Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

There is an overarching issue concerning the management of human resources and industrial relations within the health services, which are, by any objective assessment, dysfunctional. Morale is very low across all grades and levels of people working in the health services. Pressure undoubtedly is rising, as health needs and pressure on staff are becoming more acute. The pressure is never-ending. Retention of key staff has become very problematic. Against this background, further significant disruption will occur tomorrow morning if the proposed strike involving attendants, porters, catering staff, and so on goes ahead. It is clear that there will be serious disruption to day cases, outpatient treatment and elective inpatient procedures. As Dr. Fergal Hickey said this morning, there will be delays and patients who are either in hospital or are trying to get into hospital tomorrow will endure great inconvenience.

The Government agreed to this job evaluation scheme during the negotiations on the last public service stability agreement. This was not foisted upon the Government by the Opposition; it readily entered into it. The agreement confirmed that pay rises worth between €1,500 and €3,000 per employee per year were justified. This was accepted by the HSE and by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The strike was averted last week. The issue being highlighted in the Dáil was constructive and a catalyst in that regard. From the Taoiseach's reply's last week it seems that he and the Government agree that the pay increases recommended by this job evaluation scheme should be honoured.

He said: "The dispute is around the implementation of these pay increases." Will he confirm that the Government accepts that the recommendations emanated from the job evaluation scheme reports? Does he accept that this is a process that was agreed to in 2015 and that the Government agrees that the various increases will need to be paid? The latest developments suggest the Government wants to drag out the process to 2022 with what the Minister, Deputy Harris, describes as a significant offer. Will the Taoiseach clarify and state transparently that the Government's latest position on the job evaluation scheme and the pay increases recommended under it? It seems that there has been a collapse of trust - a breakdown of trust - between the Government side and SIPTU. SIPTU is arguing that the Government has abused the conciliation process and never meaningfully engaged with SIPTU representatives. Is that the case? Has the Government been foot-dragging on this issue?

I take the opportunity to offer my condolences to the Fianna Fáil Party on the death of Councillor Manus Kelly in the past couple of days. He was a phenomenal motor sportsman and must have been enormously proud to have been elected to Donegal County Council for Letterkenny. I offer our condolences to the Fianna Fáil Party on what must have been very shocking news in the past few days.

On the dispute, as the Deputy pointed out, we have many people working in the health service. About 115,000 people work across the public health service, which represents an increase of about 10,000 in three years. Notwithstanding the genuine difficulties we have in recruitment and retention, we have still managed to recruit an extra 10,000 staff in the past three years. It is a challenging environment in which to work, not least owing to rising demand as the population increases and ages and also the increasing expectations of patients and service users of the kind of service they should receive.

There has been detailed engagement involving the parties to the dispute, most recently at the WRC, both yesterday and this week. The dispute relates to a particular pay increase arising from a job evaluation process. All 10,000 of the staff involved will receive a pay increase of 2.75% this year. That is in the bag and half of it has been paid already, with the rest to be paid in September. The vast majority will also receive an incremental pay increase. It is about the timing of a third pay increase this year - the pay increase that arises from the job evaluation process.

The Government accepts the outcome of the job evaluation process. What is in dispute is how it will be funded, how it will be timed and, therefore, how it will be phased in. The initial response from the Government side - the employer's side - was that it should be paid in 2021 when all of the evaluation process was complete. It is not yet fully complete; I believe three phases of five have been completed. However, to try to come to an agreement in the past couple of days, the employer's side - the Government side - agreed to begin to phase in the pay increases this year. Even though there is no provision for it in the budget, out of good will and in an effort to resolve the dispute, an offer was made to begin phasing in the increases from 2019. It will be a third increase on top of an incremental pay increase and the 2.75% being received under the public service stability agreement, PSSA. Unfortunately, the offer was not accepted by the unions which have now decided to go ahead with the strike. The offer made last Friday stands - for the dispute to go to the Labour Court for binding arbitration. Where disputes cannot be resolved, where they are intractable, where it has not been possible to find a compromise at the WRC, in the past we have gone to the Labour Court. The employer's side - the Government side - is willing to go to the Labour Court for a binding determination. We regret that the union side is not willing to do so. It is unusual for a union to refuse to go to the Labour Court.

I acknowledge and accept the Taoiseach's expression of sympathy on the shocking and untimely passing of Manus Kelly who would have been an outstanding public representative for us in the Letterkenny electoral area. Our thoughts are with his wife, Bernie, family and friends.

I put it to the Taoiseach that SIPTU is reluctant to go to the Labour Court because it has the sense that the Government has been dragging its feet and that it has not been serious about implementation of the job evaluation scheme recommendations, a process that has been dragging on since 2015.

The background is that the Government agreed the process that far back. It is, therefore, striking that the Taoiseach acknowledged today that it has not been provided for in the budgetary figures. He said, however, that the Government has accepted the outcome and that he accepts that the increases will have to be paid. I take it that is his position, because last week the Opposition was berated for suggesting the very same thing and for even raising the issue.

The Taoiseach said that we are down now to the implementation phase of the recommendations but that there are has been a breakdown in trust. The union side clearly does not trust the Government on this issue, and I would appreciate his comments on that fact, hence the reluctance, it seems to me, on the union side to go to the Labour Court. Every effort must be made on all sides to avoid a strike tomorrow. Last week, thankfully, the strike was averted, but we face three more days next week and significant disruption for patients, who must take centre stage in our considerations.

Many of these workers start out on €24,000 per year, they have been promised this for five or six years and it has not materialised yet. It was part of the public service stability agreement they signed up to and have honoured.

The workplace evaluation assessment is not complete: three of the five phases are complete, perhaps the third is complete and the fourth is ongoing. The initial position was that payment would arise when the workplace evaluation scheme was complete. However, in an effort to come to a compromise in the past couple of days, the employer or Government side offered to begin implementation from November 2019. Unfortunately, that was rejected.

As I said, this can be resolved, and the offer to go to the Labour Court stands. If it is a matter of trust, the Labour Court is independent and will hear all sides of the argument in making a determination. The dispute can be resolved in that way and we can avoid any negative effects for patients across these 38 hospitals. It is unusual for the union side to refuse to go to the Labour Court and I hope that it will reconsider.

Before I begin, I take this opportunity to extend my deepest sympathies and those of my party to the friends and family of Manus Kelly, who tragically passed away in a terrible accident on Sunday. The people of Donegal took great pride in Manus's many achievements and successes, not least winning the Donegal International Rally three years in a row. His dedication and professionalism to his sporting achievements as a rally driver extended to other aspects of his life. He employed dozens of people in Letterkenny and, as the Taoiseach referred to, was recently elected to represent the people of that electoral area. My thoughts are with his friends, family and party colleagues at this very difficult time. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Tomorrow, up to 10,000 support staff working across the State in 38 hospitals and healthcare facilities will strike, unless the Government lives up to the promises, commitments and agreements it has made. That is the long and the short of it. These workers include hospital porters, healthcare assistants, maternity care assistants and surgical instrument technicians. We can all agree that, without these workers, our hospitals would not be cleaned, our patients would not receive food and the health service would not function properly. They perform invaluable work and deserve to be treated and paid accordingly.

The job evaluation scheme, which ensured that workers were paid appropriately to reflect the changing skills and demands that their work requires, was suspended in 2009. This was reversed as part of the Lansdowne Road agreement, and recommencement of the job evaluation scheme was agreed and signed off by the Government back in 2015. In 2017, job evaluations were carried out and it was found that workers were being underpaid.

That is what tomorrow's strike is all about. It is not about workers demanding more than their due or making blind pay claims. It is about honouring agreements on which the Government signed off. It is there in black and white and the Government has failed to honour the commitments into which it entered.

Despite the Taoiseach's usual efforts to portray workers and their unions as unreasonable and all the rest, these workers are not seeking enrichment; far from it. For example, a healthcare assistant enjoys an entry level salary of less than €28,000. Even with the increase due under the job evaluation scheme, a healthcare assistant will still be earning less than €30,000. Nobody is getting rich here. The demands of workers are more than modest and the strike tomorrow is going ahead not as a matter of urgency but as an option of last resort.

We understand that the HSE has asked for this money to be provided from the Department but the Government is refusing to honour that agreement. As the employer in this situation, the Government must live up to its side of the bargain and honour its word. A commitment was made to these workers four years ago and again when the job evaluations were carried out in 2017. These are low-paid workers who perform invaluable work in our health service.

We all know that this dispute will be resolved at some point in time but there will be major disruption to patients, their families and the health service if this strike goes ahead tomorrow. These workers deserve the honouring of the agreement that was entered into four years ago by the Government.

Will the Taoiseach act at this late hour and play his part in resolving the strike to ensure workers get their fair dues and ensure there is no disruption to our health service tomorrow? The way to do that is to make a reasonable offer to the unions, to re-engage with them in the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, process. That is how we can resolve this and ensure that agreements are fulfilled and lived up to. That way we can ensure there is no disruption in a health service that is already strained at the seams.

The HSE received a budget from the Government, voted by the Oireachtas, of nearly €17 billion this year, an increase of approximately €1 billion on last year. It is not reasonable for an agency that is receiving such a big budget increase to come back looking for additional increases in spending during the year. It is often the case that additional money must be found towards the end of the year but we cannot operate a health service or a budget on the basis of ongoing demands for additional spending throughout the course of the year and I must take into account the strong advice received about that from the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council and others during the year.

It happens every year.

I ask the Opposition to also take account of that advice.

It is disappointing that the WRC talks, which were aimed at averting the strike by up to 10,000 SIPTU members, concluded yesterday without an agreement. As we are aware, in early June, SIPTU announced that 10,000 members working as support staff in 38 hospitals and healthcare facilities would engage in industrial action for periods of 24 hours on six dates in late June and early July. The WRC sought a deferral of the first two dates of strike action and invited the parties to resume talks on 20 June. This was agreed by SIPTU and was very much welcomed. However, SIPTU did advise that if a resolution was not found, it intended to take action on 26 June and again on 2, 3 and 4 July. Regrettably, that is now happening.

Constructive and positive engagement by the parties took place at the WRC. An offer was made by Government that staff in the grades concerned would be moved onto the appropriate salary scale starting from November this year. This would be on top of a 2.75% pay increase already guaranteed under the public service stability agreement, substantial benefits of the recent new entry deal and the payment of annual increments to most staff. We believe this was a fair and reasonable offer that would have enabled the implementation of the job evaluation scheme. Unfortunately, this has been rejected and therefore deemed inadequate to resolve the dispute.

The offer to go to the Labour Court remains on the table. Deputy Pearse Doherty referred to the strike as a last resort. It is not a last resort because the Labour Court is the next step and it is our deep regret that, on this occasion, the union concerned has refused to go to the Labour Court. That is the way to resolve this dispute and ensure that no patients are affected tomorrow.

That is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the Labour Court.

The next step is for the Government to make an appropriate, reasonable offer and to re-engage in the WRC process. That should be done within the hour in order that we can ensure that patients who have appointments scheduled in our 38 hospitals and are being cared for in other healthcare facilities are not disrupted. That is the next step.

We saw good faith demonstrated by the workers and the unions when the strike was deferred. That happened because they believed there would be meaningful engagement by the Government side, but that did not materialise. What materialised was a completely inadequate offer that was rejected on Friday. It is my understanding there has been no engagement by the Government side with the unions since, despite what the Taoiseach has said and the blame-shifting to the low paid workers and their representatives.

The fact that the HSE has requested the money from the Department indicates that there is no dispute over whether the workers should be paid appropriately or that the job evaluation process was signed off on four years ago, with the evaluations taking place two years ago. It was deemed that the workers were underpaid. The dispute lies in the fact that the Government is unwilling to live up to that side of the agreement. On behalf of workers and the patients who will be disrupted, is it not sensible to resolve the dispute now, not tomorrow, the next day or the day after that? Will there be an appropriate offer to re-engage with the Workplace Relations Commission and lift the phone to trade union officials in order to commit to meaningful engagement to find a resolution on behalf of workers and patients who are relying on the health service?

I thank the Deputy. The offer being made is appropriate. It is to begin phasing in the increases from November this year, notwithstanding the enormous budgetary constraints.

It amounts to €2 per week.

It is on top of a 2.75% increase already guaranteed under the public service stability agreement, increases to new entrants and the payment of annual increments. The next step should be referral to the Labour Court.

Has it been referred?

If a dispute is intractable, we use the mechanisms the State has at hand.

Does the Taoiseach understand the Labour Court?

In the first instance, it is the WRC and if that does not work, it goes to the Labour Court. The management side has offered a Labour Court hearing on the dispute.

It is welcome that the Taoiseach has moved from asserting that the declaration of a climate emergency was merely symbolic and that a climate action plan has been published by his colleague the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton. The plan clearly needs further discussion, given the vagueness of actions in a number of areas, not least of which are agriculture and transport. Equally important are further necessary discussions on the required actions to ensure Project Ireland 2040 and the ten-year implementation plan can be climate-proofed against the plan. In that context, I appeal once again to the Taoiseach to look at Galway, a beautiful bilingual city that is ostensibly thriving on so many levels but the success and development of which belie the reality for many people on the ground. Unfortunately, the growth of the city is taking place in the absence of a city architect and master plan that would put the common good to the fore. Growth is also premised on the private market providing accommodation units, as they are called, and the rolling out of more roads and consequent traffic congestion. This is developer-led development which got the city and country into a bad position in the first place. It is most regrettable that we are back to that position in Galway. The Taoiseach's colleague, the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, agreed with me on two occasions that Galway was experiencing developer-led development. This is not withstanding the repeated use of the words "sustainable development" in the national planning framework and the spirit of the recently published climate action plan. Government policy has now led to cases where we house homeless persons in what was tourist accommodation, including hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation, while tourists are housed in homes through Airbnb. I am most reluctant to use the example of individuals, but I will quickly relate the case of a person for whom I made representations this week. She has three young children and been on a waiting list for 11 years. During that time she has never been offered a house and the only advice given to her was to go to the housing assistance payment place finder service, which she did, but there were no premises available for her in Galway. The Simon Communities of Ireland has repeatedly told us and given us reports telling us that it is locked out of the market. The person in question is one of 4,000 households on a waiting list. Government policy is worsening the crisis with the HAP scheme which is the only game in town.

Parallel with that, last night at city council level the Land Development Agency, LDA, presented a feasibility study of the four-acre Dyke Road site in Galway.

It is quite clear from what I have looked at that the Government, through the LDA, has no interested in using public lands for the benefit of the maximum number of people for the common good.

These problems are not inevitable. The housing crisis and the traffic congestion in Galway have been created. If we are seriously interested in our words meaning something in this Dáil in terms of the climate action plan, the Government needs to focus on Galway. We need a commitment to putting in place a master plan that will put the common good to the fore and, included in that, there must be recognition that the city will expand by 50%. A feasibility study for light rail is needed as a matter of urgency.

I thank the Deputy for her question. I did not say that the declaration of a climate emergency by this House was merely symbolic. The Deputy used the word "merely", so I guess that was merely disingenuous. I said it was symbolic but that symbols and gestures do matter but they have to be followed up with action. The climate action plan published last week outlines those actions clearly.

Project Ireland 2040 designates Galway as one of the cities we want to see grow its population by 50% between now and 2040 into a city with compact urban growth, most of it happening around the centre, which makes sense for transport reasons and for reasons of climate action to move away from the sprawl of the past towards livable, densely populated urban centres.

I am told that the port company is due to start a public consultation regarding its lands. The Deputy knows those lands very well, and the inner harbour in particular where there is huge potential for new housing, employment and amenities right in the middle of the city centre. NUI Galway has similar plans in respect of Nun's Island.

The idea of a master plan is a good one. Generally, such plans are local authority-led. The Deputy will be aware that Cork, for example, developed the Cork area strategic plan, CASP. I believe Limerick has done something similar with Limerick 2030. The Government would certainly be happy to co-operate and be part of that but usually these plans are best led from the city or county rather than being imposed by central Government. A master plan makes sense. That is a very good suggestion.

On the LDA, the purpose of the agency is to use mainly publicly owned land, and private land, to deliver more housing for everyone. It includes social housing for people who have been waiting far too long on the housing lists such as the family the Deputy mentioned; cost rental housing for people who need affordable rent; and private housing for people who want to buy a home. More than 70% of people own their home. Home ownership is a good thing and we should not be embarrassed about using public land to provide people with their first home. I want to make sure that people who are in their 20s and 30s can aspire to buy their own home. I do not think it is wrong that Government policy, and public land in some circumstances, should be used to enable people to own their own home for the first time.

I welcome the Taoiseach's comment that a master plan is necessary. It is necessary for the Government to take a hands-on approach because Galway City Council has not done that.

I welcome compact, urban growth that is planned in a sustainable way. Within that paradigm, a feasibility study for light rail is needed. The city is destined to increase its population by more than 50%.

On the LDA, let me tell the Taoiseach what it states in its presentation. I know he is extremely busy but he might take the trouble to read it. It states:

Residential Apartments [No. Why?]

Build to sell: not viable given the construction costs and end use values

Residential Apartments

Build to Rent: not viable yet ...

It is not viable yet because the rents are astronomically high in Galway so that land will be used to build a hotel, student accommodation that can be rented out at high rates during the summer, and many other buildings besides, plus retention of car parking spaces in a city that needs to be climate-proofed.

I am using the few minutes available to me to appeal to the Taoiseach to take Galway as an example to implement the climate action plan if he is seriously interested. It is crying out for a sustainable plan. We need light rail and sustainable development in the city.

There is no reason to have a housing or accommodation problem. There is Ceannt Station, the Dyke Road site, the harbour and over 100 acres of land between the city and county councils at the old airport site and more land besides, yet we have a housing crisis in Galway because each is developing its own plan.

A new Galway City Council was elected only in the last month. New councillors have been elected to it. Perhaps this is their opportunity to develop a master plan for the city, one that would be climate-proofed, that would provide for good amenities, public transport and extra housing of all forms. We need it to be of all forms: social, affordable, cost rental and homes for people to buy. The Government is willing and able to engage with the city council in developing a master plan. Elsewhere there is the Cork area strategic plan, CASP, and Limerick 2030. I am sure that if Galway City Council wishes to approach the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, it will receive a favourable reply.

Today all of the attention will be on two budget options and whether the Government will opt for budget A or budget B in the autumn. Regardless of which budget is presented, we cannot afford any more wasteful spending as a result of particularly poor economic decisions. Unfortunately, disastrous economic decisions continue to be made. It is no longer news that we are in the grip of a housing emergency, yet the housing delivery system continues to be one of the most expensive in the world. Today The Irish Times tells us that the latest economic report shows that over half the country is unaffordable for the average house buyer. The most recent report by daft.ie on the private rental sector showed that only 2,700 properties were available nationally. The average cost of renting in Dublin is in excess of €2,000 per month and prices have increased for 31 months in a row. Average rents nationally are 8% higher than this time last year. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, recently described his plans for expensive co-living spaces, measuring 16.5 m2, as "exciting" and suggested younger people should be willing to make sacrifices. I am sure the Taoiseach is aware by now that An Bord Pleannála has refused planning permission for such a co-living development on the grounds that it would fail to provide an acceptable living environment.

Serious concerns have been raised by several sources about the unsustainability of the HAP system which is estimated to cost about €2 billion in the next few years. Figures show that the Government's preferred turn-key option will cost €70,000 per unit more than a new build. It is not a stretch to say the Government's housing policy is an economic and social shambles. Recently the Committee of Public Accounts learned that a hotel room to accommodate a typical homeless family for one year would cost the State €67,000 compared to the average cost of servicing a mortgage or rental accommodation. There is a serious disparity. How can the Taoiseach stand over such economic madness? That is without taking into account the social consequences of such economic policies, particularly for children.

Clearly, this dysfunctional economic approach is working for some. One of the world's biggest vulture fund management groups, Link Capital, has stated Ireland is the gift that keeps on giving, referring to the level of distressed mortgages from which the fund derives 62% of its annual revenue through the heartache of Irish homeowners in distress. Government inaction on rental accommodation, distressed mortgages, vulture funds and most housing issues has only added to the problem. Will the Taoiseach commit to legislate to end the special tax benefits for REITs and use legislation to ensure they will not be allowed to dominate the private rental sector? Will he commit to an immediate rent freeze in order to protect immediately those at risk of losing their rented homes when the next rent hike inevitably comes?

Any decision on changing the tax treatment of REITs is a matter for the budget and all proposals for the budget will be considered between now and decisions being made in October. It is always the case that we regularly review tax incentives and tax expenditures in advance of a budget.

Regarding a rent freeze, we would certainly do it if we thought it would work but we do not think it would work. We think it would be counterproductive. One of the biggest problems we have is the large number of people leaving the rental sector. Even Opposition Members have highlighted the large number of people renting out a house or property now deciding to sell it on and leaving the rental market. This is a real problem because if fewer properties are available for rent, inevitably it will make it harder for people to find places to rent. We may find that a rent freeze would result in more people deciding to sell the house or apartment they were renting out. While rents might be frozen, many people would not be able to find anywhere. We could see an increase in homelessness as a consequence and none of us wants to see that. We think what we have developed, which is rent pressure zones with increases of no more than 4%, is a better response because at least that way it allows new properties to come into the rental market and does not leave people with nowhere to rent. Rent freezes might work for people whose rent is frozen but people who have nowhere to rent or need to move would probably find themselves more likely to be homeless and, therefore, that would be a counterproductive policy in our view.

Affordability is a real issue in many parts of the country, not least in the Dublin area. We saw interesting numbers in the past week or two showing the average price of a semi-detached house was approximately €200,000 in Galway and Limerick, approximately €150,000 in Waterford and even less than €100,000 in some rural counties. Of course, the picture in other parts of the country, including Dublin, is very different. The affordability index the Deputy mentioned is based on the price of the median house in each county. Generally, people buying their first home do not by the median house; they buy a house at entry level. Using the median is not appropriate in assessing affordability in this regard. It certainly does not tell the full story. Very few people buy the average or median house and most people buying for the first time tend to buy a starter home.

With regard to An Bord Pleanála, I welcome the fact it has refused planning permission for that particular co-living development in Cookstown near Tallaght. The reason there are guidelines on co-living is to ensure inappropriate developments do not get planning permission. Just as there are apartment buildings and housing estates that do not get planning permission, some co-living developments will not and should not get planning permission. The type of proposal made in this case is not what was ever intended and the guidelines make this clear, which is why it was refused.

Part of the reason for the unavailability of rented accommodation is the predominance of Airbnb accommodation. Houses that used to be rented are now occupied by people on that basis. The recent report on house prices in Dublin showed the average price of a three-bedroom house is €433,000, which is many multiples of the average industrial income. Rebuilding Ireland has missed its target in three successive years. It was never ambitious enough to begin with. At the heart of our unaffordable housing issue is the cost of building land. If a constitutional amendment was required to address the issue in the context of the social good, would the Taoiseach be willing to consider such a referendum?

I am always willing to consider legislative proposals or proposals to amend our Constitution but we always need to be careful that we understand what the consequences will be and how they will work. For example, if somebody as a consequence of that found their land was significantly devalued, would the taxpayer have to pay compensation?

All of those types of things would have to be considered. Would it only apply to land that gets owned in the future? Would it only be prospective and, therefore, would not have an effect or be of any value for many years ahead? Those are the kinds of issues that would have to be teased out. The wording would need to be known and there would need to be a full consideration as to how it might be interpreted by the courts and what the unintended consequences might be.