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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 5 Jul 2016

Vol. 916 No. 2

Topical Issue Debate

Job Losses

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important topic for debate. The topic in question concerns the peremptory and sudden announcement by Imperial Tobacco last Thursday that it will close its manufacturing facilities in Mullingar from October next with the loss of 87 quality jobs. The company did so on the day the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation attended important events at the National Life Sciences & Engineering Expo in Mullingar. The company says the decision to close resulted from the implementation of the EU directive that set the minimum size of tobacco packs and the weight of hand-rolled tobacco packs at 30g. Essentially, this led to a significant number of production lines that produced smaller sizes of hand-rolled tobacco being decommissioned. Not everyone is convinced by this explanation and there is no reference to the decline in consumption or anything else. The production line will move to the Netherlands. Where is the Netherlands located? It is not Asia or the Americas. The Netherlands is in the heart of Europe and the same EU directive applies there so not every worker is convinced by the explanation that has been provided.

No prior indication that the plant was in difficulty or in danger of closure was given to anybody involved, particularly the loyal employees. Did the company even extend the courtesy to the early warning section in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to alert the Minister that it intended to drop this bombshell upon unsuspecting employees, one of whom has well over 40 years of wonderful service and many of whom have in excess of 30 years of service in what was much-sought-after unionised employment with a good industrial relations environment and excellent terms and conditions? While the workers were left reeling and devastated by this bombshell announcement, the town of Mullingar was likewise stunned as the factory played a pivotal role in its economy for well nigh 50 years. Mullingar has had no IDA Ireland-backed factory or industry since 2000 and this business has moved on in the interim. Despite politicians of all persuasions and none, including myself, strongly advocating the case for the capital town of Westmeath, IDA Ireland has never prioritised Mullingar properly for investment.

We are asking the Minister to call on IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and other relevant agencies that deal with employment to immediately prioritise Mullingar, which is located in the heart of Ireland and equidistant north, south, east and west for foreign direct and indigenous investment. We have an excellent educated and mobile workforce, many of whom travel eastwards every morning to their place of employment. We have an excellent primary and secondary road network, a decent rail transport to Dublin, great primary and secondary educational facilities and a strong link to Athlone Institute of Technology, which is 30 minutes away, and NUI Maynooth, which is also 30 minutes away to the east. We also have wonderful leisure and recreational facilities and an open invitation from the local authority, chamber of commerce, trade unions and business interests. Establishing a wide-ranging task force is paramount at this stage. This is not a time for political game playing or platitudes and I assure the Minister that all public representatives at local level, including Deputy Troy and I, are united in our determination to promulgate the interests of Mullingar at this critical juncture.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter. My colleague is right. Last Thursday's announcement was devastating for Mullingar. A total of 87 people and their families lost high-quality jobs. This is a business that has supported generations of families in Mullingar since its establishment in 1967. I have engaged regularly with the management since the announcement and I have been advised that it is dealing with the Department of Social Protection, officials from which will explain to employees the benefits to which they will be entitled. There will be some opportunities for redeployment for the staff. However, what is being done is not nearly adequate.

I will deviate slightly from what my colleague said. What is happening in this instance is the consequence of an EU directive relating to the size and weight of tobacco packs. As far back as February 2013, the previous Government was warned about how this directive could affect jobs in this area. Nobody could argue that tobacco smoke seriously damages health and we need to do all we possibly can to reduce the number of people who smoke. However, nobody consulted this company. There was no compromise. Ministers in the previous Government refused to meet representatives from the company in question, which runs a legitimate business. Meanwhile, smuggling and unauthorised developments continue along the Border. In February 2013, when the previous Government was informed of the consequences of the directive to which I refer, did it put in place any strategy to deal with alternative work for the workers who were going to lose their jobs? I appreciate the fact that the Minister took my call last Thursday and engaged with me. I ask her to instruct IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland to prioritise Mullingar as a centre for development because not only have we lost these jobs, we have not benefited from any IDA Ireland visits in recent years. There was an increase in unemployment in the midlands, where Mullingar is located, in the first quarter of 2016. This is a top priority and I hope it is being treated as such by the Minister. I ask her to outline what she and her Department are going to do to ensure replacement work for those who have lost their jobs.

I thank Deputies Penrose and Troy for raising this matter. I have had telephone calls from Senator Gabrielle McFadden and Deputy Burke on the same issue. Clearly, my first thoughts are with the 87 workers affected by this announcement. I am very conscious of the anxiety that the announcement creates for the workers and their families as well as the local community.

In regard to the employees concerned, Ireland has a robust suite of employment rights legislation that offers extensive protection to employees. The staff of the Workplace Relations Commission are available to meet the employees concerned, either individually or collectively, to discuss their employment rights. I urge the employees concerned to make contact with the commission.

I wish to clarify that the Government and I are not in a position to grant any financial aid to the company involved. The World Health Organization has a set of guidelines which state that because tobacco products are lethal, businesses producing them should not be granted incentives to run their operations. The circumstances here are unique to this sector and are not necessarily caused by any enterprise policy failure. It is an outcome of tougher regulations from our health sector to help protect our citizens' health. For this reason, Enterprise Ireland is not in a position to support the company concerned. In regard to providing assistance for the company concerned, I will make sure that Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland support the Westmeath region.

In terms of job creation in the midlands, and in Mullingar in particular, Enterprise Ireland supports entrepreneurs who are setting up start-up companies in manufacturing and internationally traded services. Enterprise Ireland is also focused on the creation of new jobs through continuing to work with established companies in its client portfolio in the midlands. In addition to marketing Mullingar and the midlands for new investment, IDA Ireland works with its existing client companies in the area with a view to encouraging them to grow and embed their business. IDA Ireland has been working towards targets set out in its strategy "Winning -Foreign Direct Investment 2015-2019". For the first time, ambitious investment targets have been set on a regional basis whereby the agency aims to increase the level of investment by between 30% and 40% in each region.

The work by Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland is part of a wider Government push to create employment across the regions. My Department has published eight regional action plans for jobs, including a plan for the midlands. The core objective of the action plan for jobs for the midland region is to support the creation of an extra 14,200 jobs by 2020 through the delivery of 119 actions focusing on increasing the number of start-ups and developing the capacity of existing enterprises. These actions include the establishment of a manufacturing technologies campus and a series of measures, delivered through Enterprise Ireland and the local enterprise offices, LEOs, to promote 25% more start-ups, including extra funding, mentoring programmes and new incubator space for entrepreneurs such as the Junction in Tullamore, which I visited recently.

I have three more pages. They might be included in the record.

The Minister can come in again.

Something must be done about a task force for Mullingar because it has been bypassed on too many occasions. This facility is profitable so I do not know how the company could be seeking finance. SIPTU's intention is to initially try to preserve as many of the jobs as possible and I support it wholeheartedly in this approach. Why was there an effort to restructure the plant, with some voluntary redundancies leading to a certain amount of downsizing? Why did the company not take steps to modify the machinery and equipment - much of which was set up for producing cigarette packs and rolls below 30g - and adapt it to deal with the minimum pack size of 30g? The company had three years to adjust and invest. Why did it not do that?

I researched the closure of the Imperial production plants and distribution hubs in Nottingham and Nantes. They are now moving to Germany and Poland, which are in the EU so the tobacco directive applies there. I have to question this. I note from the statement by the company announcing the closure of its Mullingar plant that its remaining production from Mullingar will transfer to another of its manufacturing sites in the Netherlands. The latter is not in Asia or the USA but right in the heart of Europe. It is relevant to ask whether the company is using the increased EU regulations as a cover or a ploy to shut this factory. It is a question that affects the staff and they deserve to have it answered.

My predecessor, the late Jimmy Bennett, played a big role in obtaining the land on which the factory is built. I hope the maximum number of jobs will be preserved there. The employees will obviously be very well looked after and I hope the premises will be transferred to IDA Ireland, Westmeath County Council or somebody else to ensure it is preserved as a significant base to attract businesses to Westmeath.

Unfortunately, IDA Ireland has ignored this region in recent years. That is why I did not support the previous Government. This region was totally and utterly ignored. Marlinstown business park would be lying empty if Patterson Pump had not relocated there. I accept that tougher tobacco regulation is needed but it was imperative for IDA Ireland and the previous Government to engage with this business when it was forewarned in February 2013 of the consequence of the directive. It is possible the company is using the directive to relocate to locations where labour is cheaper. We were warned in February 2013 that this could happen. What strategy was put in place by the previous Government in 2013 to ensure that when the inevitable happened, there would be something in place for the 87 people who will lose their jobs at the end of this year? The former Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Senator James Reilly, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, and the previous Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, were written to in 2013 but no action was taken. I accept the Minister's sincerity and her bona fides but the problem is that the midlands region, of which Westmeath is part, is one of only three regions of eight nationally that suffered an increase in unemployment in the first quarter of this year. We have an issue there which needs to be addressed. We need a specifically designated task force to come in and work in our region to ensure that we have job creation in future.

IDA Ireland is targeting a minimum of 30% to 40% increase in the number of investments in the area. There are 33 multinational companies based in the midlands employing 4,214 people and most of the companies have been located in County Westmeath.

I will give the Deputies the facts on IDA Ireland site visits in Westmeath. There were nine site visits in quarter 1 of 2016. In 2015 there were 28 site visits to Westmeath; 12 in 2014; nine in 2013; and seven in 2012.

I met the Deputies when I was in Mullingar last week. I was very disappointed to get the news because I had visited the IDA Ireland business and technology site in Mullingar and toured the successful Patterson Pump plant. Patterson Pump is looking at the possibility of acquiring an extra two acres on site. I am aware that there is a very strong cluster focus in the region, with medical technology, life sciences and international business services such as Teleflex and Axa. I also enjoyed very much the National Life Sciences and Engineering Expo in Mullingar that was organised by the very busy and effective Mullingar Chamber of Commerce. I spoke to potential multinationals of the future and to some start-ups with huge potential. I recognise that more needs to be done in the context of growing companies and ensuring that IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland target the midlands region. It is my ambition and I promise to create the right environment in the region and rural Ireland in order to generate long-term employment.

Schools Building Projects Status

Who will respond to this Topical Issue on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills?

The Minister of State, Deputy John Halligan, will respond.

I want to raise the matter of Scoil Naomh Feichín in Termonfeckin. This primary school has for years campaigned for a seven-classroom extension that is required to accommodate the growth in population in the Termonfeckin area. Parents, staff and the community have campaigned for years to have the funding for this seven-classroom extension approved. It is ludicrous to think that communities have to mount a campaign to fight both the Minister and the Department for adequate school buildings and classrooms. However, that is a matter for another day's debate.

It is my understanding that late last year a commitment was given by the Department of Education and Skills, under its five-year capital programme, that the building of the seven-classroom extension would go ahead in 2016. Now the school has been told by the Minister that the Department has reneged on this commitment and the project will not go ahead this year. I received a reply the week before last to a parliamentary question I put to the Minister asking him why the funding had not been released despite a commitment that it would be given. I also asked how much money had been allocated for the project. I asked when this money would be available and when we could expect construction to begin. The Minister did not answer even one of my questions. Instead, the response detailed other projects under construction which had absolutely nothing to do with Scoil Naomh Feichín. The response also said that the money is gone. It is outrageous that the Minister could not or would not answer these simple questions. One must ask why the commitment was given if there was no intention whatsoever of following through on it. Why would a Department, Minister or Government do that, particularly in light of the effort and the campaign by the community over the years? Why would it give a clear-cut commitment that funding had been approved and the work would start this year? Was it just another empty election promise? Was it a gimmick, a stunt or simple incompetence? Is the Department so incompetent that it cannot correctly manage its own capital investment budget? Is that the case? What one finds now is that the Department may have discovered that the cupboard was bare and that it has no money after six months of the year. What does it take to hold this Government to a commitment? This came as a devastating blow to the community that has campaigned so hard over the years and worked so hard to get the project this far.

They had understood that this commitment was genuine. They had no reason to question the commitment that the school extension would be built this year. How disappointed and devastated they are.

What remedy is the Minister proposing? Will the Minister give a new date for the commencement of the works? I would rather not get the same watered-down avoidance answer that I got to my parliamentary question. It is a straightforward question. Will the Minister give the commencement date for this project on which the Government gave an absolute commitment only six months ago to the community in Termonfeckin that the funding was secured and the building would start this year?

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter as it provides me with an opportunity to clarify the current position on the major school building project for Scoil Naomh Feichín in County Louth.

First, I did not make any commitment, as Deputy Munster may understand, because I was not Minister at the time. I will be quite blunt and honest with the Deputy. I am not aware of a commitment that was made to the school. I can tell the Deputy the following.

Scoil Naomh Feichín is a co-educational vertical primary school under the patronage of the Catholic diocese of Armagh. The brief for the project is to provide an extension of seven classrooms and refurbishment of the existing accommodation to cater for a 16-classroom school. The staffing at the school is currently a principal with 11 mainstream teachers and two special education teachers. The enrolment for 2015-16 school year was 295 pupils, which reflects an incremental growth of 2% over the past five years.

The design team for this project was appointed in February 2012 when the project commenced architectural planning. However, the problem, as I have been told, was that project was not included in the five-year construction programme announced in 2012. The project was subsequently included in the six-year construction programme announced in November 2015 and is scheduled to commence construction in 2016.

The building project for Scoil Naomh Feichín is now at an advanced stage of architectural planning. All statutory approvals have been obtained, tender documents have been prepared and the stage 2B submission has been approved by my Department.

However, on 1 January 2016 there were 66 major projects under construction. Since the start of this year, 14 more major projects have been progressed to construction which brings to 36 the number of projects authorised to progress through the tender process with a view to starting on site in the coming months. That represents a total of 116 major projects, either under construction or progressing to commence construction in 2016. The existing contractual commitments for 2016 now fully account for the funding which was allocated for 2016 under the previous Government. This meant that the progression of the major extension and refurbishment for that particular project to tender stage was not possible at that time. Apparently, Department officials wrote to the board of management on 28 April, before I became Minister, notifying it of this.

However, having read all the submissions, the Department has said it will monitor expenditure on existing contractual commitments over the coming months and, as funding allows, other projects, including this, will be considered for progression through the tender process with a view of starting on site as soon as possible.

The commitment I can give to Deputy Munster is that I will speak to the Department over the next couple of weeks. I will find if a commitment was made, as Deputy Munster has said it was, under the previous Government. Being honest and upfront with Deputy Munster, I do not know that and the Deputy must take my word on that. I give Deputy Munster my word that, having spoken to the Department, I will come back to her. That is the best I can do.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. Since the new Government was formed and we were all told about new politics, etc., there has not been one day that I have sat in the Chamber that I have heard questions put by any elected representative to the Government party Ministers that were answered appropriately and in a straightforward way. Tonight, Deputy after Deputy got up and asked questions and none of the questions was answered. If that is new politics, God help us.

I note the Minister of State who responded to me is not the Minister in charge but it comes back again to the questions I asked about it. It is okay for a Minister or a Department to make a commitment pre-election and then post-election abandon any commitment, but it has a devastating effect on those communities, students, parents and staff at the school. That school is overcrowded. They have been campaigning for years and no matter what was said, the commitment was given that the funding was secured and building would go ahead this year.

It comes down to a couple of questions. Was it a gimmick? Was it an empty election promise or is the Department so incompetent that it cannot correctly manage its capital investment budget? Is that the case? If neither of those is the case, then will the Minister give a commitment for the funding to be approved and a commencement date for the work to start on the badly needed seven classroom extension in Scoil Naomh Feichín?

Once again, all I can say to Deputy Munster, and she can only take me on my word on this, is that I am not aware of a commitment. If she states a commitment was given, I believe her. I ask Deputy Munster to bear with me for a few weeks and I will check back to see if a commitment was given. I did not give a commitment. This current Government did not give this commitment. If Deputy Munster says it was given, it was given. I do not know, and that is fair as I can say it to the Deputy.

As I said earlier, I will have a look at the expenditure again and go back to the Department. If that commitment was given and broken and the expenditure was given out elsewhere, I do not know what I can do about that. I am told that, in expenditure on existing contractual commitments over the next few months, there may very well be expenditure that will become available. If that commitment, which I and the present Government did not give, was given, I will have a look at that, I will meet Deputy Munster and I will go through everything with her to see where we can progress from here. I would not like to think that a commitment was given and not kept, but all I can say to Deputy Munster is that I did not make that commitment. I will revert to the Deputy within a week.

Poverty Data

Members may have read the Social Justice Ireland report today on the poverty figures. It makes for quite frightening reading, when one looks at the spike in poverty levels in recent years and sees that today more than 750,000 people in a country of 4 million live below the poverty line.

We must ask ourselves what is the poverty line. It is important to realise that the poverty line is set at 60% of the median income. The median income is not the typical average of industrial wages. It is the middle level of income of the entire society. Sixty per cent of the median income represents, at 2016 levels, €209 a week. If one is earning below that amount, one is officially in poverty. We should also note from the report that one in five children officially lives in poverty. It scares the life out of me when I hear somebody, such as the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, talking about making work pay because it is code for going after social welfare. Instead of lifting people out of poverty, we have driven them further into poverty over recent years.

Being able to afford a new pair of shoes once a year or having a hot meal daily are examples of how we can measure the real human suffering that goes on. We all know of old people who make choices in the winter between heat and eat. We also know that young people are being really penalised in this society. When they had more than €100 taken off their social welfare payments during the recession, it was never re-established. Young people are really suffering and are living €30 per week below the poverty line. We are hitting the young, the elderly and lone parents and we are doing nothing, according to the Government's plans for the future, to reinstate this.

Social Justice Ireland has done us all a justice by pointing the finger, fairly and squarely, at the inequality in Ireland. It is outrageous.

Ar an gcéad dul síos ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leat. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing Deputy Smith and I to raise this Topical Issue. Deputy Smith has outlined the matter, which is serious. I am glad the Minister is here to deal with it. In spite of all the recovery, there are 750,000 people in poverty in Ireland today. There is much talk of boom and recovery but there has been no recovery for those people. It is very sad that 18% of adults living in poverty are employed: they are the working poor. That is a new type of poor, and it has become evident not since the Minister came into office but in the past ten years. These people are not even all employees, as many are self-employed and not included in any statistics.

I compliment Social Justice Ireland on today's report, and it is apt that the Ceann Comhairle allowed the Topical Issue. A job of work must be done on this. I know the programme for Government has commitments and I negotiated with the Minister long and hard about those. I look forward to working with the Minister in trying to make improvements. With the overall share of income being divided, too little is going to the bottom percentage of people and too much is going to the top 10%. There is a major imbalance that must be corrected. There are different steps we can take but work must be rewarding, as Deputy Smith mentioned. The Government must address the issue and ensure policies can be poverty-proofed. This must be done with rural Ireland in mind as well as there are many people affected there. As the Minister of State, Deputy Corcoran Kennedy, knows, many small farmers are very poor and too proud to admit it. They will not even go to community welfare officers. A few have come to me because they cannot get family income supplement. They are embarrassed about being in that position and they do not want to be.

I know the Minister is a reforming Minister. I appeal to him to make reforms and look after these people. There are hundreds of thousands of children facing poverty and it is very hard on them going to school or anywhere else. We must look after our elderly and the new working poor.

I thank the Deputies for submitting the subject of poverty as a Topical Issue debate. Tackling poverty continues to be a priority for the Government. It is important to point out the figures mentioned by the Deputies are from the survey on income and living conditions for 2014 and are neither new nor recent, although the report by Social Justice Ireland was published today. They relate to the number of people who are "at risk of poverty", meaning they are living in households whose income is below 60% of the median income for all households. Measured in this way, the "at risk of poverty" rate, as a percentage of the population, was 16.3% in 2014. Being "at risk of poverty" does not mean the same as living in poverty or living below the poverty line. Deputies might use the analogy of being at risk of losing one's seat being different from losing one's seat.

Relying on a relative measure during periods of rapid economic change can be misleading and may misrepresent the scale and nature of the challenges facing us. Put simply, when the median income is increasing, this can result in more people being "at risk of poverty", although their real income and living standards have not deteriorated. This was the case in 2014, when there was rise in real median disposable income of 3.5%, driven mainly by higher rates of employment and some pay increases. The Government's poverty targets have been set in terms of "consistent poverty", where a household is both "at risk of poverty" and lacking in two or more of 11 basic necessities. This official measure is designed to identify the population with the greatest needs both in terms of low income and lack of resources.

The "consistent poverty" rate as a percentage of population was 8% in 2014. This was a small decrease compared with 2013, the first such fall since the recession. The consistent poverty rate among children was 11.2% in 2014, down from 11.7% in the previous year. We expect those positive trends will have continued in 2015 but we do not yet have those statistics. The full impact of the strong economic recovery was not fully reflected in the 2014 figures. The unemployment rate was 11.3% in 2014 on average but has since fallen to 7.8%. As unemployment is strongly linked to poverty, we can expect further decreases in poverty as the figures for 2015 and 2016 become available.

The updated national action plan for social inclusion identifies a wide range of targeted actions and interventions to achieve the overall objective of reducing poverty. The social welfare system has proven crucial for poverty alleviation and reducing income inequalities. This policy is effective. Using data from EUROSTAT for 2014, Ireland’s performance in reducing poverty through the tax and transfer system, at 58.1%, was far in excess of the EU average of 34.1%. Ireland was the best-performing EU member state in reducing poverty through social transfers.

Income support is only one aspect of the policy response required to reduce poverty. The other components are inclusive labour markets and access to quality services. Growing employment and providing access to work is important for tackling poverty, particularly in welfare-dependent households, where often no person is working. The new Pathways to Work 2016 - 2020 strategy focuses on ensuring jobseekers can access good quality work, training and education opportunities. It continues to prioritise the activation of the long-term and young unemployed people, with supports provided through the network of Intreo offices. Welfare payments cannot and should not substitute for the salary or wages from a good well paid job.

Services are also important. Affordable health care, education and child care reduce poverty by reducing the cost of living and making work more attractive. More broadly, the updated national action plan for social inclusion reflects the multidimensional nature of poverty. The policy goals include a focus on early childhood development, youth exclusion, access to the labour market, including measures for people with disabilities, migrant integration, social housing and affordable energy.

Jobs alone are not going to solve the question of poverty, as the Minister knows well. He knows three quarters of all those living in poverty are outside the jobs market, as this morning's report indicates. They are people with disabilities, pensioners or young people who cannot work. There is no point in saying we have created X number of jobs and are resolving poverty.

I will contrast this with the other end of the scale just to demonstrate the inequality that exists. As Deputy Gino Kenny noted this morning, the top 300 wealthiest people in this country are now worth €84 billion between them and have added €13 billion in recent years. That is an extraordinary amount of increased wealth in the hands of a tiny number of people. Our top 1% of earners have experienced the biggest real income growth of any European Union country so how can that inequality be explained or justified? All the measures indicate that the greater the inequality in any society, the greater the levels of ill health, mental health problems, imprisonment and alienation. Inequality by itself brings by its nature a vast number of problems in society. That is gross and sick inequality.

Saying that the figures are from 2014 is not a big help. Most people know that much poverty is not reported for various reasons. The figures could be much more telling. Without social welfare payments, more than half of Ireland's population would be living in poverty, which is a frightening statistic. Inequality is rife and we must deal with it, as Deputy Smith noted. For example, we must address zero-hour contracts and low-paid workers. As an employer, I might often be against raising the minimum wage but there must be reasonable remuneration for people trying to work. We cannot have working people in poverty. Social welfare rates must take into account the number of children, siblings and dependants on a main income earner. These people are trying to survive and eke out a living, with some modicum of respect for themselves within society.

I will pick up on the points on rural poverty mentioned by Deputy McGrath. Rural poverty is clearly different from urban poverty, although both are equally problematic and need to be dealt with. There is a review of the farm assist programme, with a view to reversing some of the cutbacks from previous budgets. That may help farmers, particularly in the west, who are struggling to make ends meet from their smallholdings.

The first paragraph of Social Justice Ireland's press release today indicates that more than 57% of those in poverty are not connected to the labour market. That is a valuable point.

There is one issue on which I agree with the Deputy, namely, it is not just about jobs, although she did not mention jobs at all in her initial contribution. Dealing with poverty requires three things, effectively a trident approach. It requires good jobs that pay - that is what Making Work Pay is about - and it is about good services, because there is no point in having an income if one has to spend it all on things that people do not have to pay for in other countries, like health care, child care and other things. Services are very important. I do not think the Deputy mentioned them in her contribution.

I cannot mention everything. The Minister gets more time than I do.

There is also the whole issue of transfers. If one compares us with other European countries, some of which are more equal than us, we do pretty well on transfers. Our welfare payments are higher than they are in Northern Ireland, in Britain or in many other countries that have higher Gini scores than us. Where we are really falling down is on services - people on very low incomes having to pay for things they would not have to pay for in other countries - and employment. There is a high number of families in which nobody is working, compared with other countries. That is a big problem and no amount of welfare payments will compensate for good, well-paid jobs. I would like to hear people from the Deputy's party and her group talking a little bit more about jobs and job creation.

Very low-paid, precarious work, very expensive services and stealth taxes.

Commemorative Events

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this issue. What I am specifically looking for is a fixed date in the calendar as a national commemoration date for the Famine. The Famine was the greatest tragedy that befell our country. It was far and away the greatest loss of Irish life not only in the history of our own State but in the island of Ireland's existence, and yet we do not have a date in the calendar to commemorate it. We have a date to commemorate 1916 and one to commemorate all those who died in other wars on behalf of our country, but what is, perhaps, our country's greatest tragedy is somehow not deemed important enough to be marked by a permanent date in the calendar. This is no longer acceptable.

I have written to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, who was kind enough to reply to me, and I have submitted a parliamentary question, as have a number of other Deputies. The issue of whether we should have a permanent date or a floating date, as is currently the case, has also been raised with me by groups in my constituency. The Minister, who is chair of the commemoration committee, has advocated that a floating date is acceptable because it has a number of benefits. I am afraid I do not agree with the Minister on this and I cannot accept her argument.

Two matters are of vital importance and would benefit hugely from a permanent date. The first is that if we want to embed into the next generation of children in this country what the Famine was and what it did to our country then there is a need to have a permanent date in the calendar which can be worked to on a yearly basis as part of the school curriculum. This would enable teachers to work with their students in particular to build a programme around recognising what the Famine was, how it affected our people and how it affects the Ireland in which we live today. That cannot be done properly if the date is set on an ad hoc basis, based on who may or may not be available to attend at some point in a given year.

The other point is that the Famine, by its very nature and by the emigration that followed in the centuries after it, effectively internationalised this event for Ireland. The diaspora, the people who are Irish but born and living in countries all over this world, particularly in the United States, should be fully involved in commemorating what is our greatest tragedy. Again, this can only be done if one can say to people that on a given Sunday, year in, year out, Ireland will mark this national tragedy.

We need not mark it just as a tragedy. We can also mark it as what we have come from as a country, where we are going, and how it has affected our people. It can be a source on which the current generation can work together with the next generation and the Irish diaspora throughout the world. However, the first thing that needs to change is a mentality that does not accept that this greatest ever Irish tragedy is not worthy of a fixed date in our calendar. I strongly urge the Minister and the Government to reconsider their position on this and to put forward a date in the calendar, preferably in the spring, which will forever mark this occasion and allow it to be our third commemoration day.

I thank Deputy Brophy for raising this very important issue. I extend the apologies of the Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Ring, who is unavoidably detained elsewhere and so asked me to help out this evening.

The Great Famine was undoubtedly one of the most significant events in this island's history. The failure of the potato crop during the 1840s not only led to enormous suffering and loss of life but also changed Ireland's demographic and cultural landscape. The effects of this change can still be felt today. In order to appropriately remember the victims of hunger and disease and those who had to leave to make a new life abroad during those tragic years, a Government decision was taken in 2008 to commemorate the Great Irish Famine with an annual national Famine memorial day. As part of that process, the national Famine commemoration committee was also established to consider the most appropriate arrangements for the annual national commemoration of the Great Famine.

The committee, which is chaired by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is made up of representatives from the following: the Department of Education and Skills; the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; the Department of Defence; the Defence Forces; the Department of the Taoiseach; Irish Aid; and aid agencies; as well as historians and other interested parties. The general legacy of emigration, cultural loss and the decline of the Irish language, together with the specific issues of food security and the strong commitment of the Irish people to humanitarian aid and relief, are particular themes that have been explored by the committee in the course of its work. The Minister has been impressed by the knowledge, compassion and commitment the committee members bring to their work in commemorating the Irish Famine and in raising awareness of current hunger issues in the world today.

The national Famine commemoration is the centrepiece of the committee's commemorative work in relation to the Famine. The commemoration is a significant State ceremonial event, usually led by the President or An Taoiseach, and attended by representatives of the diplomatic corps, public representatives and other dignitaries. The ceremony itself is comprised of two parts, opening with activities that have local community involvement and culminating in the formal State commemoration, which includes the national flag, military honours and wreath-laying ceremonies. The event is open to the public and takes place at a site which is significant to the Great Irish Famine.

In choosing a location for the national Famine commemoration, the committee has adopted the approach of rotating the location of the annual commemoration in sequence between the four provinces, in recognition of the fact that the Great Famine affected all parts of the island. The first commemoration took place in Dublin in 2008 and the commemoration has now visited all four provinces twice. Both the committee and the Department have worked with each of the host communities in Skibbereen, Murrisk, Clones, Drogheda, Kilrush, Strokestown, Newry and Dublin to appropriately commemorate and raise awareness of the suffering which took place during the Famine in these areas and elsewhere.

In relation to the call for a fixed date for the Famine commemoration ceremony, I understand this matter has been discussed by the national Famine commemoration committee. While the initial aspirations of the committee were to hold the ceremony on the second Sunday of May each year, it was always apparent that a degree of flexibility was necessary for a number of reasons. For example, the availability of the President, or An Taoiseach, to lead the official representation at the commemoration has been a factor in deciding upon the date of the State ceremony. The host venue and community have also been consulted in relation to proposed dates to cater for particular circumstances which may arise around the arrangements and to allow organisers to develop a fitting programme of locally organised events, many of which have been tied in with dates of important local significance. To illustrate, in 2015 the commemoration was held in September due to organisational matters which arose as a result of the staging of the event for the first time in Northern Ireland. The event, which was held in Newry, County Down, proved to be a great success, with significant cross-community representation.

I thank the Minister of State. The balance of her reply will be sent to the Deputy.

I appreciate the Minister of State's reply and the points made by her and the points communicated to me by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, in her written reply to me. However, I do not accept them and I will go back to the core point I made. It is a matter of how one prioritises this. The date should be fixed in the diary in the same way that 1916 is and in the same way as our other commemoration date for all those who died.

If both the President and Taoiseach know that it will be commemorated year in, year out on a certain date, an effort will be made to ensure it is in their diary. If someone knows that a date is in a diary, they can work towards such things as moving the event around the country and using the four provinces of the island. On almost every level, namely, organisation, planning and delivery, it makes far more sense. The committee has done some excellent work over the years and had an idea of fixing the date. I urge it to revisit this. It is not good enough to say it is a floating date as we would not accept a floating date for our other national days of commemoration. No one would suggest marking Easter 1916 somewhere in September. This is the greatest tragedy to have befallen the people and I do not think it is too difficult for us to put a date in our diary to mark it every year. I ask the Minister to reconsider and I will ask the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Heather Humphreys, again in the future.

That a date for the national Famine commemoration ceremony is not fixed does not in any way lessen its importance. On the contrary, it is the level of importance which is accorded to ensuring the commemoration befits the enormity of the event it commemorates and the scale of the losses those events entailed which dictate its flexibility in the schedule. Commemorating events of such magnitude demands that our national commemoration be of the highest standard and the recommendations and decisions of the national Famine commemoration committee guide the Department's actions in this regard. First and foremost, the national Famine commemoration should be a fitting memorial to the vast swathes of our population lost to death and emigration both nationally and locally in the host community. Achieving this goal as well as the other goals of the committee in terms of community, local and youth participation in the commemoration, highlighting the historical perspective of the event and communicating issues around famine, hunger, food security and aid in the modern world requires a great deal of planning and work both by the Department and the organising committee in the year concerned. This, allied to the fact that, unlike other commemorations, the national Famine commemoration does not take place at a fixed site each year, increases the level of complexity associated with the event and necessitates that flexibility be maintained to ensure the commemoration meets the goals set for it and achieves the level of public attention it demands.

I ask the Deputy and other interested parties to take into account the very legitimate reasons for the schedule of the commemoration and to work to help to deliver what promises to be a wonderfully moving commemoration at Glasnevin cemetery on 11 September. I understand that everybody in the Oireachtas has been invited and I hope as many as possible will attend