Leaders' Questions

We face strike action in our secondary schools, in particular from the ASTI. Fianna Fáil supports the Lansdowne Road agreement and has been consistent in so doing. There have been consistent calls for the ASTI to enter the Lansdowne Road agreement. This strike is unnecessary and it can and should be avoided. If it is not, thousands of students across the country will suffer. They will be the main victims.

There is no question that the teachers have issues across a range of areas, not least junior certificate reform. Not everybody was fully agreeable to all that, including me, but while I have issues with some aspects of it, it is not a matter which necessitates industrial action.

The issue seems to have crystallised around equal pay, in particular for new entrants. While the TUI and the INTO have negotiated a partial restoration of pay equality, from about 15% to 22%, we have consistently supported the idea that there has to be full pay restoration over time and that new entrants should not be disadvantaged into the future as they have been in the past few years. That is a key objective, on which there seems to be a lot of consensus.

I watched the debate on "Claire Byrne Live" last night, during which the president of the ASTI seemed to indicate that the central issue causing the strike was a commitment to full pay restoration. In other words, the union wants to ensure the Government is committed not just to that which has been negotiated to the expiry date of the Lansdowne Road agreement but also beyond to full equalisation of pay for new entrants. During the debate the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, said there would be and indicated that it was Government policy. I stand to be corrected, but I understand that some time ago the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, indicated something similar. However, there does not appear to have been any categoric articulation of that principle by the Government side in the current talks. It would be interesting if the Taoiseach were to indicate that the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, fully articulated official Government policy. Is it the case, officially, that the Government is committed, once the Lansdowne Road agreement expires, to full restoration of equal pay? It seems that the other unions negotiated and did not abandon their commitments - they will continue to fight for equal pay. Therefore, one is left with the question as to why schools have to close at all.

As the Taoiseach knows, we should be in no doubt that the withdrawal of supervision means the indefinite closure of schools. People may not have been aware of this, but that is the practical reality of the withdrawal of supervision. There may be a temptation within the system to punish the ASTI, a temptation which should be resisted. A genuine effort should be made to determine whether consensus can be arrived at on the issue of equal pay. There does not seem to be a whole lot between people on the core issue.

I am disappointed that things have gone this far, but there is still time for the ASTI to pull back. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, has been diligent in wanting to see the threatened strike being called off. It is a dispute that is unnecessary. Clearly, the issues that have led to it have already been dealt with for other unions within the Lansdowne Road agreement. The deal on offer to the ASTI, on which its members were balloted and which was accepted by other unions, would result in pay increases of between 15% and 22% for new entrants to teaching, with further benefits in working conditions and a route to possible further improvements through the public pay commission which was announced today by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and endorsed by the Government.

For the information of the House, under the proposed deal for new entrant teachers which is being implemented for the INTO and the TUI and which potentially is on offer to the ASTI, the starting pay of new entrant members would increase by 15% until 31 August 2016 and 1 January 2018, from €31,009 to €35,602. An individual member recruited since 1 September 2015 would see a 22% increase in his or her pay in the same period, from €31,000 to €37,723. In terms of career earnings, the deals that have been done would restore approximately three quarters of the reductions for new entrants since 2011.

In fairness to Deputy Micheál Martin, he raised a particular question about equality. I hope the threatened strike can be called off. Sensitive discussions are taking place. Equality and fairness are central to everything the Government tries to do, particularly in education where the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, has focused on creating better opportunities for people from disadvantaged areas in the school system and higher education.

As the Deputy knows, a number of measures were contained in the recent budget to deliver on this objective. As I have mentioned, the deal that was put on the table was accepted by the TUI and the INTO.

In respect of equality, there are others groups that we have to bear in mind. There is a need for equality between public servants in different parts of the public service. There is also a need for equality between public servants and those who work elsewhere or do not work at all. As IMPACT warned yesterday, it would not be equal or fair for us to make sectoral deals with particular public servants that would leave other public servants who had signed up to the Lansdowne Road agreement disadvantaged. It would also not be equal or fair for us to make unaffordable deals with particular public servants that would mean that we would have no money left in the public purse to provide for increases in social welfare payments for vulnerable groups, tax reductions for those at work or investment and improvements in public services on which people rely.

While the Deputy's question is valid, the talks are at a very sensitive stage and I do not propose to deal with the issue on the floor of the House, except to say fairness has been central to the negotiations in which the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, has been involved all the way along the line.

The Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, seemed to say it last night.

No, I did not see him last night.

No, I am saying he said it. I saw it. He was very clear that there would be full restoration of equal pay for young teachers. I think the word he used was "eventually", but he was very clear on the principle. It was in response to the point made by the president of the ASTI during the debate on television last night, on which I seek clarity today. Was he officially articulating Government policy? My understanding is that the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, at some time prior to this - I do not have the date - indicated something similar. There should be full restoration of equal pay. Obviously, it has to be negotiated in the broader post-Lansdowne Road agreement framework, but I have no issue in saying it and would be surprised if people ultimately had issues with it. The Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, said it clearly last night. It seems that, in some respects, it was a very clear answer to the request articulated by the president of the ASTI on last night's programme. Will the Taoiseach indicate whether it is Government policy or whether the Minister of State was winging it?

The Government has committed to implementing the Lansdowne Road agreement in full. As the Deputy knows, this requires continued careful management of the economy and a structured way in which to respond to the reductions made, three quarters of which have already been restored in the negotiations and signed off on by two of the teacher unions. The Government is fully committed, within the constraints, full implementation of the Lansdowne Road agreement and we need an orderly and structured way in which to do so. That is the reason for the negotiations which have been concluded successfully to this point by the TUI and the INTO, with benefits for their respective members. The same benefits are on offer to the ASTI. In response to the Deputy's final question, I say to the ASTI that no one wants to see the strike happen. The issues in dispute have been dealt with successfully and negotiated on with the members of two other unions. There are two particular issues at stake, one which is supervision, while the other is equality for new entrants. Both issues are on the table and have been discussed successfully in part by two other unions. The benefits are on offer to the members of the ASTI, if it wishes to deal. The Minister has made his comments on supervision. Obviously, if the strike is called off-----

-----it will have an impact on the issue of benefits for the members of the ASTI.

As well as the prospect of 17,000 teachers engaging in strike action, there is the prospect of 12,500 gardaí withdrawing their labour. There is also a very real prospect that nurses and doctors will engage in industrial action in the near future. They are doing this not out of greed or selfishness but because of very legitimate concerns about their pay and conditions.

These concerns are justifiably shared throughout the public sector following seven years of pay cuts by the Taoiseach's Government, the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil. There is a real prospect of school closures and of communities being without gardaí and this is a sure sign the Government is failing to address the growing number of industrial relations disputes to the detriment of workers and the public at large, including school pupils.

The vast majority of public servants want and deserve the fair and timely unwinding of the FEMPI cuts and the pay restoration they need. We know it cannot be achieved overnight. That is a given, but it can be time limited through direct dialogue and the formation of a new pay agreement that offers a road map to full pay restoration. What is required is meaningful dialogue that sets out a clear and sensible plan for the provision of full pay restoration which prioritises those on low and middle incomes. Instead, the Government is ducking and diving.

The demands of the teachers and An Garda Síochána are not unsurmountable. In our alternative budget, Sinn Féin provided for the restoration of allowances for all teachers and gardaí recruited post-2011, which are core demands of the ASTI and the GRA, respectively. Pay equality for post-2011 entrants also needs to be put in place before the scheduled end of the Lansdowne Road agreement. The Government's current position that this measure can only begin in two years' time is just not feasible. Kicking the can down the road, the habitual sport of this Government, will not solve the problem.

Does the Taoiseach agree that allowances should be extended to all new entrants, that the next round of talks for a new public sector pay agreement should begin without delay and that any new pay agreement must set out a clear timetable for a single pay scale for public workers and the restoration of allowances?

The discussions with the GRA and the AGSI are at a sensitive stage. It is disappointing, as Deputy Adams will be aware, that the GRA's members rejected the agreement reached with the Department in recent weeks and that the GRA has announced its intention of taking industrial action. I hope that can be averted. It is also disappointing that the AGSI announced its intention to follow suit earlier this week. This is particularly so given that it has not balloted its members on the taking of this action and that just seven weeks ago, 70% of its members voted to accept the Lansdowne Road agreement. Be that as it may, these discussions are at a sensitive stage.

Does anyone in the country want to see the withdrawal of 12,500 gardaí from the streets? Does anyone want to contemplate what might happen in some instances were that to take place? All I can say from this seat is that the Tánaiste, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and everyone concerned are more than willing, within the constraints of the Lansdowne Road agreement, to see that some progress is made. We have already made an announcement in respect of the public service pay commission today. Everything that can be done is being done. We have set out and adhered to the principle of access to the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Relations Commission for members of the gardaí. The Horgan report, due to be finished in a few weeks' time, will feed into that also.

This is a sensitive issue and I am conscious that any remarks made here about any progress being made by any trade union is watched closely by others. Two groups are involved. We have the ASTI on the one hand and the GRA and the AGSl on the other. All the other trade unions, with 250,000 workers, have signed on for the progress being made under the Lansdowne Road agreement, the unwinding of the financial emergency legislation, and the progress we know we can make. To be fair to everyone, let me repeat that I hope the GRA and the AGSI will continue to negotiate diligently with the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality and those involved in the discussions and that whatever flexibility and progress that can be made, within the confines of the Lansdowne Road agreement, is discussed and negotiated.

This is an issue about the security of our country and the protection and safety of our citizens. Gardaí, who do a job above and beyond the call of duty and for whom we have always had respect, are at a critical point. These discussions are very sensitive at the moment and I do not want to say anything that would disrupt them, except to say that nobody wants to see a situation where, for the first time ever, 12,500 gardaí will be withdrawn from public duty and public service on the streets and villages of the country. There are further talks planned and I hope everybody can focus on those and make progress in the interests of moving the country forward.

We want the talks to succeed. The Taoiseach has outlined all of the difficulties and problems but he has to be a problem solver and solution finder. The fundamental principle here is one of pay equality. We get conflicting messages all the time from the Government. The Taoiseach says the public sector pay commission will be the way forward, while the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, says the pay commission will not be a substitute for direct talks. Conflicting signals are also being sent on the issue of whether gardaí will have access to the Labour Court and Workplace Relations Commission. When I put this matter to the Taoiseach last week he refused to commit to this issue, yet we hear reports that the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, has told the AGSI that she is absolutely committed to providing gardaí with access to the Workplace Relations Commission and Labour Court and that work has started on preparing the necessary legislation.

Sinn Féin believes that all workers, including members of An Garda Síochána, have the right to withdraw their labour and engage in industrial action. I am sure gardaí and teachers have only come to their decisions very reluctantly. As I stated, the issue is one of equal treatment and equality. Which is it in respect of gardaí? Will they be given access to the industrial relations mechanisms open to other workers?

As I said already, there cannot be any question other than continuing to have a managed and prudent approach to dealing with public sector pay and the unwinding of the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, legislation and restoration of the cuts it introduced, nor can there be any question of making special arrangements for anybody outside the Lansdowne Road agreement.

Except for Deputies and Ministers.

People must work within the constraints of the agreement.

The Government is conscious that the association and many others in the public sector are frustrated with the pace of pay restoration. However, the Minister and Government do not have at their disposal the wherewithal to deal with these things immediately. Within that framework, the Government is committed to the establishment of the public pay commission announced today, which will examine pay levels across the public service, including entry levels of pay, and the gradual negotiated repeal of the financial emergency measures introduced under the FEMPI Act. The first report of the pay commission will address the issue of unwinding that legislation in terms of restoration of pay deducted and help the Government by pointing out the strategy to establish that legislation. The public pay commission will give equal status to all public services and it can be expected that each of these groups, including the Garda representative associations, will be afforded the opportunity to make their case and voice their specific concerns about remuneration matters. The Government is committed to the principle of access to the Workplace Relations Commission and Labour Court.

As a matter of law, the Taoiseach has responsibility for the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, and relations with social partners. The Government has sought to introduce legislation to repeal the NESC Act but that has not occurred. As of now, therefore, the Taoiseach has responsibility for the NESC.

This week, as others have told the Taoiseach in clear terms, the impact of industrial unrest will be very real indeed. Parents and students will be disrupted and parents are already very anxious about how they will cope and manage their daily affairs, whether getting children to school or minding them at home if schools are closed.

Garda sergeants and inspectors will ramp up their administrative action and we face very shortly the horrendous thought of a full withdrawal of An Garda Síochána from front-line duties.

My party has proposed solutions to these issues. As one of the architects of both the Haddington Road and Lansdowne Road agreements, I have argued for some time that we need to formally begin negotiations for a successor deal to the Lansdowne Road agreement that would accelerate the restoration for all public servants on an agreed and affordable basis. Labour has also argued, and Seanad Éireann agreed with the formal resolution put to it, that an employer-labour conference should be re-established.

None of these seem to matter. The Government mantra, which we have heard again and again, is that the Lansdowne Road agreement is the only show in town, as if Government policy was frozen in time. It is clear that this mantra is not now good enough. FEMPI, as I have continually repeated in this House, is by definition emergency legislation that has to be justified on an ongoing basis to the courts, and there have been many challenges. There is an imperative on the Government to be seen to be engaging in unwinding that legislation in a way that does not threaten the public finances and that is fair to all public servants.

What the law says in particular about the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, is that it is required to advise the Government on developing a strategic framework for the conduct of relations and negotiations between Government and the social partners. In that specific legal context, was the Taoiseach or his Department engaged with NESC in seeking its advice on a strategic framework for industrial peace? Has he sought its advice on these matters or is the Government's approach simply to ignore what the law says, as well as ignoring the growing list of expert opinion, daily recited in the national newspapers, which agrees with the proposals I have once again put to him, namely, to continue engagement in the unravelling over time of the FEMPI legislation, in an orderly and affordable way that is fair to all?

The first duty of the public pay commission announced today will be to look at the question of how the legislation should be dealt with in a strategic and focused manner. Obviously, as the Deputy is well aware from his time in office, prudent management of the economy in terms of public sector pay is very important. Given the nature and scale of the numbers involved and the number of unions that have signed up to negotiated agreements in regard to Lansdowne Road, we hope this can continue.

As I said, the ASTI, the AGSI and the GRA are the subject of the full attention of both the Minister for Education and Skills and the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality. The Labour Employer Economic Forum met the week before last for a very good engagement between union and employer representatives about the nature of the challenges that lie ahead. It was not a negotiating or decision-making meeting but a means of pointing out their respective concerns and the challenges they see ahead. I found it very useful.

Given the sensitivity of where we are now, I do not have a report from NESC on my desk pointing out the way ahead. NESC is well aware of the law and its legal requirement under that. I am more concerned about the immediacy of making progress on very sensitive issues involving the ASTI, the GRA and the AGSI. I hope the representatives of the three groups involved will meet again with Ministers and their officials and work out, within the constraints of the Lansdowne Road agreement, a way forward. Everything that can be done will be done. Nobody wants to see this happen.

While we do not have the wherewithal to restore pay, it has to be done in an ordered, focused and strategic manner, as is evident from the agreed outcome of the discussions between the Minister for Education and Skills, the TUI and the INTO. The benefits will be available tomorrow to the ASTI. I ask its members to reflect very carefully on what their losses are because of the failure to agree on a negotiated settlement that two other very substantial unions have put in place and in respect of which progress is being made towards what will happen in the future. The same is open to the ASTI.

On the questions raised by Deputies Brendan Howlin and Gerry Adams, obviously no one wants to see the withdrawal of 12,500 gardaí, for whatever reason, from the streets and villages of the country. I hope responsibility will be evident in the discussions, from the Minister's and the Tánaiste's points of view, and from both associations. We have made progress in difficult circumstances and can and will make further progress. Clearly, the way ahead in respect of the FEMPI legislation will be pointed to by Professor Horgan and the public pay commission and the principle of access to the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court for members of An Garda Síochána will be accepted by the Government.

It is clear to any seasoned observer of industrial relations that the Government is simply sleepwalking into disaster. For all the talk about "engagement", the only way to hold the public services together is to negotiate with everybody. As I said weeks ago, bilateral deals will pull the agreement apart. I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say all public servants have made an enormous contribution to the recovery of the State. Without their contribution, we would not be in the financial position we are in. All of them now need to see a clear pathway to full pay recovery. They understood all the reductions were couched in emergency legislation that had to be fully unwound for everybody. There is no mechanism proposed by the Government to do this. Seeking to assuage individuals as they emerge with clear demands is a recipe for prolonged industrial chaos, if not the complete collapse of the overarching agreement across the public service. Will the Government consider again doing exactly what was done in the past? As the economy improves, will it reopen negotiations with all public sector unions on a new national pay agreement that would fold into the Lansdowne Road agreement just as the latter agreement folded into the Haddington Road agreement?

The Labour Party was in charge of the cuts, by the way.

The Ministers are focusing on dealing with the sensitive and critical issues that are the subject of much discussion with the ASTI, the GRA and the AGSI. As I said, Professor Horgan's report and the public pay commission will point the strategy towards the complete unwinding of the FEMPI legislation. It is, of course, understood-----

In nine months' time.

It is understood we have to have a successor to the Lansdowne Road agreement. That is a process on which the Government must focus also, but it does not have the wherewithal, given its resources, to offer restoration now. There has to be a strategy for and a structure to it. That strategy and structure are evidenced in the other public sector unions and in case of the TUI and the INTO, both of which see substantial benefits being gained from the discussions and agreed negotiations. Believe me, the Government does not want the strikes to take place. I hope the unions involved will see that the Government wants to act absolutely responsibly. Where there is flexibility within the Lansdowne Road agreement, it will be shown, as in the case of other unions. Clearly, the road ahead points to a successor to the Lansdowne Road agreement. The Government will also focus on this.

Many people were shocked to learn on Friday that a 17 year old had been found guilty of false imprisonment because of his participation in a protest.

There was no allegation or charge against him of any violence-----

-----and he was recognised-----

Before the Deputy continues-----

-----I refer him to the fact that all Members will be aware of the long-standing ruling of the House that decisions of a court cannot be subjected to review or discussion in the Dáil. I am not pre-empting what the Deputy will say but I feel I should say that. The ruling is particularly important where an appeal may be pending. I request the Deputy to exercise discretion when making his comments. Perhaps he might focus on public policy rather than a specific case.

That is fine. I was in touch with the Ceann Comhairle's office to-----

I am not taking up the Deputy's time.

Sure. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

The Deputy has three minutes.

I will speak about the implications of the judgment.

The Deputy should speak generally.

I will. There was no allegation or charge against the boy of any violence, and he was recognised by the judge as having led a blameless life. However, he was found guilty of false imprisonment because he sat in front of a car and encouraged others to do so, he participated in a slow march, he used a megaphone to chant "No way, we won't pay" and he momentarily stood in Deputy Joan Burton's way and asked her to talk to him. That is it. He was protesting, not kidnapping.

(Interruptions).

Deputy Paul Murphy agreed-----

I am not asking the Taoiseach-----

The Deputy has been specific.

I ask him to focus on public policy-----

-----rather than a specific case because it could well be sub judice if there is an appeal pending. I therefore ask him to observe long-standing traditions of this House, otherwise he cannot be allowed to continue.

Okay. In the boy's trial, his barrister argued that to find him guilty would be a recipe for totalitarianism-----

(Interruptions).

Deputy Paul Murphy must-----

A Leas-Cheann Comhairle-----

He cannot do this. He cannot change unilaterally the long-standing tradition of this House-----

I am not doing so.

I ask him to be general and talk about public policy rather than a specific case.

Okay. I will quote Jimmy Kelly, the leader of a trade union in this country, namely, Unite.

He said that this judgment could "effectively criminalise democratic protest, and [this could] have very serious implications for our democracy". This goes far beyond this particular case or those of others facing pending trials next year or even the anti-water charges movement as a whole. It strikes at a very core of democracy and the right of people to protest. The dramatic broadening of the definition of false imprisonment constitutes a threat to basic civil liberties. It is a threat to the right of trade unionists to mount effective pickets; it is a threat to the right of anti-war activists to have sit-down protests; it is a threat to the right of pro-choice activists to have a slow march. Does the Taoiseach think that in future those who engage in sit-down protests, slow marches or pickets should be criminalised and face the charge of false imprisonment with a possible sentence of up to life in prison?

I will give a few examples over the past years that could now be judged to be false imprisonment. In August 2014, effective pickets were mounted by striking Greyhound workers campaigning against massive cuts to their wages. Those pickets stopped strike-breaking trucks from leaving the yard. The Taoiseach or anyone else can agree or disagree with that action, but the question is whether he thinks that effective picketing should be classed as false imprisonment and treated as such. In October 2014, farmers blockaded meat factories in protest against cattle prices. Again, the Taoiseach can agree or disagree with their actions, but does he think their actions should be counted and treated as false imprisonment? What about students having sit-down protests, which has happened on multiple occasions, delaying multiple Ministers, including even former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, in 1989 in UCD? Should that now be treated as false imprisonment? Does the Taoiseach think protest should now be criminalised and treated as false imprisonment?

I ask the Taoiseach to deal with the general question.

I have always held the view that peaceful protest in this country has always been permissible and will continue to be permissible. There is a difference, however, in the blocking of a public road to prevent people from going about their duty. Deputy Paul Murphy is also aware that the-----

That is incredible.

-----courts have been completely independent of the political system. It is a matter for the judges to interpret what the law is, and in the particular case the Deputy mentions no conviction has been recorded against the young man. Peaceful protest will always be part and parcel of our country, and I hope that will be respected for what it is.

Deputy Paul Murphy may generalise again.

There is a contradiction in the Taoiseach's answer. He said that peaceful protest has always been permitted, but then went on to say that the blocking of a public road may not be. The blocking of public roads has often been a part of peaceful protest. If a protest goes down a road, generally the people behind are impeded in their progress. The Taoiseach was met by sit down protesters in Galway, I think, in 2012. Many Ministers have been met by sit-down protests in UCD. I think Labour members were involved in sit-down protests-----

(Interruptions).

-----over the use of Shannon Airport in the past.

That is different, though.

Are the cases I outlined, which involve the blocking of roads and acts of civil disobedience as part of effective protest to be allowed or not? Not only not allowed, but are they to be prosecuted with one of the most serious possible charges in the State, that of false imprisonment. What has happened is a threat to the right to protest. On the basis of the evidence presented, that was all he was accused of. There was no kidnapping involved. It was simply protesting. The question is whether protest is to be allowed anymore or is to be banned and deemed as false imprisonment.

It is a matter for the Judiciary as to the interpretation of the law.

Public peaceful protest has always been perfectly legitimate in Ireland. I have a very strong view that people going about their legitimate business should not be prevented from doing so. In that case there is always a difference in the kind of protest. People going about their business should not be prevented from so doing.

The Taoiseach is criminalising protest.

The Taoiseach without interruption.

Peaceful protest has always been part and parcel of Ireland and long may it continue to be so.

Meanwhile 15-year olds-----

We move now to the Order of Business.