deciding on what the minimum wage rate recommendation should be. I am aware that the commission, as part of its current deliberations, has engaged directly on a face-to-face basis with employer and worker interests. This approach draws on that adopted in the UK, where, since 1997, the recommendations of the UK Low Pay Commission have brought about a progressive increase of the minimum wage that has had little detrimental effect on the functioning of the economy or the labour market.

Work should always pay. However, I am also conscious of the need to balance a basic statutory minimum pay rate that is fair with one that is sustainable and that allows employers to continue to create high-quality jobs. The changes proposed in establishing the Low Pay Commission on a statutory basis are essentially taking much of the politics out of setting the national minimum wage. It is very much in keeping with the dignity of work agenda I am pursuing, and complements work such as the study on zero-hour and low-hour contracts by the University of Limerick, which I have commissioned.

I would like to briefly outline the purpose of each section of the Bill. Section 1 defines the "Principal Act" as meaning the National Minimum Wage Act 2000. Section 2 amends the principal Act to provide for the insertion of a number of relevant definitions in that Act. Section 3 provides for the establishment of the Low Pay Commission and specifies that the commission will be independent in the performance of its functions.

Section 4 outlines the duty of the commission and, in this regard, provides that the commission will be required to make such recommendations regarding the national minimum hourly rate of pay that are designed to set a minimum wage that assists as many low-paid workers as is reasonably practicable, is both fair and sustainable, is adjusted incrementally, where adjustment is appropriate, and, over time, is progressively increased. All of this should be done without creating significant adverse consequences for employment or competitiveness.

Section 5 provides for the functions of the commission. In this context, the commission will be required to examine the national minimum hourly rate of pay and make a recommendation and a report on the issue by 15 July each year. This section also sets out the range of economic factors that the commission is required to take into account when making a recommendation, including changes in earnings, currency exchange rates and income distribution in the period since the previous minimum wage order; whether, during that period, unemployment, employment and productivity have been increasing or decreasing, both generally and in the sectors most affected by the making of an order; international comparisons, particularly with Great Britain and Northern Ireland; the need for job creation; and the likely effect that any proposed order will have on levels of employment and unemployment, the cost of living and national competitiveness.

Section 5 also provides that the commission may be requested by the Minister to examine and report on matters related generally to the functions of the commission under the Act. In addition, the commission will be required to report every three years on the general operation of the Act. The commission will be required to consult with employers and employees when preparing reports under section 5. A copy of each report and recommendation submitted by the commission will be laid before each House of the Oireachtas.

Section 6 provides that the Minister shall, within three months of receiving a recommendation from the commission in regard to the national minimum hourly rate of pay, make an order in the terms recommended, make an order in other terms, or decline to make an order. The Minister will be required to lay a statement before both Houses of the Oireachtas setting out the basis for any rejection or variation of a recommendation. If the commission fails to make a recommendation on the national minimum hourly rate, the Minister may, having had regard to the economic factors specified in the legislation, make an order in regard to the matter.

Section 7 provides that the Minister shall advance to the commission out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas such amount or amounts as the Minister may, with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, determine for the purposes of expenditure by the commission in the performance of its functions. Section 7 also provides that the Minister shall make available to the commission such officers of the Minister and reasonable facilities and services as the Minister, after consultation with the commission, may determine.

Section 8 provides for a number of technical amendments to the principal Act. Section 9 provides for the repeal of sections 11, 12 and 13 of the principal Act. Section 10 provides for the Short Title, collective citation and construction provisions of the Bill.

The new Schedule provides that the commission will be a nine-member body, comprising an independent chairman, three members who will have an understanding of the interests of low-paid workers, three members who will have an understanding of the interests of employers, in particular small to medium sized employers and those operating in traditionally low paid sectors, and two members who will have relevant knowledge or expertise in economics, labour market economics, statistics or employment law. The Schedule also provides that the Minister shall, in so far as is practicable, endeavour to ensure that among the members there is an equitable balance between men and women. The term of office of its members will be three years. Members may serve two consecutive terms of office and will be eligible for reappointment after a break. The Schedule also includes standard provisions dealing with resignation and termination, disqualification, remuneration and other terms and conditions of office, appearance by the chairman before a committee of either House of the Oireachtas and the regulation of its procedures by the commission.

As I have said, throughout the crisis the Government has been committed to maintaining and enhancing employment rights and protecting the most vulnerable workers. Where changes have been made or new legislation introduced, it has been to improve employment rights. On low pay alone, one of the first actions of this Government was to restore the minimum wage to the level it was at before the last Government cut it just before leaving office.

There is now general agreement that this year will be a good year for the economy, employment, those in lower paid jobs and industrial relations reform. Separately, the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Bill 2015 is progressing through this House. Deputies are aware that this important Bill provides for significant reforms to industrial relations machinery in the fields of registered employment agreements, sectoral employment orders and collective bargaining. We are determined to ensure that the economic recovery continues to strengthen, that employers hire more workers, as well as more full-time workers, and that the low paid, in particular, will share in a fair economic recovery. That is what this Bill is about. It about fixing a minimum wage that assists as many low paid workers as possible without threatening jobs or the economy. Setting up the Low Pay Commission is one of the most important policy initiatives taken by any Government in recent years. It is evidence of this Government's commitment to making dignity at work a reality.

I want to bring to the attention of the House my intention to introduce a number of amendments to the Workplace Relations Act 2015 on Report Stage of the Bill in the Dáil. As Deputies will be aware, my colleague, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, has been implementing a programme of reform of the State's employment rights and industrial relations procedures and institutions since 2012. The aim of this programme is to establish a world-class workplace relations service and employment rights framework by streamlining the existing mechanisms and establishing a simpler structure, while building upon the recognised strengths of the existing systems.

The relevant legislation, that is, the Workplace Relations Act 2015, was signed into law by the President on 20 May 2015. The Minister has announced that the Act will be commenced on 1 October 2015. It is a complex piece of legislation and its effect will be to replace the five existing workplace relations bodies with a new simplified two-tier structure. It will also result in the establishment of new structures for the resolution and adjudication of complaints and disputes across the entire corpus of employment rights and equality legislation. As a result of the introduction of these new structures it has been necessary to make consequential amendments to 24 primary Acts, 34 specified parts or sections of Acts and numerous statutory instruments.

As part of the very technical and complex drafting process, it became clear following the enactment of the Act that a number of technical and drafting amendments would be necessary in order to ensure the smooth running of the new structures. This became clear as certain technical legal elements were worked through. As a consequence, it is essential that these amendments be effected before the commencement of the legislation and the establishment of the new structures on 1 October 2015.

I refer to the amendments to Workplace Relations Act that are required. They include amendments to ensure that the transitional arrangements concerning the manner in which employment rights complaints referred to the existing workplace relations bodies for adjudication will be dealt with post-commencement of the Act are legally robust. This will require amendments to sections 1, 2, 28, 40, 41, 53, 74, 76, 80, 81, 83 and 84 of the Act. Consequential amendments to the Unfair Dismissals Acts are necessary to accurately provide for the new adjudication and redress mechanisms being introduced by the Act, as provided for in section 80 of the Act. Amendments are required in order to take account of the proposed replacement of references to the director of the Equality Tribunal in the Act of 1998 and the Act of 2000 with references to the director general of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC.

It will also be necessary to introduce an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act 2014 to ensure that the exemption from the legislation which currently applies to the Equality Tribunal, in so far as it relates to its mediation functions, will be extended to the WRC upon commencement of the Workplace Relations Act 2015. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, has agreed to the extension of the current exemption to ensure that it will cover records of the WRC mediation service, in so far as it applies to its functions regarding the resolution of complaints and disputes on a voluntary basis under equality and employment enactments. It is my intention to introduce these amendments on Report Stage of the Bill in the Dail.

During the crisis we remained committed to maintaining employment rights and protecting the most vulnerable. Our aim in government now is to continue towards a balanced economic recovery. That means jobs growth in the regions as well as Dublin. It means spreading the recovery to all socioeconomic groups, because there is no future for this economy and for our society unless we remain committed to these twin objectives, that is, to sustain the recovery and to share the benefits. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the introduction of this Bill. It is a significant development and the commission has the potential to be a significant improvement on the current system. The commission has major potential in this area and it should be afforded more. There is pressure on it to deliver its first recommendation, but I would like to see it examine areas such as the living wage because the debate on the minimum wage has moved on, as the Minister of State knows. He referred to dignity at work. The most important thing is that work pays, and people are rewarded for their work and treated fairly. A discussion on the living wage opens up many areas that the Low Pay Commission can take on board.

I welcome the fact that decisions on the minimum wage are, to a certain extent, being taken out of the political system and will be evidence based. As part of our preparation for this Bill, we met the UK Low Pay Commission and saw its work in action. I welcome, in particular, that the commissioners travel around the UK to meet businesses, employers and employees in the regions and learn directly how their decisions will impact on employees and employers. I hope that our commissioners will take that message on board and travel across the country.

While I accept the bona fides of the Minister of State, I note the submission from the Department of Finance on the national minimum wage warned of serious risks surrounding the increase in the national minimum wage. Its view was that any increase would reduce employment and put at risk gains made since 2008. It also wanted a system to allow the minimum wage to be reduced in the future. That was done once before and it was a mistake. It says more about the ethos of the troika, which insisted on that happening, that, as a body, it wanted to engage in social engineering rather than financial assistance. That should not be allowed to happen again under the new system. I would be interested in hearing the Minister of State's views on the Department of Finance submission, in particular as he has responsibility for employment and ensuring this does not happen.

Fianna Fáil made a number of recommendations in its submission to the Low Pay Commission. We sought to meet the commission but it told us it was not in a position to do so. It is ironic that we can meet the UK commission but not our own. I hope it is more open to meeting political parties and the various interest groups in its operation. I know it is under pressure to reach an early decision, but that is not a good way to do business.

Our submission calls for a 6.4% increase in the minimum wage, which would bring it to €9.20 an hour and represent an increase in gross pay of €1,115 per annum based on a 39 hour week. We feel the State, as a major employer, should lead the way in terms of a living wage. The remit of the commission should be expanded to begin work on defining what a living wage is and calculating the rates that need to be set to achieve this aim, and we will table amendments to this effect. On the basis of that work, the State, as a major employer, should seek to ensure that the people it employs, as well as those it employs indirectly, are paid the minimum wage.

There is a need to examine minimum wages across the country. Some cognisance should be taken of the fact that it is far more expensive to live and pay for day-to-day costs, such as transport, rent and housing, in some regions.

Given that we are putting the resources in place, the time has come to name and shame rogue employers who fail to adhere to the law and pay the minimum wage, disrespect their workers and treat them unfairly, as well as seek competitive advantage by getting around the minimum wage laws. It is time Revenue and other organisations kept a quarterly register of those employers prosecuted under the national minimum wage legislation. People will then know those companies playing with their workers’ lives and seeking competitive advantage.

The University of Limerick working group on zero-hour and low-hour contracts, established by the Minister of State, should be merged with the Low Pay Commission. The calibre of those in the working group is very good but the Low Pay Commission has day-to-day experience with thousands of employers and employees. It has the capacity, if given proper support, to carry on this agenda and to ensure the work under way at the University of Limerick does not end up in a cul-de-sac. An extension of the Low Pay Commission’s remit to examine zero-hour and low-hour contracts would be beneficial for everyone.

It should be recognised the Government doubled the cost of employers’ PRSI overnight. Doing so resulted in people losing their jobs because of the cost to employers. Employers’ PRSI contributions need to be reduced with a view to encouraging extra employment and ensuring it pays employers to take on people, particularly from the live register. Despite the various statistics the Minister of State read out, we still have a serious problem with long-term unemployment. The data show a cohort people stuck on the live register for two to three years. We need to put serious investment and effort into targeting those people and giving them training opportunities to prepare them for the workforce.

The Bill replaces the National Minimum Wage Act 2000. Over the intervening period, there were many increases in the minimum wage along with one decrease. I have already commented on the role of the troika in that decrease and have previously acknowledged it was a mistake. Now, there will be an annual research-based approach on the impact of the national minimum wage on employment and its relevance to people’s incomes and day-to-day living standards. This will ensure we have a backup in future.

I am concerned about the changes the Minister of State has announced to the Workplace Relations Act 2015. Original work began on this legislation in 2010 and it was in gestation for four years. Will the Minister of State provide us with a detailed briefing note on his proposed changes before he introduces them? It is not appropriate to introduce legislation in the way proposed. While I understand the rationale behind it, will he provide a detailed briefing note on the impact of these proposals to the legislation?

The Minister of State made the usual comments about everything being relatively rosy in his garden and about economic recovery. I acknowledge the growth in employment but the Minister of State threw in at the end that it is not regionally based. In many of our regions, the numbers in the labour force are falling. For example, the quarterly national household survey shows a drop in the Border, midlands and western region. The Government does not have a regional jobs policy. It has been pointed out for many years that the Government is allowing employment go to the large cities which, in turn, piles on accommodation and transport costs. These are many of the issues that lead to the problems that we have been trying to deal with over the past six years. Once again, we are at risk of repeating this.

The Government’s response is a regional jobs action plan, which it intends to publish over the summer recess. First, we will not have a chance to properly review it in the House. Second, the fact it is an any other business, AOB, item on the Government’s programme as it prepares to go into an election is an indication of how low down it is on its agenda. There needs to be serious engagement on the regional economies, not just some public relations blitz over the summer. He needs to ensure he works with IDA Ireland and that it takes the issue seriously. It is unacceptable that in 2014 only 37% of IDA Ireland site visits occurred outside of Dublin and Cork core. Those who want to set up small companies and create employment in their communities are still struggling to get finance and support from local enterprise offices and local Leader companies. A start-up company was in contact with and it has had to lay off staff because of difficulties in dealing with its local Leader company. This is repeated across the country.

This is happening in the absence of any regional jobs policy. The main thing in the Government's jobs action plan is that it is cross-departmental, involves all the pillars of government and everybody focuses on it. However, jobs are being lost and choked because of the inability of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to properly manage the Leader and rural enterprise programmes.

I predict these regional job action plans will be much smoke and mirrors with big public relations announcements but little substance. Will the Minister of State take it seriously? He cannot allow the country to develop a dependency on employment in the capital city, leaving the regions behind. He cannot allow the cost base for business to grow out of control because the Government is focusing growth in one part of the country. If he pursues this policy, talk of minimum and living wages will be irrelevant to many people across the country when they do not have the opportunity for employment.

Tacaíonn Sinn Féin leis an smaoineamh atá taobh thiar de An Coimisiún um Pá Íseal. Mar is eol do chách, tá géarchéim sa tír maidir le pá íseal agus daoine atá ag iarraidh a bheith ag obair go lán-aimseartha sa gheilleagar. Tá an ghéarchéim seo ag dul in olcas agus táimid ag bun an dréimire i gcomparáid lenár bpáirtnéirí thar timpeall na hEorpa.

Sinn Féin supports the establishment of a Low Pay Commission but wants it to be fit for purpose and ambitious for the results it seeks to achieve. The Labour Party's limp Low Pay Commission will not scratch the surface with regard to the damage done to this society over the past eight years. The Minister of State stated the commission has been modelled on its British counterpart. Alan Buckle, a senior adviser to the Labour Party in Britain and former deputy chairman and chief executive officer of KPMG, carried out a comprehensive report on low pay in Britain, published last year. In it he described the British commission:

[However], its role is short term and narrow. The current regime was designed in the 1990s to stop extreme low pay and abuse. Today the challenge is different, with millions of people earning just above the minimum but still living in poverty. This requires a broader and more ambitious strategy to tackle low pay.

The UK’s Resolution Foundation’s review of the future of the national minimum wage also found the role of the commission in Britain needs to change. The report’s first recommendation stated, “the government should make it an explicit long-term ambition of economic policy to reduce the incidence and persistence of low pay in the UK labour market” and that it should “broaden and elevate the body into the government’s official watchdog on low pay, monitoring and pushing progress in the manner of the Office for Budget Responsibility on fiscal policy.” The expert panel that completed this report was chaired by Professor George Bain, the founding chair of the Low Pay Commission in Britain.

These people, who have deep insight into the function of a low pay commission, when analysing how it worked in Britain over a period of time, came to the conclusion that the Low Pay Commission should be broadened and elevated. I and my colleagues in Sinn Féin have raised these reports with the Minister of State in the Seanad and at committee meetings, but he has refused to constructively engage with Sinn Féin, trade unions and NGOs on the recommendations contained within.

Britain’s experience offers us a real opportunity to construct a commission that is relevant and ambitious in its purpose. We do not have to reinvent the wheel. We can see what has been invented. It is as if we are inventing the calculator on this issue while Britain is inventing the iPad. What we are constructing is a generation behind our counterparts in the rest of Europe, who are realising the faults within it.

Ireland is at a crossroads, and while it is not politically opportune for Fine Gael or the Labour Party to acknowledge the scale of income and economic inequality in Ireland, the Minister of State has a responsibility to do so. He has excluded the provision of public services and social security as provided for under the International Labour Organization's minimum wage fixing convention as a consideration for the commission, and there is not even a fleeting reference to inequality or poverty, two major problems in Irish society. The Minister of State could have given the Low Pay Commission the role of watchdog on low pay and given its members the power to set targets to reduce low pay across a number of policy areas, but he chose not to do so.

In Britain it has been recommended that as part of its broader remit the Low Pay Commission should examine annually the effectiveness of policies to enforce the national minimum wage and make recommendations for improvement. Sinn Féin fully supports this proposal, and it is clear from other areas of employment law that enforcement is a massive and damaging problem.

In evidence to the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, the Migrant Rights Centre opined that focusing on extreme low pay is a restrictive approach, adding that the work of the commission should be far more ambitious. The organisation recommended that the Government set a goal for the elimination of low pay, that the remit of the Low Pay Commission be expanded so that it becomes a watchdog on low pay, and that it be given powers to set targets to reduce low pay across a number of policy areas.

The National Women’s Council also appeared before the committee and sought the extension of the work of the commission to have regard to gender equality and other equality factors as a named aspect in its deliberations, as are the cost of living, in-work poverty levels, quality of job creation and the social and economic impact of wage levels and the associated cost or benefit to the State.

The Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice highlighted its concern that people working a full week come home with a wage that does not meet their family’s minimum essential standard of living. It is very difficult to see members of a family carrying out a full week's work but not having the money to pay for accommodation, food, clothing, health and education. An economy built in this manner is an unfair economy. The Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice stated that it is difficult to see how the question of the adequacy of the national minimum wage cannot be part of the remit of the commission. It accepted that it is not the only consideration, and accepted the importance of employment, competitiveness and economic issues, but argued that adequacy must also be taken into account.

ICTU in its presentation described the omission of any reference to the median wage as surprising, given that when the national minimum wage was introduced it was recommended that it be set at two thirds of the median wage. It added that the median wage is the normal criterion against which national minimum wages are considered and set.

All of these contributions reflect some of the debate taking place in Britain on the shortfalls of the current Low Pay Commission, the model on which the Minister of State has based the Irish Low Pay Commission. The bottom line is that he has limited the work of the commission to advising on the setting of a national minimum wage, and it is impossible for us to fathom why this is the case.

High levels of low-paid, insecure work are now entrenched in the Irish labour market, and this type of work is seeping into non-traditional low-paid sectors such as journalism, health and legal services. Ireland has one of the highest rates of low pay in the OECD and of underemployment in the 28 EU member states. It is no accident, because the Government and the previous Government have focused on creating two competitive advantages: a tax break economy and inherent low wages. Sinn Féin has cried out over and over again that if we want a functioning and sustainable economy we need to look at competitive advantages in our infrastructure, education and health services. To focus on low wages and bargain basement tax opportunities is unsustainable and costly to our citizens.

A total of 60% of people on low pay are women, and 50% of women in Ireland earn €20,000 or less. These are shocking figures. Gross income inequality in Ireland is the highest in the EU before social transfers. The Government admits this and then lauds the fact that it has a social welfare system to try to beat this massive problem. The social welfare system is in effect providing a sizeable subsidy to employers with regard to pay. If these social welfare supports were to be pulled away, of course enormous damage would be done to employers, but it would also mean that employers would not be able to employ people on the wages they pay to carry out the work they do.

As TASC and others have extrapolated from significant domestic and EU-wide research, there are now structural deficiencies in Ireland and in the EU economy which, if left unchecked, will continue to result in wage dumping and stagnation. Squeezing wages will not deliver the growth we need and, more importantly, it will not tackle inequality or deliver the goods and services on which citizens rely. The Labour Party and Fine Gael’s low-pay, low-tax and high-cost economic model is not serving us well. Wage share as a percentage of national income has fallen in Ireland by roughly 20% in the past 30 years. This trend is replicated across the EU 15, and while the fall in some instances has not been as sharp, it is between 10% and 20%. Therefore, the proportion of people's wages as national income has been decreasing over the past 30 years. This trend has not gone into reverse under the watch of the Labour Party.

Recent research conducted by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies and presented to the TASC annual conference last week argues that, instead of allowing the continuation of wage moderation or dumping policies, we need to fundamentally rethink our economic policy. Wages are a driver of the economy, and if we do not tackle low pay, consumption will fall, private investment will not make up the shortfall and most of the positive effects of net exports will be wiped out. However, as the remit of the commission is constructed currently, it is not instructed to consider any of these matters. This makes no sense.

Ministers have claimed that establishing the Low Pay Commission pushes pay outside the realm of politics, which ensures that low pay issues stay front and centre in public debate and are never allowed to drift off the agenda. The Minister with responsibility for business and employment has said that the establishment of the commission essentially takes politics out of setting the minimum wage. This makes no sense to me.

I challenge anybody to stand in front of the electorate in the upcoming election and state that low pay is outside the basis of political debate and is not a political issue. I challenge the Minister of State to stand in front of the people at the next election and say to them that if he is re-elected, he will ensure that he has a hands-off attitude with regard to low pay and it will not be directly in the political debate. Setting the national minimum wage is a political decision underpinned by the fact that the Bill itself provides that the Minister can accept, reject or vary the recommendations of the commission. The Government’s use of State-sponsored bodies as a mechanism by which to wash its hands of responsibility for policy and political decisions is completely disingenuous and fools nobody.

We need to be ambitious for what the Low Pay Commission can achieve and we need to draw from the existing wealth of expertise and research available on how we can meet this objective. As the Alan Buckle report notes, in advance of the national minimum wage being introduced, warnings of huge job losses proved false, and most businesses now see the minimum wage as integral to protecting them from being undercut by those competing with extreme low wages. It is also important to realise that we are living on a planet that has seen massive change in wage equality issues, with 1% of the population now having almost the same level of income as the poorest half of the population. We live in a country where wage inequality is strongly and radically different from what it was in the country in which I was born in the 1970s. It is not business as usual with this issue and it is not simply the left and right having a barney over what wage should be set. This is an issue on which nobody, regardless of his or place on the political spectrum, should shirk responsibility in dealing with the catastrophe that is the low wage economy that has become embedded in society.

There is also a strong business case for expanding the remit of the commission to consider low pay, zero-hour contracts and the introduction of a living wage, as well as working towards a higher skill, higher wage economy. Tackling low pay is good for society and for the economy; it is good for people and business, and it is also good for the Government's finances. Limiting the debate, policy and political agenda to a discussion solely on the minimum wage is a wasted opportunity for the Government.

The Minister of State made a number of references to the general state of the economy but the truth is that emigration has made a far larger impact on the unemployment figures in this country than any Government policy from the past four years. There are between 80,000 and 90,000 people "employed" in job activation schemes, and these individuals are not getting the proper compensation for the jobs they do. The figures mask the reality and Ireland is still in a jobs crisis. We have seen the development of a two-tier Irish society with respect to wages and poverty, for example. We also live in a two-tier society in a geographical sense, as outside the M50 many people can only read about so-called growth and consume it through the media. The south west has seen a fall in the number of people employed and the Border region is still in significant recession. If we consider this from an age perspective, we are still seeing falls in the numbers of young people employed.

There is a major opportunity in this economy but the Government has not pursued it. On numerous occasions I suggested to the Minister that there must be a radical approach to e-commerce, as billions of euro are flowing out of the economy because retail is migrating towards e-commerce. Nevertheless, most Irish retail is not ready for e-commerce. The issue will worsen if the Government does not take radical action.

I make an appeal to the Minister. Instead of writing pre-election scripts and bringing them to Leinster House, he should take cognisance of the deep and damaging scenario that we have in this country with regard to unemployment and entrenched low pay. Instead of developing a limp Low Pay Commission, the Government should have ambition for the opportunities that the Minister could have. I have said it before and will repeat it that the Minister may not have another crack at this, and it may be the last opportunity he has to address this significant problem and build on to the Low Pay Commission the ability to focus on all aspects of low pay and public services, which have a phenomenal impact on people's purchasing power. It is not too late to make those changes. We will present our amendments on Committee Stage and I urge the Minister to close his ears to Fine Gael backbenchers and open them to the plight of those on low pay.

The next slot is to be shared by Deputies Paul Murphy, Ruth Coppinger, Mick Wallace, Clare Daly, Thomas Pringle and Richard Boyd Barrett. They each have five minutes.

The approach of the Government on the low pay issue was well encapsulated by the Taoiseach's "L'Oréal" moment at the launch of the Low Pay Commission when he was asked if he was worth his €185,000 salary. He declared that he was very much worth it. The approach of the Government is to set up this Low Pay Commission, express some concern about the crisis of low pay and wage inequality in society and then hive it off to a supposedly non-political body while standing over and continuing the drive of basing the recovery on a model of low pay and poor working conditions.

We have a crisis of low pay in this country and the second highest rate of low pay within the OECD. Average wages fell again in the course of last year, according to the Central Statistics Office, despite the much vaunted recovery. Together with this is a crisis of working conditions, which has been highlighted most graphically with the Dunnes Stores dispute, with workers being treated like they were on 19th century docks. The employer has complete control of hours worked and wages earned, etc., and this is used as a means to gain submission from workers, who can be punished for going on strike. We also saw the callous way in which the Clerys workers have been treated, thrown aside by an employer which was legally allowed to do so, with the previous employer walking away with a large amount of money. This is linked to the model of recovery taking place and the nature of work that is changing in this economy. The fact that the commission is solely focused on the question of low pay means it is missing a very important issue.

There were 272,000 fewer full-time jobs in the economy in 2014 compared with 2008, or a 15% drop in full-time jobs. At the same time, there are 55,700 more part-time jobs in the economy, a 14% rise, which speaks to the fact that previously reasonably secure and perhaps unionised or reasonably well-paid full-time positions have been replaced with a so-called jobs recovery made up of part-time, unsecure, un-unionised work, which may include zero-hour or low-hour contracts and precarious conditions, with workers subject to gross exploitation. That is not accidental and the Government cannot just wash its hands by saying it will have a Low Pay Commission to consider the low pay issue. The Government has actively promoted that model of recovery; it consists of low pay, zero-hour contracts and extra profitability for employers. We are a low wage but high profit economy.

A key method of the Government, which should be examined by the Low Pay Commission, is the use of so-called job activation programmes. These are the likes of JobBridge, Gateway, Tús, First Steps or whatever new name is formulated to try to rebrand people working for free, with employers getting free work in the public or private sector and people just receiving the dole and a very small extra payment of €1 or slightly more per hour.

That is in itself gross exploitation of those people, who in many cases are forced to work for free, with the threat of losing their dole, or a portion of it, hanging over their heads if they do not agree to work. It also drives down wages and conditions across the economy, because employers can use free labour, rather than paying people to work, and may use that against other workers. The Low Pay Commission should investigate the role of those so-called job activation programmes in pushing down wages across the economy.

I want to draw particular attention to one submission to the Low Pay Commission. IBEC has said it does not see any reason to favour an increase in the minimum wage but the Department of Finance has effectively said the same thing. This is an incredible situation, where one Department has made a submission to a body set up by the Government, supposedly to look at an increase in the minimum wage, and it argues that an increase in the minimum wage above the market clearing wage is likely to reduce employment. That is based on very few empirical studies. The vast majority of such studies give no evidence for that. It then argues that, in principle, this suggests that adjustment of the minimum wage should be symmetric and allow for consideration of a reduction in the rate in response to a shock to demand or a sudden loss in competitiveness. The fact that the Department of Finance made a submission potentially arguing for a reduction in the minimum wage sums up the Government's approach.

A year ago in this Chamber, the Tánaiste was being enthroned as the new Labour Party leader and Tánaiste and she promised a Low Pay Commission. It is very difficult to take that seriously when on one hand she is setting up a Low Pay Commission, and then this very week she is launching large-scale attacks on low-paid workers, mainly women, mothers who work part-time, through the one-parent family cuts. These are the low-paid women who get up early in the morning and clean our floors and offices, care for our relatives and who serve our coffee in Starbucks and elsewhere. It is women who are concentrated in the low-paid, casual sector, in the main, due to child care responsibilities. The opposition building up to the Tánaiste's cuts and the fact that she is launching a Low Pay Commission when she is attacking low-paid workers must be registered.

We do not need a Low Pay Commission. There are no low-paid people on the commission, by the way. We have two union representatives, a representative from the Migrant Rights Centre, which is good, and we have academics. However, they are outnumbered by chief executives and company directors. There is already in-built discrimination in the body fighting for the low-paid. We have the CEO of Maxol. I wonder what he will have to contribute about low pay.

Ireland is scourged with low pay. Around 20% of workers earn less than two thirds of the average wage, which is one of the highest rates of low pay in the European Union. Ireland's minimum wage is only 75% of what is calculated to be a living wage, which is calculated at €11.45 an hour with which people would not be throwing many parties. If the Tánaiste really wants to stop low pay, the first thing she should introduce is an increase of €2.80 an hour to bring it up to a living wage at least for the few who are on it. If our minimum wage were nearer to a living wage, €1 billion more could be spent in the local economy, because it is obviously spent by people who live and work here. It would be a huge stimulus after the recession.

Income inequality is particularly hard-hitting in Ireland because our public services are inadequate compared to those enjoyed by other European countries. We have high fees for GPs and emergency department visits, child care costs and school book costs, which other European countries would not have. The cost of living is 20% higher here than the European average. Leaving aside the tax and social welfare systems, income inequality is among the highest in the OECD. Governments must then use social welfare to subsidise employers and this inequality through mechanisms like the family income supplement, which renders the attack on lone parents even more reprehensible. The inequality in society is growing. It is obvious and it is well-known, which is why there is a movement against austerity right now.

The top 10% in Ireland take one third of all income, which is up from 27% in the 1970s, so the bottom 90% have 66% of income. This is a global pattern. We see the shocking statistic from Oxfam that 80 people have the same amount of wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion on the planet. That is an obscenity, which cries out for the system to be changed. In the cradle of capitalism, the USA, one would imagine minimum wages would be much worse than ours. However, there is a movement of low-paid workers in America - fast-food workers, migrant workers and female workers - who are winning pay increases, without parliamentary commissions, because it is not generally commissions and governments that grant these things. I was recently in Seattle, which has established a minimum wage of $15 an hour. That is much higher than even the living wage I called for. It is not just in Seattle. It has set a precedent for other states. Los Angeles is now also adopting a $15 an hour minimum wage. That means that companies like McDonald's have to pay workers $15 an hour, but they can pay them much less in Europe, which is quite amazing when one considers how the balance has shifted. Even presidential candidates running in next year's presidential elections are raising the idea of a $15 an hour minimum wage in the US. We can see how far the Labour Party has fallen when we have €9 an hour, which is much less, despite having similar costs. We do not need a Low Pay Commission. It is a waste of money. It is obvious that workers need a pay rise.

Ireland is the only EU15 country that has frozen the national minimum wage since 2007, which is eight years ago now. The idea of a Low Pay Commission is welcome, but I have the feeling that its recommendations are likely to be unimpressive and if the neoliberal agenda and austerity measures introduced by the last two Governments are not seriously scaled back, it will take more than a rise in the minimum wage to stop the march of rising inequality in Ireland. In the proposed Bill, it is stated that when making a recommendation on a national minimum hourly rate of pay, the effects of any proposed order on the cost of living will be taken into account. It is highly instructive as to the Government's framing of how the Low Pay Commission will work that there is no mention whatsoever in the Bill of taking into account the cost of living when making a determination as to what the new national minimum wage should be.

On top of this, the Government has done next to nothing to address the fact that we have one of the most inadequate universal public service systems in Europe, along with a cost of living that is 20% higher than the EU average. Instead of improving public services and investing in networks of the State so that we can continue to provide funding for social goods, this Government has engaged in the fire sale of national assets and investments through the medium of NAMA, IBRC and State-owned banks. It has attacked the social welfare system that is one of the last barriers to abject poverty for so many people and proposed tax cuts that will overwhelmingly benefit the highest-income earners. To quote Tom Healy of the Nevin Economic Research Institute,

I suggest that we are wary of politicians, commentators and economists who come to our TV screens offering treats of ‘more money in your pocket’ through tax cuts. We might ask them to price these tax cuts in public service forgone, community health centres not opened, public transport not invested in, quality and affordable childcare not provided.

Last Friday, the Tánaiste told an audience in the Croke Park conference centre that not having a job or losing a job is the root cause of inequality. This is a strange way to view the problem of inequality, which does not have a single root cause. It has multiple root causes, which create inequalities of outcome that contribute to worsening inequality of opportunity. Many people in Ireland work and are still poor. This is due to many factors. First, there has been no Government policy to tackle the problem of low pay. More than 20% of people in employment earn less than two thirds of the average wage. This is one of the highest rates in Europe. Members of Fine Gael have uttered the phrase "living wage" just three times in this Chamber, twice in response to someone else bringing up the issue.

In Scotland, the government has been paying all of its staff above the level of the living wage for some time. More than 200 Scotland-based employers display the living wage accreditation mark, and they are on target to have more than 500 companies on board by March 2016. The living wage is an hourly rate that is set independently and updated annually. Employers choose to pay the living wage on a voluntary basis, while the national minimum wage is statutory and enforced by Revenue and Customs.

Instead of doing something as meaningful as this that brings the issue of low pay to the forefront of the national conversation, the Government is promising to have a discussion about the minimum wage as long as it does not jar with any of the rules of neoliberal economics, namely, that any recommendations by the commission should be made "without creating significant adverse consequences for employment or competitiveness." Globalisation, neoliberalism, the dismantling of international trade barriers, the rise of big business and the power of markets, and the consequent pressure put on countries to be internationally competitive, have led Europe from the golden age of economic stability and household income equality of the 1950s and 1960s to a situation in which, according to the French legal scholar Dr. Alain Supiot, "the problem is not that of adapting the economy to the needs of human beings, but rather the reverse - adapting human beings to the needs of markets, and especially to the needs of financial markets, which supposedly create harmony by making self-interest the basis for all human activity." This position is one that fails to recognise that there is no wealth other than human beings and that an economy that ill-treats them has little future.

It is almost embarrassing to be standing here discussing this measure. It is probably fair to say that if James Connolly was not already worn out from turning in his grave, he would be going into a massive tailspin. Let us face it: this is a cosmetic exercise, a pretence at dealing with the reality of poverty experienced by workers in this country that sees half of the population on earnings of less than €27,000. Whether a person on such a wage is fortunate - or unfortunate - enough to have a mortgage or is renting accommodation, the average price of a unit will be €1,200, and almost half of his or her earnings will go on accommodation costs. The backdrop to this discussion is that in 2013, Ireland had the second highest percentage of low-paid jobs across its labour force in the OECD. Michael Taft has stated that workers in hospitality and retail, two of the lowest-paid sectors in the economy, would need a 20% increase to reach the average paid in central European countries. We are not even talking about doing anything as dramatic or radical as that. This is merely tinkering at the edges. It is a pretence at doing something after a Dáil term when nothing has really happened other than the expansion of a gulf between those at the bottom, those in the middle and those at the top of Irish society.

We are told that, under the provisions of this Bill, as many low-paid workers as is reasonably practicable will be assisted by the Low Pay Commission. What does "reasonably practicable" mean? According to the Bill, it means that the wages of low-paid workers will be incrementally increased as long as those increases do not have adverse consequences for national competitiveness and as long as increasing the wages of workers who earn approximately €18,000 before tax - if they are lucky enough to be in a full-time job, which, obviously, most of them are not - does not have an impact on productivity. We must look at those low level of wages in terms not only of the amount but of the society that we live in, the utter decimation of the social wage and the non-existent public services in Ireland, which means one must pay out of one's wages for health care, education and parking, even if one must visit a relative in a hospital or shop on a main street. Instead, we are talking about considering wages in the context of national competitiveness. I support the call of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to consider these issues in the context of a living wage, much more so than what is being proposed here.

The race to the bottom in Irish society is not accidental. It is a deliberate product of neoliberalism. What is missing from this Bill is almost as telling as what is in it. Other points have been made that the cost of living will be increased, but at the same time it is not enough.

We need to look at issues such as quality of life, precarious employment, employment conditions, public services and unpaid care work, not only for low-paid workers but for everybody. We need an examination of what is going on in the workplace across this country. There is not one mention anywhere of the idea of a living wage. We live in a country where 60% of pilots in one of our biggest airlines are on zero-hour contracts, where Dunnes Stores workers have been fired in retaliation for going out on strike and where the entire staff of Clerys lost their jobs overnight two weeks ago. We are talking about low pay, but we are not really delivering on any of these issues because the discussion is taking place within the confines of neoliberalism and we are dressing it up as measures to address inequality. However, in reality, when we confirm that premise, we cannot address it.

I will finish with correspondence I received from a worker in Ryanair. I suppose he is one of the fortunate ones who has a job. Indeed, he is not so fortunate. He states that on a daily basis he and his co-workers are disgustingly exploited and that every month his duty plan shows that his ground hours exceed flight hours, the only kind of hours for which he gets paid, by at least 30 hours. He states that if they get sick they do not get a penny, that the company does not provide them with any kind of pension or health insurance whatsoever, and that if they get fired they will not get a cent either - in fact, they will be lucky if they do not have to pay for the privilege. Those are the issues that we need to be seriously addressing, rather than implementing cosmetic stunts in the run-up to an election.

This Bill formally establishes the Low Pay Commission in the legal sense. The commission is tasked with making annual recommendations to the Government which it considers appropriate on the level of the minimum wage and so-called "related matters". The commission has been up and running for the past number of months.

I note from the press release when the commission was established that, according to its terms of reference, it was to look at the changes in earnings since the minimum wage was last increased in 2011. This is interesting because I thought it had been restored. The last increase in the national minimum wage was in 2007. It had been cut as part of an austerity measure, but the Minister made much of the fact that he restored it. The Low Pay Commission should be looking a lot further back than 2011.

Another issue I note with interest is currency exchange rates. This is an interesting one for them to consider as well, because I assumed we lived in the euro area and workers would be paid in Ireland, but maybe there are many workers out there being paid in sterling or other currencies, which has to be taken into account.

The Bill provides that the commission will consist of nine members and that the Minister, or whoever the next Minister is, will appoint them. I am concerned that the recruitment process is not clear or transparent. As I stated, the Minister is involved in appointing each member. A commission appointed by a different Minister could have a different slant. The make-up of the commission includes two academic members, but many academics could have a particular political stance on how the economy should work and could bring that to bear in deciding how the commission works and what are its recommendations.

It is clear after years of austerity that work has increasingly become precarious and riddled with insecurity for those involved, and there are new forms of work emerging, including zero-hour and low-hour contracts. Income inequality is soaring. Ireland is witnessing a widening income gap, with over a third of all income concentrated in the hands of the top 10% of earners, according to TASC. Ireland is now the most unequal country in the EU when it comes to how the economy distributes income, before taxes and social welfare payments are included.

This precariat is a characteristic of 21st century capitalism and is based on flexible, periodic and insecure unemployment, transiency, a lack of control over time, overqualification and uncertainty. This best describes the situation facing many workers, including seasonal ones in my constituency in Donegal. The experience of greater insecurity in work has increased alongside a reduction in social security. Perhaps it should be called social insecurity, as it does nothing to provide a safety net as matters stand.

Unemployment remains a major issue for rural Ireland. Although employment levels have increased, the quality of such employment has decreased since austerity started. These effects will be felt for many years to come. Some of the statistics are startling and should be examined. There are 272,000 fewer full-time jobs in Ireland today compared with 2007, a decrease of 15%, the number of people in part-time jobs is 55,700 higher, an increase of 14%, and more than one quarter of part-time workers, 115,000 plus, are underemployed. Between 2010 and the end of 2014, the number of long-term unemployed persons fell by 48,700. In the same period, though, the net loss to emigration was 123,000 people. Some 58% of the unemployed are long-term unemployed.

Now more than ever, a low pay commission is necessary. I welcome its introduction, even this late in the day. That the Central Statistics Office, CSO, quarterly earnings, hours and employment costs survey showed that 4.7% of employees, or just over 73,000 workers, were paid at or below the national minimum wage of €8.65 per hour in the second quarter of 2014 should be a worrying statistic. I am surprised that the percentage is that low, as I believe that more are paid less than the minimum wage.

To date, the mechanism for reviewing the national minimum wage rate involved the Labour Court, which made recommendations to the Minister after taking into account submissions from interested parties. The last Labour Court recommendation was made in November 2006 and recommended an increase to €8.30 and then €8.65 from 1 July 2007. The wage was decreased in 2011 but quickly restored by the current Government. It is in respect of the most recent increase that the minimum wage commission must work.

We should be discussing a living wage commission rather than a low pay commission. We should be working towards the achievement of a living wage instead of tinkering with the minimum wage, which becomes a ceiling for low pay and the many workers earning less than it.

It is difficult to take seriously the Government's belated conversion to the cause of dealing with low pay just six or nine months before a general election, given the fact that the problem has been chronic and worsening for the four years that it has been in office. Compared with our European counterparts, our standing in this matter is stark and shameful. We have the second highest level of low pay in the OECD. We are the worst in Europe, with 22% of people being low paid and 16% of workers living in poverty. One might claim that all of this is down to the recession, but compare it with the rest of Europe. The digest provided by the library service was helpful, as it supplied a table of comparisons with minimum wage rates everywhere else in Europe. It is extraordinary that there have been significant increases in minimum wage rates virtually everywhere. Belgium's has increased by 15% since 2008, Bulgaria's has increased by 64% and the Czech Republic's has increased by 11%. Spain, one of the worst hit countries, has managed to increase its minimum wage by 8%. France's has increased by 14% and Latvia's has increased by 57%. Portugal, another country that we might be compared with, has seen an increase of 19%. The UK's has increased by 11% and the minimum wage in the US has increased by 50%. Here, there has been nothing, but four years into office, the Government has suddenly decided that it is worried about low pay. One must be cynical.

Given what this Government has been responsible for, it suggests that the Government has been encouraging a race to the bottom or has failed to take action about factors that result in low pay. Gateway, JobBridge and the cuts to lone parents payments that I tried to demonstrate to the Tánaiste this morning have reduced the economic benefit and incentive to lone parents to work. They will lose money thanks to the cuts that the Tánaiste is imposing while Gateway and JobBridge displace and undermine jobs, although I will not say "well-paid jobs". Those schemes further encourage a race to the bottom, with people working for nothing when they should be paid proper wages.

The consumer price index, CPI, is not increasing dramatically, but the largest outlay for workers is accommodation. Rents have increased by 21% in Dublin and property prices have increased by 41% in the past year. The cost of putting a roof over one's head has increased significantly, yet there has been no increase in wages. As a result, there has been a dramatic spike in the number of people living in poverty, including those who are working, and a spectacular growth in the gap between rich and poor. Meanwhile, the Government has done nothing about the spike in recent years in the wealth levels of those at the top.

In the past 25 or 30 years, the proportion of national wealth that goes to wages has decreased by 10% while the proportion that goes to profits, shares and bonuses - basically, to the rich - has increased by 10%. The recession has accelerated this. There has been a transfer from workers to the rich, but the Government has done nothing about it. The idea that the Low Pay Commission will deal with it is ludicrous.

I call Deputy O'Dowd, who is sharing time with Deputies Catherine Byrne and Tony McLoughlin, with approximately six minutes each.

I welcome the Bill and this discussion. Listening to the Deputies opposite, one would believe that the Low Pay Commission was being set up to take money from workers rather than to examine increasing homes' incomes or to consider strategies that involved proper analyses of how to achieve consent on increasing low incomes, which are concerning for people who find it increasingly difficult to live as we emerge from the recession. It should form part of an analysis of the structure of society with a view to helping people return to work.

We have 100,000 more people working today than we had on the day that we entered office. Significant changes are taking place in society and there is an increasing awareness of improvements in our economy. Our export levels have increased and there is a general increase in confidence in the Government's capacity to deal with the recession in a pragmatic way that has resulted in major changes to how people view their future prospects in this country.

A question that we must address, and which the Government has addressed in some respect, is on how to provide additional money to people who are working. One way is through tax reductions.

A reduction in income tax makes it more attractive for people to go to work or stay in work. A significant part of the Government's strategy involves reducing the contributions made under the much-condemned universal social charge, particularly by lower-paid workers. The number of people not paying the charge has increased significantly since we came into office. I know the Taoiseach is committed to making that number larger and more significant in the forthcoming budget.

Many of those with whom I speak think it is important that going to work be made a much more attractive option for people. The Government has made significant progress to that end - for example, through the back to work schemes. I do not think people who are going back to work should lose some of the benefits they enjoy at present. I refer particularly to medical care benefits such as medical cards. Such people should also be entitled to retain portions of their social welfare income. While a rising tide will lift all boats, it is a fact that the lowest-paid workers comprise the most significant cohort of people whom we need to help and continue to help. I acknowledge that there is absolutely no doubt that significantly increased resources are required to make the move from unemployment and long-term unemployment to going back to work.

The shortage of housing means that unemployed people who want to go back to work are facing big difficulties in trying to find accommodation. Regardless of whether one is unemployed, a significant increase in resources is needed to rent a house. We have a difficulty in County Louth with housing assistance payments and rent allowance. I refer to the Government's proposals. The only accommodation that is available is at a much higher price than the going rate from the HSE or from local authorities will support. I think this is an area in which we need to significantly increase our resources and indeed our attention. Like other Members of the House, I know of families with children that are practically homeless. I am being contacted by an increasing number of people who are sleeping in cars, on sofas or on camp-beds. I believe that if the Government increases the cap, the whole system will shift upwards and prices will increase again.

The proposed Low Pay Commission is a significant part of our strategy to get people back to work and to make work more valuable for lower-paid workers in particular. It is part of a balancing and a readjustment. It is terribly important that those who are employing people and offering employment are very much a part of all this. There is no point in saying we are going to increase the minimum wage by a certain amount if employers are not on board. They have difficulties as well. They have to compete in the marketplace. They have to be competitive. Much of what we produce is sold abroad. We have to compete abroad. We cannot increase costs at a rate that is disproportionate to growth in the economy. We priced ourselves out of the market previously. Our competitiveness as an economy decreased significantly over the period of the boom. We paid ourselves far too much and we saw the result of that. Government expenditure increased out of all bounds. It was absolutely ridiculous that we relied on a tax on the sale of houses as a basic income tax for our day-to-day spending.

I agree with the constructive and positive analysis of the Minister of State, Deputy Nash. It will bring about change. It will bring additional resources to encourage people back to work. The level at which people have the least amount of money is where this encouragement will be most effective. When they are trying to get back into the workforce, it is a most difficult time for them. I would like to see an increase in child allowances that would help families on law pay to survive in a much better work environment. The Minister of State, Deputy Nash, is doing the right thing. I welcome that. It is not the panacea to cure all ills. I believe he is bringing the employers on board, which is absolutely essential. There cannot be a gun to any employer's head as a result of this. We will move forward together. That is how this country will increase its capacity to sell its products abroad, while becoming a fairer and more competitive society at the same time.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill, which is a step in the right direction. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Nash, for his work on it. Over the past four years, the Government has worked hard to steer this country through a very difficult economic crisis. I believe we are finally seeing light at the end of that tunnel. More than 100,000 new jobs have been created since the launch of the first Action Plan for Jobs in 2012. In April of this year, the unemployment rate fell below 10%. It has been said time and again that work should pay more than welfare and that no household with a person in full-time work should be poor. I could not agree more. I know the Government is continuing to commit itself to making work pay. It is committed to protecting the most vulnerable workers and to addressing the issue of low pay. In fact, one of the first actions it took when it came into office was to restore the minimum wage to €8.65 after the previous Government had cut it to €7.65.

The Government's commitment to this issue is reflected in the decision to establish an independent Low Pay Commission with the important task of making an annual recommendation to the Government about what the appropriate level for the minimum wage should be. The interim commission, which comprises a number of people, first met in February to examine existing data, commission new research if necessary, and consult directly with workers and employers to decide on what the national minimum wage should be. In this context, it is important to look at the hourly living wage rate, which should provide employees with a level of income that is sufficient to allow an acceptable minimum standard of living. As we all know, the current hourly living wage rate is €11.45. At a time when 100,000 workers are on the minimum wage, I am hopeful that the current rate will increase in the near future. The Low Pay Commission will also take account of changes in earnings, productivity and overall competitiveness, and the likely impact that any adjustment will have on employment and employee levels. It is important that job creation and competitiveness are taken into account during this process.

It is important to refer to low-hour contracts in the context of this Bill. This issue has received a great deal of attention recently following the Dunnes Stores strike. We have been told that almost three quarters of Dunnes Stores employees are on part-time contracts. These people are not guaranteed a minimum number of hours of paid work each week, yet they must be on call in case their employer wants them to work. How can we expect people to live - to have a life outside work - if they cannot plan from one week to another? Employers who engage in this behaviour must be taken to task. I think legislation is needed in this area. I was pleased to see that the University of Limerick has started work on a study of zero-hour and low-hour contracts in the Irish economy, with specific reference to how such contracts are affecting employees. This study will cover the public and private sectors, with a particular focus on the retail, hospitality, health and education sectors. It will also assess how current employment rights legislation applies to employees on such contracts. One of the key objectives of the study is to fill the gaps in the knowledge that is currently available about the impact of the use of contracts on employees. This will enable the Government to consider any evidence-based policy recommendations that may be necessary on foot of the study.

The Low Pay Commission will advise the Government each year on any changes required to the national minimum wage. Its first report is due in July. I look forward to reading it. This is a challenging area. I thank the Minister of State for the work he has put into it. We are moving forward with this Bill as a first step. Members of my own family are in the minimum wage bracket. Some of them are on contract hours.

They are not happy, and rightly so. The Low Pay Commission is really the beginning of an improvement in everybody's life, particularly those on low earnings. My father used to say we have to creep before we walk and walk before we run. I am constantly reminded in this Chamber that some people do not think there is any process for getting from A to Z. Many Deputies have described this Bill as a cosmetic process. It is easy to criticise without having anything concrete to offer instead. For 15 years during the height of the boom and employment, the Fianna Fáil Government had people on the minimum wage. Only when Fine Gael and the Labour Party came into government was the minimum wage cut reversed to €8.65 from €7.65 an hour. We should keep on reminding people of that.

Nobody likes not being able to plan his or her week and plan what he or she does around their earnings. Unfortunately, in this country everybody has to do that, whether on the minimum wage or not. People have to change their lifestyle and do other things. I hope this commission will open up a new avenue for those who should be on more than €8.65 an hour.

This National Minimum Wage (Low Pay Commission) Bill 2015 will, among other things, oversee the establishment of a new low pay commission. This commission will be tasked with examining the national minimum wage rate every July. It will also be expected to make expert recommendations to Government on the minimum wage issue.

The national minimum wage for a person over the age of 18 stands at €8.65, one of the highest minimum wages in the European Union and it has once again become a major talking point in Irish politics. As the Irish economy continues its strong export-led recovery, many unions and representative organisations and bodies have begun the process of lobbying for the national minimum wage rate to be increased by Government.

While I agree with the argument that low-paid workers and the less well-off in Irish society need to be assisted and while I also cautiously agree with the argument that an increase in the minimum wage needs to be introduced, I believe the Government needs to be extremely careful about how it deals with this sensitive pay issue. Many populist arguments are gaining ground which say that the Government should increase the national minimum wage in order to offset the effects of inflation and to give hard-pressed Irish people more money in their pockets.

The Government, however, also needs to ensure that small businesses and vulnerable companies, such as those in the north west, are protected from the effects of any potential increases. For example, raising the national minimum wage rate across the entire country may benefit a percentage of people in one particular area. It may, however, ultimately have a detrimental effect on small businesses which are already struggling to survive in many other parts of the country and which would not be able to handle any further increases in their business costs.

I recently met with a delegation from the Irish Business Employers Confederation, IBEC, from the north-west region to discuss a wide range of issues, including road infrastructure, broadband and barriers to growth and development. The raising of the national minimum wage was a major concern for many of the business people I spoke with. If there is to be an increase in the national minimum wage, it needs to be done in a fair manner, with due consideration given to all sections of society, in all geographical locations throughout the country.

In line with this sentiment, I am pleased that section 4 of the proposed Bill states that any decisions on the minimum wage will be taken in a fair and sustainable manner by the Low Pay Commission members, and that these decisions will be taken without creating significant adverse consequences for employment or competitiveness. I very much hope this will be the case. I am pleased with the level of detail in section 5 of the Bill which lists the functions of the proposed commission. It will be tasked with investigating a wide range of mitigating issues which surround the overall minimum wage debate, including whether employment is increasing or decreasing, comparisons with the UK minimum wage, the overall cost of living in the country, the levels of unemployment and employment, the need for job creation and overall national competitiveness. Due to these two sections of the proposed legislation in particular, I have full confidence in this Bill as I believe that their inclusion will ensure that the new Low Pay Commission will act in a fair and proper manner to provide expert analysis on the minimum wage debate.

I fully support this legislation as I believe that the new Low Pay Commission, if established, will provide expert analysis to the Minister, enabling him or her to make a fully informed decision on the topic, away from the populism which follows it.

We, as legislators, need to continue to stand up for the less well-off in Irish society, but we need to do this in an informed and educated manner. Too often in the past bad and uninformed Government decisions led to detrimental effects for many. We need to take greater responsibility and I firmly believe that this commission will help to address one aspect of this approach. It has taken a great deal of time and effort to bring this Bill to the House and I commend the Minister of State and his officials for the work they have put into getting it this far.

I warmly welcome the debate on low pay as we all need to do something about low pay in this country and stop people being exploited. It is not good for the person, families or society. We need solid action on low pay. It is not good for economic growth or spending in the wider society. When I hear the talk about the so-called recovery and the end of austerity, I ask why so many people are on low pay. Why are so many families struggling to survive? Why are so many living in poverty? These are all very important questions for the Minister of State and need to be addressed. I want to see a society built on social justice and equality and yet when I look around I see families struggling on low pay.

Only a few days ago a young family of five came to me. Both parents work on low pay but they cannot get a mortgage. They are paying a massive sum of money in rent and would love to own their home. There is nothing wrong with the dream of having one's own home. People in wealthier sections of society say we need to get into the mentality of renting a place as people do in other countries. I do not buy that. In the Irish case, most families would like to have their own home and are entitled to have that. We need to stand by those people, listen to their concerns and help them get out of the situation they are in. We need to deal with that by tackling the issue of low pay, as this legislation does.

Currently, 138,000 children are living in poverty. Consistent poverty increased recently from 6.8% to 11.7% but in some communities, it is higher. Recently, 1,054 children were deemed homeless. When we talk about low pay, we are also talking about real equality, including children's rights.

The Bill provides for the establishment of a Low Pay Commission on a statutory basis, which I welcome.

While I frequently give out about the Government, I accept that the Minister of State is serious about this issue and has a genuine track record in this area.

The Low Pay Commission will be tasked with making annual recommendations to the Government about the appropriate level of the minimum wage and related matters. The commission will comprise a chairperson and eight ordinary members, each of whom will be appointed by the Minister. However, the Minister will not be bound by its recommendations.

Many Deputies have wrung their hands in the House about the closure of Clerys. The Government must legislate for improved workers' rights and more effective employee information and consultation in line with the principles set out in Article 27 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and Articles 21 and 29 of the European Social Charter. This would not only benefit all employees, including former staff of Clerys, but also all citizens. The Government has an opportunity to correct an injustice and pursue the long-term objective of building a better society and this important commission must be part of achieving this.

Last week, I signed a new charter for enhanced rights for workers, which was drawn up by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU. The document has five main points covering pay, hours of work, representation rights, respect in the workplace and the right to earn a living income from full-time work. A single adult would need to earn at least €11.45 per hour to have a living income and ICTU has called for the introduction of this rate over the next three years. The charter also calls for an end to certain work practices, including low and zero-hour contracts. I signed the charter before the general election because its implementation would be good for workers, society and the economy. This is an example of the "pound in the pocket syndrome" where an extra €1 given to families, especially low-paid earners, will be spent in a way that will support the economy.

I referred to the composition of the Low Pay Commission. The commission's members should also include someone who is unemployed or on low pay. Employer and employee interests will be represented by three members each, while two members will have particular knowledge and expertise in economics, labour market economics, statistics and employment law. We must ensure the commission includes members who know what it is like to be unemployed or on low pay and have experienced the struggle for survival.

I find it deeply ironic that the Government has set out to address the plight of low-paid workers in the months preceding the general election, having spent the past four years pushing this group of people into abject poverty. One in six people is in low-paid employment and this figure grew rapidly during the recession. European research shows that since 2007 the gap between the minimum wage and the median wage, that is, the point on the income scale where 50% of workers earn more and the remaining 50% earn less, has widened more in Ireland than in any other country in Europe. While some will argue that I am repeating a slogan of the left, it is a fact that the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer. All the statistics show this to be true.

Declining disposable income results in lower consumption which further destabilises the economy, as economists will agree. Research has consistently shown that workers spend more as a proportion of income than those who earn income from profit. Half of workers in this State have little disposable income because fewer than 50% of employees earn €25,000 or more while 30% of all workers earn less than €20,000. Every day, 135,000 children face material deprivation as their parents struggle with the tax burden imposed on them through the household charges, water charges and so forth.

One of the previous speakers on the Government side stated that Ireland has one of the highest minimum wage rates in Europe. While that may be the case, Ireland is also one of the most expensive countries in Europe. Rents, grocery costs, medicine prices and doctors' fees are all higher than the European average. Furthermore, people have the universal social charge, the property tax and water charges heaped upon them. If the Government is serious about increasing living standards, it must address these costs.

There is a bigger picture at play here than the minimum wage. It is crucial that the low pay commission examines the cost of living for low-income workers, including the costs of rent, food, energy, transport, clothing and services. I specifically request that the commission fully examine recent proposals on a living wage. This is a sum that his higher than the minimum wage but below the level campaigners consider to be sufficient to make ends meet. One in five workers currently earns less than the minimum wage. I am disappointed by the narrow focus of the proposed low pay commission, which will only investigate the minimum wage. It is a stark omission which must be altered before the Bill is passed. I will not vote in favour of the legislation unless a change is made in this area.

Almost 125,000 workers are under-employed meaning they are part-time workers who are not working as many hours as they wish to work. This figure, which is included in the latest quarterly national household survey, is one of the highest rates in the European Union. Trade unions have stated that these contracts make a significant contribution to what is described as "in-work poverty". It is beyond me that these types of contracts have not been included in the proposed study of vulnerable workers. The Low Pay Commission will not do much for the types of workers I have described, many of whom are stuck in short-term contracts, particularly in the retail sector, pubs and restaurants. A growing number of short-term contracts are being used in other sectors, with even the Government getting in on the act. I learned this morning, for example, that 25% of newly qualified teachers are on the Government equivalent of a zero-hour contract. Schools are interviewing for contracts of two and three hours' work per week and successful candidates must make themselves available from Monday to Friday in case additional hours become available. This makes it impossible for parents to organise child care. Employees on this type of contract do not have the security of knowing whether they will earn enough to cover their basic bills. It is outrageous that these highly skilled individuals are being treated in this manner.

It is interesting that a recent survey of zero-hour contracts carried out by a group of SIPTU members found that 89% of those aged under 35 years are struggling to make ends meet, while one in five respondents indicated that his or her employer gives less than one day's notice of working hours. We are letting young people down in not urgently addressing this issue, on which I spoke a couple of weeks ago.

I acknowledge that a team from the University of Limerick has been appointed to examine zero and low-hour contracts and their impact on workers. While we await the findings of that study, I ask the Government to task the Central Statistics Office with recording the incidence of low-hour contracts as part of the quarterly national household survey. All of the conjecture about these contracts is painting an unfair and damaging picture of employers in the sectors in question, many of whom treat their staff well.

The Low Pay Commission will go nowhere if it does not deal with the substantial number of workers who are on zero-hour contracts. The figure appears to be increasing rather than decreasing. If the commission does not examine this issue, the legislation will not improve the lot of workers.

I will begin with a quotation from Franklin D. Roosevelt: "[N]o business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country." These words were spoken many years ago about the United States but are, nevertheless, relevant to all countries and to this debate.

We cannot just talk about a minimum wage; we must also talk about a living wage. What we are seeing are the ill effects of where the emphasis in Ireland was not on the latter. What we have seen and are seeing is growing inequality in Ireland. What contributed to that was the way in which the recession and austerity hit society disproportionately. One statistic shows that 250 people hold a combined personal wealth of over €75 billion here. While the Nevin Economic Research Institute gave a relatively positive picture of recovery, it had serious concerns about the low paid; some 25% of employees, or 345,000 people in the labour force, earn an hourly wage of less than the living wage threshold of €11.45. Of the low paid, 60% are women. Everyone wants to see an increase in the number of those employed, but if people are going into employment that does not allow them to live in dignity, and it distorts the unemployment and employment figures. People must have a decent living wage; otherwise, we will continue to have the working poor.

In the USA, there is a campaign, Fight for $15, which sets out to ensure that all those working in low-paid professions have the means to live adequately and support themselves and their families. I acknowledge that there is a difficulty with the concept of enough to live and having a uniform level in that regard as it can vary depending on where one lives. However, there is not that much divergence in this country albeit I accept that there is a divergence between Dublin and the rest of the country. The report on OECD member countries includes concerns about the gaps between Ireland's minimum wage and the median wage, the figure where 50% of workers earn more and 50% earn less. That has widened significantly since 2007 to a greater extent in Ireland than in any of the other countries on that OECD list. I am looking at the functions provisions of the Bill and the section setting out to what matters the commission must have regard in making recommendations. There is no specific mention of poverty and considering the effect of levels of poverty, particularly on children.

There is a tug of war between trade unions and workers on the one hand and small and medium businesses on the other. I have examples from Dublin Central of small businesses that have been crippled by commercial rates, forcing some to let a member or two of staff go. If rates were more equitable and reflected the size of a business, whether it is a start-up or more established and where it comes in terms of the recession, there might be more give among small and medium enterprises on the side of a positive response to increasing the minimum wage. Employers have been asking for leeway on PRSI and an amnesty in the first six months. It is about a balancing act where the profits for business are concerned.

The commission is going to examine unemployment and employment rates, but it must examine how much of the employment is fair, fruitful and progressive. Many workers are on contracts that would have been unimaginable in pre-recession Ireland. We have seen an increase in zero-hours contracts which are really zero-fairness contracts. The commission must distinguish between casual and meaningful employment. The minimum wage has implications for how a parent earning it can provide for his or her children. We have seen the numbers of children in consistent poverty increase. An April report from Focus Ireland states that 138,000 children in this country live in poverty. The effect of the wage on children should be a matter considered by the commission.

What can one say to someone who works 40 hours a week, just about pays the bills and has no disposable income to spend on other items or events which would have knock-on effects in society? An obvious feature that emerged during the recession was where long-serving older employees were edged out of jobs - by foul means in many cases - in which they had given faithful service. New staff were then brought in to work on lower wages and contracts with no mention of permanency. I have sympathy for small and medium enterprises and their struggles to keep businesses going and to hold on to their employees, but larger employers, including the banks, large enterprises and multinationals, have been manipulating the labour market and taking advantage of the recession to introduce poorer working conditions. In April, Social Justice Ireland published a paper on the nature of employment which showed that there were 15% fewer full-time jobs in Ireland in 2014 than in 2008 when the downturn began. The paper stated that there had been a 14% rise in part-time jobs in 2014. We have also seen an increase in the number of families applying for family income supplement. These workers need State support to supplement low wages in order to live. The report says that recovery is at the price of the exploitation of workers. Clerys is just one example of shoddy, unfair and immoral treatment. One does not sell a company overnight. They knew this was going to happen and to give some 400 workers 30 minutes notice is absolutely disgraceful. Businesses are there to make a profit, but that does not mean they have to trample all over workers' rights to increase and maximise that profit. The Government bailed out the banks and it is time there was some redress for workers. Business and morality can go together, but we are not seeing too many examples of that.

While I welcome the annual recommendations, more than recommendations is needed. There must be a timeframe and a mechanism for responding to those recommendations. Is rud dearfach é go bhfuil an díospóireacht seo ar siúl againn agus go bhfuil an obair seo déanta ag an Aire Stáit. Tá súil agam go ndéanfaidh sé difríocht.

I call Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick who is sharing time with Deputies Seán Kenny and Eamonn Maloney. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the National Minimum Wage (Low Pay Commission) Bill 2015. In its statement of priorities for the period 2014 to 2016, the Government gave a commitment to establish a low pay commission on a statutory basis as an independent body charged with making annual recommendations to the Government of the day on the appropriate level of the minimum wage and related matters. I welcome the introduction of the Low Pay Commission as I strongly believe it will protect those working at the minimum wage rate and also give clarity to employers, particularly in SMEs which have been the backbone of the current economic recovery. I am particularly pleased that both employers and employees will be represented on the commission. The commission will have nine members, including an independent chairperson, three members with a particular interest in and understanding of low-paid workers, three members with a particular interest in and understanding of employers and two members with relevant academic backgrounds.

The principal function of the Low Pay Commission will be to investigate and report to the Minister of the day on an annual basis regarding the national minimum wage and the rate at which it should be applied. The commission will also have other functions including examining matters related to the functions of the commission under the legislation. I agree with the ESRI's 2006 analysis of a Labour Court recommendation proposing an increase to the national minimum wage. The ESRI concluded that adjusting the minimum wage rate by a substantial amount on an irregular basis, as happened in the past, is more likely to have a detrimental impact on employment and to contribute to uncertainty for employers and employees. The establishment of the commission should ensure that this situation does not arise in future.

As a former employer and employee, I consider that work should always pay at a fair and reasonable rate. There is no doubt that a job that pays a fair and reasonable wage is the most effective protection against poverty. Time and again, I have seen in my clinics in Dundalk and surrounding areas the immediate impact securing full-time employment has on a person and his or her family. We are now seeing the benefits of the many sacrifices the Irish people have made over the past number of years. With the economy now starting to recover and grow, we must not forget that the recovery is not being felt in all areas of our society. We must ensure therefore that the benefits of the economic recovery are felt by all sectors of society.

I was surprised to learn that the national minimum wage in Ireland is high by international standards. The most recent figures from EUROSTAT show that Ireland's minimum wage rate is the fifth highest in the EU. When the cost of living is taken into account, Ireland has the sixth highest rate among our European partners. The most recent figures from the Central Statistics Office show that 4.5% or fewer of all employees were being paid the national minimum wage of €8.65 per hour in the third quarter of 2014. That is approximately 71,000 workers earning the minimum wage. It is our responsibility and duty to protect the low-paid workers of this economy who are not getting the full benefits of the continued economic improvement. Unfortunately, not all areas and sectors are seeing the benefits of recovery. The Low Pay Commission will be of great benefit to the low-paid workers of our economy and ensure that the balanced statutory minimum pay rate is fair and assists the low-paid and vulnerable workers. I particularly like the idea that the commission will have total independence, which will no doubt take the politics out of the setting a minimum wage rate.

We must not forget the employers, especially the many SMEs and small family businesses that have been the backbone of this economic recovery.

This legislation will be of significant benefit to these employers and their employees and will offer clarity and certainty as we move forward.

I welcome the establishment of the Low Pay Commission. I look forward to its first report in the coming months and I am sure the many people who earn the minimum wage or less will also look forward hearing the recommendations of the commission's first report.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill and I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy Ged Nash, on bringing it before the House. The establishment of the Low Pay Commission was a key commitment in the statement of priorities agreed by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste in July 2014 and it was launched at the end of February of this year. It has the important remit of making recommendations to Government on the setting of the minimum wage and it will take an evidence-based approach in doing so.

A national minimum wage was introduced in Ireland under the National Minimum Wage Act 2000. In April 2000, the then Government set a minimum rate of £4.40 per hour for the minimum wage. The current rate is €8.65 per hour and it has remained at that rate since 2007 except for a period in 2011 when it was cut by the then Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government. As soon as the current Government came to office, it reversed that cut in July 2011. That restoration and the Low Pay Commission clearly demonstrate the Government's commitment to tackling the whole question of low pay.

Low pay is not only some abstract economic issue. As with other economic issues, such as the question of banking debt, the minimum wage is a matter that is the subject of intense debate. Supporters of a minimum wage, of which I am one, argue that it is necessary to ensure that workers are not forced to work for wages that are below the poverty line. Opponents of it argue that it is an artificial Government imposed wage which increases unemployment as some employers cannot afford to pay the rates. I have never known an opponent of the minimum wage who knew what it is like to work for low or minimum pay. Arguments in favour of it focus mostly on the fact that employers should have a responsibility to ensure their workers are given a living wage. This is something for which the Labour Party has campaigned. On the other hand, opponents argue that in a global economy where economies and countries compete with each other, there is always the threat of moving production of goods overseas to where wages are lower and to where workers have fewer rights. A recent example of this was the announcement in my constituency by Cadbury's in Coolock that it proposed to move production of its Time Out bar to Poland with the projected loss of 60 jobs. This is known as the race to the bottom and such a race needs to be strongly opposed.

I am aware that the commission plans to take an evidence-based approach to the task in hand. This will involve examining existing data, commissioning new research, if necessary, and consulting directly with workers and employers in order to decide on what the new minimum wage should be. The chairperson of the commission is Donal de Buitléir and he is being supported by eight commissioners, namely, Vincent Jennings, Patricia King, Gerry Light, Caroline McEnery, Edel McGinley, Mary Mosse, Tom Noonan and Donal O'Neill.

Quite a range of issues will have to be examined before the commission makes its recommendations. These issues include the changes in earnings since the minimum wage was last increased in 2011 and the rate of employment generally since then. As well as that, the expected impact of a change to the minimum wage on employment, the cost of living and national competitiveness will have to considered and examined. Changes in income distribution and currency exchange rates will have to be considered.

The commission has been given a tight schedule. By mid-July it must settle on an appropriate wage rate, and perhaps that is a good aspect as setting a deadline will bring the issue to a head quickly, and I hope it will avoid the whole matter being procrastinated over a long period.

My view is that the Low Pay Commission represents the next step in the Government's prioritising work and fairness as the economy gradually improves. Having a job is the best protection against poverty and fair wages and conditions are essential to achieving that. I wish the Low Pay Commission well in its work and I commend this legislation to the House.

In common with most others, I compliment and commend the Minister of State and his Department on the introduction of this Bill and, in particular, the fact the Minister of State did so within the timeframe he outlined to the House which, given the nature of politics, is not always possible.

This legislation is historic in that those men and women who participated in the Dublin Lock-out in 1913 could only have dreamed of this type of legislation or that legislators would legislate for this type of protection for those who are paid the least. I may be incorrect but it is interesting that the first mention of a minimum wage in an Irish context within the labour-trade union movement dates back to 1924. We have had to wait from the time of the men and women of 1924 until now for this legislation. Those of us who are a long-standing members of the labour movement will take what we can get in terms of legislation.

No legislation is perfect. I listened to the critique of some of the speakers who spoke at the start of debate, not that I would give any great credit to their relationship with the labour or trade union movement. I thought at one stage the Minister of State must have felt he was being attacked by a dead goldfish such was the nature of the critique. It was utter opportunism and begrudging comments were made about legislation which I am prepared to acknowledge is not perfect but it is a start of something which low-paid working people can only welcome and it is up to us, as legislators, and up to the trade union movement to make it stronger. That is the important point. The fact that it exists and that we have had to wait 102 years for legislation that can protect the lowest paid in our society must be welcomed.

There is a myth abroad that during what were popularly known as the Celtic tiger years when we went through a period of what some people describe as full employment, of which I am all in favour, that everyone working was on Celtic tiger wages, driving 4x4s and having 16 holidays a year. That is the greatest load of nonsense in respect of everyone who participated during those years of so-called full employment. Thousands upon thousands of people, particularly women, were on very poor wages and the reason for that is that legislation like this did not exist, which highlights the importance of this Bill. The importance and significance of it should not, in any way, be undermined. It is something we can improve on, which is the important point about it.

I welcome this Bill, or any legislation, that forms part of labour legislation to improve conditions, whether wages, working conditions or holiday entitlements - conditions that have improved during the period since Independence. I have never heard anyone argue that all the labour legislation, whether the legislation on equal pay for women in the 1970s, the Redundancy Payments Act, the Holidays (Employees) Act or the Unfair Dismissals Acts, has not improved and protected workers. I am not only referring to employers but some people, including some Members, give the impression that all this legislation somehow came through this roof at the generosity of the masters of industry and of the establishment in Ireland, but none of it did. All of it was fought for, including in this House and in the trade union movement. Every piece of labour legislation was fought for and, in this case, that fight continued for 102 years. That is part of the importance of this Bill to working men and women. I commend the Minister of State and repeat that the Bill has been introduced within the timeframe he gave.

I welcome the Bill. Let us go forward to strengthen it.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this very important Bill, which I strongly support. I know the Low Pay Commission has been operational since February of this year, and I understand that the first report will be due in the very near future.

I welcome the legislation, which provides the constitutional and legislative bulwark for the national minimum wage, and amends the National Minimum Wage Act 2000. It remains to be seen how it will protect the lives of hundreds of thousands of low-paid workers in coming years and decades. Nearly 5% of all our workers, just over 73,000, are earning the national minimum wage of €8.65. This is, of course, the experienced adult rate; those who are starting out in employment or are in structured training are on reduced rates of about 70% to 90% of the national minimum wage. The lower-paid workers in our economy are typically those in the restaurant and hospitality sectors; those working as carers, particularly carers for seniors; cleaners; security workers; retail workers; and of course younger people. Many of us in this House had experience of those professions when we were starting out in our careers or studying.

There is also a distinct gender bias, as Deputy Maloney said. It has been noted by the National Women's Council of Ireland that this is a gender issue, as 60% of workers on low pay are women. We know that 50% of women in Ireland are earning less than €20,000. Women, younger people, migrants and those working in lower-skilled jobs such as trainees and apprentices in areas such as hairdressing and clerical work - even in the public sector although less so there than in the private sector - are most affected by lower pay and zero-hour contracts.

I am aware that the Minister of State has had widespread consultations, and that employer organisations have argued that we have the fifth highest national minimum wage rate in the European Union. This argument, of course, falls on its face because it totally ignores the higher living costs of our country. Higher wage economies like ours come with very high costs of living. We have only to think of energy costs, which the Minister of State's colleague, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Alex White, is doing nothing to address; mortgage and rental costs; extortionate child care costs; and transport costs. Our public transport system is totally lacking compared to many other countries.

Over recent decades, but especially since the economic crash, the ideal of social Europe seems to have been buried by fiscal and economic neoliberal conservatism. A feature of this new, harsh economic Europe is the steady fall in wages across many eurozone economies. An article in The Guardian newspaper earlier this week discussed the failures of the eurozone and argued that, since the introduction of the single currency, wages across Europe have been driven down. Workers, along with their wage rates and conditions, have been used as the mechanism to make economies "more efficient", as our leaders in Frankfurt and Brussels would say. Those workers have borne the brunt of this.

The heaviest loss has been to the German workforce. In 14 years, German workers have seen hardly any wage rises. According to the article, the higher-skilled, higher-paid jobs are disappearing out of Germany and going to the much lower-paid states in eastern and south-eastern Europe. Gerhard Bosch, a German expert on inequality, said that lower-paid jobs and the numbers of the low-wage workforce are almost at US levels. There is a neoliberal economic movement to try to transform the European economy into an American-type one, which is a totally different constitutional, economic and political set-up. I do not think we should emulate it in Europe.

More recently, our focus has been on Greece. This is the first opportunity I have had to discuss the matter. I find the weasel words of the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance on the Greek crisis disgraceful and an affront to the Irish people. We are naturally in solidarity with the Greek nation and recognise it as the home of European civilisation. The Greek people are valiant and hard working, and they have been absolutely traumatised by vicious austerity for seven and a half years. I hope that, tomorrow or Friday, the Government will be able to stand over some sort of a settlement which gives Greece reasonable prospects for the way ahead and does not bury them further under this crushing austerity.

The crisis and the phenomenon of austerity are not just limited to Greece. As I said to the Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, this morning, the housing and homeless crisis is the legacy of their term in government and is of Greek proportions. Across Europe, we are seeing an increase in austerity and a concentration of low pay in many sectors. The media, often controlled by wealthy individuals, as we have seen, have the relentless mantra of constantly cutting back on rewards for workers. Their arguments often make no economic or political sense.

In Europe, the rich continue to grow their wealth while the poor and the ordinary are feeling the pinch the most. While the banks got bailed out, Europe's ordinary citizens were sold out. What happened to the social Europe of Jean Monnet and Jacques Delors, great visionaries in the foundation of Europe and in the Socialists and Democrats grouping in the European Parliament? They were the founding fathers of Europe and of the euro and we are now looking at a landscape of ferocious pressure on workers and a downward spiral of wages. In that context, I welcome the Bill.

Section 4 of the Bill outlines the duties of the Low Pay Commission, stating that it "is designed to assist as many low-paid workers as is reasonably practicable" and that "over time, [the national minimum hourly rate] is progressively increased". I am aware of the contrast with the British system, which has applied incremental rate rises while we have had major stops and jumps. I commend the Minister of State on seeking to address that. A 2006 Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, study found that irregularly adjusting the minimum wage can have a detrimental impact on employment as it can create uncertainty for workers and indeed employers. The study noted that smaller, incremental increases, which might follow from this legislation, were preferable. I, therefore, welcome those provisions.

Why, though, has the Minister of State chosen to retain the power to accept or reject a recommendation by the commission as outlined in section 6? I hope that the recommendation would always be positive. Why did he decide to follow the UK's model of keeping the Low Pay Commission in an advisory role, as opposed to the German Mindestlohnkommission, minimum wage commission, founded in January, which has the same set-up as the Irish Low Pay Commission? I note that the structure of our Low Pay Commission is similar to that of its counterparts in other large European economies.

I agree with the Minister of State that a consensus-based approach is usually best for recommendations on public policy. However, a consensus may be difficult to reach with employers in sectors which are historically characterised by very low pay rates. It can be particularly difficult when we already have statements from organisations such as the Small Firms Association criticising the functioning of the commission as well a likely recommendation to increase the minimum wage this year. I completely disagree with the argument that increasing the minimum wage will automatically lead to those on higher pay scales demanding increases.

Schedule 2 of the Bill provides for the membership of the commission and seeks to strike a balance. There are three members representing low-paid workers and three representing employers. There are a further two experts with proven competence in economic research and statistical analysis. I asked a parliamentary question on the recruitment process for the commission earlier in the year and the Minister of State gave me a reasonable answer.

Earlier this year, the Think-tank for Action on Social Change, TASC, released a research paper entitled "Cherishing all equally: economic inequality in Ireland", which highlighted growing inequalities in our country. The research indicated that Ireland is currently the "most unequal country in the EU [...] before taxes and social welfare payments are included". This confirms the importance of progressive taxation and social protections such as this legislation. As I have previously stated, the TASC report cogently notes:

The two poles of economic inequality are the concentration of income and wealth on the one hand and the number of people unable to meet their material needs on the other.

Various IMF studies have shown that reducing income inequality through redistributive methods does not hurt economic growth and actually helps it. Indeed, at TASC's annual conference, which took place on Friday last in Croke Park, Professor Özlem Onaran, a leading international economist based at the University of Greenwich, suggested that a pay rise generally across Europe would stimulate growth. Professor Onaran argued that "wage moderation policies are counter-productive and lead to a stagnation of economic growth". She went on to explain that her research, which included Ireland, showed that "a fall in wages leads to lower consumption because workers spend more as a proportion of their income compared to those who earn income from profit".

The Pobal HP deprivation index involves studies of small areas of the Irish population and has been an ongoing process over the years. To what extent will the Low Pay Commission address the disparities in costs for workers in different parts of the country? The Minister of State and I are familiar with the urban costs, and the Minister of State also represents rural areas. This is an important issue which I hope the commission will look at.

Will the Low Pay Commission have a role in examining a living wage in further detail? The Tánaiste told me on a number of occasions in earlier debates that this was an idea of which she was very much in favour. I have long been a supporter of the idea of introducing a national living wage, which was first advocated in the UK by a community coalition known as "London Citizens". They began the campaign based on the principle of fairness and this has had a great impact on the adoption of a living wage in various areas of the UK, even to the point of agreeing a model for calculating the living wage, which is then reported each year. In Ireland, the living wage has been calculated by ICTU to currently be €11.45 per hour, significantly higher than the current national minimum wage.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights in Article 25 and the UN International Covenant on Economic and Cultural Rights in Article 11 both highlight the right to an adequate standard of living, and a living wage is defined as one which "makes possible a minimum acceptable standard of living". At the beginning of May, I asked a parliamentary question as to whether the Minister of State might consider introducing a living wage and continuing the tradition Deputy Maloney talked about earlier. I was told the Minister of State had a deep interest in the living wage initiative and that he was going to hold a forum on the issue at some stage this year. What was the outcome of that? Was the forum held and what input might it have in the discussions on the minimum wage?

Ms Nicola Sturgeon, the current and, we should say, great First Minister of Scotland, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party and the other Taoiseach - as we know, there are two taoisigh in these islands - has been brave enough to ask businesses in Scotland to sign up to a nine-point Scottish business pledge whereby pay would be at least £7.85 per hour, which is over €11, instead of the current minimum wage of £6.50. The pledge is part of a campaign to promote fairness and economic growth. NERI's paper from March 2014, A Living Wage for Ireland: Some Considerations and Initial Estimates, concluded that "the implementation of a living wage offers significant potential to enhance the living standards of low income workers and their families". This is something we could look at in the longer term as a core objective of social policy in this country. While I agree this Bill is a step in the right direction, there is certainly more that could and should be done to help lower-income workers.

Earlier this year, the Minister of State and 70 others voted against my High Pay and Wealth Commission Bill, which we lost by 71 votes to 26. That Bill provided for the establishment of a high pay and wealth commission on a permanent basis in the Central Statistics Office. The fact that I wanted to put it within the CSO was one of the Minister of State's main points of opposition to the Bill. However, I only did that because the Bill would have involved expenditure and I could not have a charge on the Exchequer when bringing legislation before the House. That commission was intended to carry out research on all levels of pay and wealth in the State and to inform public policy, which I believe is the way forward.

Coming up to October and the general election campaign, we will all be trying to put forward the best possible plan for the Irish people for the next four or five years. However, we sometimes do not know what we are talking about and we do not know the realities of the issues. It has often been said that people in Norway or Sweden can simply telephone their revenue organisation or the equivalent of the CSO and find out what a Minister, a parliamentarian or anyone else in the country was paid last year. This gives us an idea of how we could frame taxation policy most efficiently in this country. The Low Pay Commission and low pay idea is only part of what we need to do. We need to look at everything and we need to find out who is worth what. For example, there were obscene levels of pay in the banking and financial services industry before the crash. Pay of €500,000 might have been regarded as chicken feed and only a minor salary, and some people wanted €3 million, €4 million and €5 million, and sometimes up to €70 million or €80 million, and that type of obscenity. At the same time, the political representatives of such people are calling for harsh measures to contain costs and wages at the lower end for the vast bulk of workers.

While the Bill before us today is creating a commission to look at the low-income earners, my Bill was intended to take a top-down approach and to examine the levels of very high pay and wealth in the country and to look across the full parameters of the private sector and public sector, and then to inform public policy coming into the budgetary process. While today is a very important step, and I commend the Minister of State on getting us to this point, I would hope that, in future, we would know what we are talking about in terms of remuneration, or, as the famous AJF O'Reilly used to say, compensation. We should all know clearly what compensation we will get for doing our various tasks in the economy. I support the Bill. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's response and to receiving the commission's first report.

I thank Deputies Broughan and Calleary and all those who made what were largely constructive contributions. I welcome the general expression of support voiced for the main objectives of the proposed legislation.

Setting up the statutory Low Pay Commission is, as I have said time and again, about taking much of the politics out of the setting of the minimum wage. That reference I make is often confused and people sometimes interpret it in a deliberately disingenuous way. I do not think the rate of the minimum wage should become a political football for anybody. The Low Pay Commission is about trying to make sure there is institutional change for people who are experiencing low pay, who are some of the most vulnerable in our society. When I talk about taking the politics out of the minimum wage, I mean that we would set up an institution that protects the interests of those who earn low pay because we cannot always assume we will have a Government in place that will do that. What we do not want to encounter again, when the next recession comes, is a situation where the first people to get a kicking from the Government of the day will be those who are merely existing on the minium wage. I believe this provides an important protection for people who earn low pay. The Low Pay Commission can be a transformative institution. It has enormous potential to protect and promote the interests of those who are on low pay and to create an equal and fairer society.

I am very pleased with the high calibre of people whom I have appointed to the commission on an interim basis. The commission was launched on 26 February and it has been operating on an interim basis for the past few months, as Deputy Broughan remarked. The enactment of this Bill will underpin its first recommendation of a new rate for the national minimum wage and that recommendation will be made by the middle of July. The establishment of the commission is a very important expression of my and the Government's commitment to the dignity at work agenda and it complements work I am undertaking in other areas around zero-hour and low-hour contracts. I very much look forward to receiving the study from the University of Limerick, which will assist me in pointing a way forward in terms of dealing with that whole area.

As I have said before and will say again, we are very aware of the need to balance fair pay with sustainable pay and sustainable job creation. However, we will not preside over an economic recovery which involves a ruthless race to the bottom. Neither will we sacrifice the economic and social gains and rights that have been hard won by, for example, the trade union movement since the foundation of the State, as referred to earlier by Deputy Maloney.

I make no apology for saying that. As the economic recovery continues to accelerate and unemployment continues to fall, we expect to see the benefits being shared by way of better working conditions and improved pay, particularly for low-paid workers. We are all winners when we move people out of poverty by providing decent jobs. Industry cannot prosper if we do not have the resources available in our communities to support economic activity and ensure we have people who are willing to pay for goods and services.

I want to see the minimum wage increased progressively when economic circumstances, the demands of job creation and social conditions and requirements converge. I have said throughout the crisis that while other countries that have been subject to bailouts have hollowed out employment rights and ripped down the architecture of protections for people on low pay and those who are vulnerable, we are enhancing the architecture and framework of employment rights, which is crucial and reflective of a fair society. I am very proud of the contribution that the Government and I are making to that, because it would have been easy to take an alternative position, as was the case in many other countries.

We have demonstrated our commitment to the well-being of lower-paid workers. One of the first things we did when we were elected to government was to restore the national minimum wage rate, which had been €7.65, to €8.65. We also reintroduced the joint labour committee system. We are introducing collective bargaining legislation and legislation to reintroduce registered employment agreements and sectoral employment orders, and embarking on a process to tackle zero and low-hour contracts. We also enacted the Protection of Employees (Temporary Agency Work) Act in 2012 to protect people who are working as temporary agency workers. Having restored the economy to sustainable growth with transformational policies implemented through the twin-track approach of the Action Plan for Jobs and Pathways to Work, we are determined to make sure that the economic recovery is shared right across the country in every single region, by all families, all working people and those who are unfortunately in a situation in which they are depending on social welfare.

It is also clear that we are committed to maintaining, enhancing and improving the employment rights architecture in this State. I will not rehearse those arguments again, as I have done so many times in this House. We are seeing the benefits of the ideas and imagination of the Government. Unemployment is now less than 10%. In the year to May 2015, the unemployment level fell by 40,500, or 16.2%. Most of the increase was in full-time employment. It is not just me saying that; the information comes from the Central Statistics Office and others.

Deputy Murphy and others have argued that this is an economic recovery that is characterised by an over-dependence on activation measures, but the numbers and tax returns do not lie. We know when we knock on doors in our constituencies and hold clinics that we can hear about what people are going through and the changes they have experienced over the past two years in particular. Many people are migrating from part-time work, which was a feature of the recovery in 2012, into full-time positions, often within the same company, which is a very healthy sign.

I refer to some issues raised by Members. Many raised the issue of a living wage. I have said inside and outside the Chamber that I will hold a living wage forum in the autumn, the first of its kind, to which we will invite civil society organisations, trade unions and, crucially, employers to discuss the concept of a living wage in Ireland and how it can be applied here. I have examined closely the various campaigns and initiatives in the UK, where there was a very successful civil society campaign. That is where the living wage concept draws its strength from - namely, the fact that it is a grassroots civil society campaign. It has been really successful in the UK, with around 1,500 separate employers across the country having endorsed the approach. It is a concept that I, along with the Tánaiste and my Labour Party colleagues, support.

Deputy Calleary mentioned the need for commissioners to meet employers and employees across the country. He is quite right. Low pay commissioners have met those who are on low pay and those on the minimum wage, and employers who are actively engaged in economic sectors that are associated with low pay. This happened a number of weeks ago in Galway as well as elsewhere. It is really important that those on the Low Pay Commission get a grasp of the real experience of those who are dependent on the minimum wage and those who operate companies in such sectors.

I give credit to Deputy Calleary for ensuring that he and his party made a detailed submission to the Low Pay Commission encompassing their views on the national minimum wage. I find it very difficult to accept arguments put forward by the likes of Deputy Tóibín and some of his Sinn Féin and populist left-wing colleagues in the House on the national minimum wage when Sinn Féin made no submission whatsoever to the Low Pay Commission on the national minimum wage. That brings great shame on the party. How can we take seriously its so-called commitment to those on low pay if it does not see fit to make a submission to a new institution created by the State that seeks to protect the interests of people on low pay? Unfortunately, Sinn Féin's interest in low pay does not extend to making a submission to the actual institution that will make a recommendation to me over the next few weeks. Fianna Fáil made a submission, which is to its credit, as have the Green Party and the Young Greens, but no other Deputy made one to the Low Pay Commission on what the national minimum wage should be. I take some of the contributions from those in the populist left and Sinn Féin with a large pinch of salt.

Deputy Calleary mentioned the need to name and shame employers which do not pay the national minimum wage and have been convicted in this regard. Since 2012, NERA has published the names of such employers, and it is its intention to do the same in its annual report for 2014, which has yet to be published. I encourage it to do so. He referred to the amendments to the Workplace Relations Act, and I will ensure that a detailed briefing is available to Opposition Members to ensure they are fully briefed. That is only right and fair and will contribute to a debate in the House.

Deputy Calleary will be pleasantly surprised when he sees the extent and range of the actions that will be set out in the regional action plans for jobs. They are very detailed and I do not think representatives of Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, local chambers of commerce, local enterprise offices and people in private industry would dismiss the various stakeholder forums we have undertaken over the past few months on the execution process of the Action Plan for Jobs. I do not think they will be dismissed as PR stunts. It has been a very significant exercise and I hope the Deputy is pleasantly surprised at the details, vision and ambition that will be contained in our job creation strategies for the regions. It is a critical project and I share his interest in ensuring that job creation is extended across this country.

The figures we have seen for the past 18 months in particular will show that areas such as the Border region and the south east, which have suffered considerably, are on their way back and job creation has been accelerated. In his absence, I would like to thank Deputy Tóibín for referring to the Resolution Foundation in the UK. I have followed its work for quite a number of years and met its representatives privately in recent months to discuss some of its report. I remain in very close contact with them. It is a very interesting organisation with a very interesting perspective. I wonder how interested the Deputy is in the research it carried out on low pay and economic activity or inactivity in Northern Ireland. I have read its figures and those from other sources in the UK that point to the fact that, unfortunately, the North is an area that is majority welfare-dependent, has a large amount of economic inactivity and is an economy built on a foundation of low-paid jobs.

The Northern Ireland Administration has come in for some criticism in recent times about the budget it is preparing to ram through the Stormont assembly. We have seen all sorts of shapes being thrown by Sinn Féin, which I do not take that seriously, about its concerns about the budget in that particular jurisdiction. It is in the process of sacking 20,000 civil and public servants there, the equivalent of letting go about 80,000 civil and public servants in the South. Sheila Nunan, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, has said that what is proposed in the Northern Ireland budget will copperfasten it as a low-pay economy. We are all aware of the difficulties experienced in Northern Ireland around low pay, labour market and economic inactivity and high degrees of welfare dependency. Sinn Féin, however, has done diddly squat in Northern Ireland. I take its advice with a large pinch of salt. The pious platitudes that its Members offer here in this House will not put bread on the table in the North. I would urge them to get their own house in order before they start lecturing me or anybody else on the issue of low pay because their record is absolutely appalling.

Deputy Tóibín was deliberately disingenuous about the references that I have often made about taking the politics out of low pay. I will not rehearse the arguments again. This legislation is about trying to protect people on low pay. We do not know what kind of complexion future Governments will have. Will they target people on low pay? The Low Pay Commission is about ensuring we protect the interests of people on low pay and make evidence-based policy decisions to support people to move their situation on, improve their pay and general prospects. No one in this House would reject that. No one in this House is more passionate than I am about ensuring people’s prospects are improved and people can access decent, good sustainable jobs to provide for themselves and their families. I will not take lectures from Sinn Féin or anybody else on that front.

When Deputy Tóibín compares our regime to those in other jurisdictions, what he always deliberately fails to acknowledge is the range of other measures and institutional reforms we have introduced around the re-establishment of joint labour committees, registered employment agreements, sectoral employment orders and so on. These make a real difference to people working in often vulnerable sectors of society. I challenge those who are concerned about low pay and employment standards to examine and judge the Government on the suite of measures it is seeking to introduce around collective bargaining, registered employment agreements, sectoral employment orders and its efforts to tackle zero-hour and low-hour contracts.

Deputy Wallace was selective in the references he made on the criteria laid down in the legislation that the Low Pay Commission will consider when it is making recommendations on the national minimum wage. He failed to acknowledge that, for the first time ever, primary legislation will be in place with the ambition to progressively increase the rate of the national minimum wage, albeit when the social and economic circumstances converge. It is a positive aspiration and ambition to nail that down in primary legislation.

Deputy Pringle referred to the appointment process to the Low Pay Commission. I am satisfied its membership has the right balance with people with strong expertise, experience and track records in their own areas. They can bring much to the commission.

I welcome Deputy O’Dowd’s point that some Members on the Opposition benches make it out as if the Low Pay Commission was setting about attacking the interests of low-paid workers, not supporting or promoting their interests. Some of the contributions made were entirely cynical and opportunistic. They came from Members who have never achieved a single thing on behalf of people dependent on low pay or who want decent sustainable jobs. We hear much rhetoric and cant but absolutely no contribution whatsoever in improving the lot of low-paid workers. This can be a transformative body of legislation for people on low pay. The ambitions, aspirations and the objectives of this legislation are endless and will evolve over time. We should all acknowledge that it is a good start and strong institutional reform for those on low pay.

I reassure Deputy McLoughlin about the concerns that small and medium-sized enterprises, SMEs, may have around increases in the national minimum wage. We are taking a very balanced approach to reviewing the wage on an annual basis, as will be required under this legislation. Some extreme elements in the business community do not believe in the principle of a national minimum wage, however. The majority in this House would reject such a view. A balanced and robust set of mechanisms are reflected in this legislation which will ensure the commission’s recommendations are made in an evidence-based way.

Deputy Broughan welcomed the legislation and the principles it reflects. He asked why it was decided not to give all responsibility for setting the minimum wage rate to the commission. It is crucial that the democratically elected Oireachtas and the Executive have the opportunity to accept or reject a report from the Low Pay Commission, albeit one established on a statutory basis with the important function to make a recommendation every year on the national minimum wage. It is important constitutionally that this House retains that right. In some ways, he answered his question when he commented on how difficult it might be for the commission to reach consensus on a recommendation. Under this legislation, the Government will retain the right to set a rate in the absence of a recommendation being forthcoming from the commission.

This is well-balanced legislation and its provisions have been given a significant degree of consideration. I ask that all Members support the Bill, its principles and what it is trying to achieve. We will be able to tease out in more detail some of the propositions made today on Committee and Report Stages.

Question put and agreed to.