Ceisteanna - Questions

Departmental Functions

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the housing, infrastructure and digital unit of his Department. [31755/20]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the housing, infrastructure and digital unit of his Department. [33224/20]

Paul Murphy

Question:

3. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the housing, infrastructure and digital unit of his Department. [33421/20]

Mick Barry

Question:

4. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the housing, infrastructure and digital unit of his Department. [33501/20]

Alan Kelly

Question:

5. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of his Department’s housing, infrastructure and digital unit. [33886/20]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.

The housing, infrastructure and digital unit is part of the broader economic division of my Department. The unit assists me and the Government in developing and implementing policy across relevant areas. This work is focused in particular on delivering commitments in the programme for Government, co-ordinating issues which cut across multiple Departments and ensuring a whole-of-Government approach to relevant issues.

The unit supports the work of the Cabinet subcommittee on housing, which oversees the implementation of commitments in the programme for Government regarding housing matters. Significant work is under way on the delivery of these commitments through Government Departments, agencies and interdepartmental groups, which have been and will continue to be brought forward for discussion at the Cabinet subcommittee and in the Government.

Budget 2021 was an important step forward, providing for an overall investment of €3.3 billion for the delivery of housing programmes in 2021. That included provision for 12,750 new social homes to be delivered through building, acquisition and leasing programmes. The unit also supports the implementation of wider public investment through Project Ireland 2040, which falls under the Cabinet subcommittee on economic recovery and investment. To ensure momentum continues in the delivery of public infrastructure, we committed an extra €500 million of capital expenditure as part of the July 2020 stimulus package.

The overall capital allocation for 2021 is more than €10 billion, making public investment in Ireland one of the highest per capita rates in the European Union. This huge investment will progress the delivery of flagship projects such as BusConnects, the national broadband plan and many more. Work has also begun and is being led by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the review of the national development plan, the investment arm of Project Ireland 2040, as mandated in the programme for Government. This will take full account of challenges such as climate change, and will doubtlessly reflect new challenges we will face from this pandemic.

Given the growing importance of digital matters in national and international spheres, the unit also contributes to cross-departmental work on digital and data issues relevant to Ireland's interests.

The unit is also responsible for publishing the national risk assessment, which has provided a high-level overview of strategic risks facing the country since it was first published in 2014. While an updated national risk assessment has not been prepared this year due to Covid-19, it is intended to resume the process in 2021.

The unit also provides me with briefing and speech material on economic and related policy issues appropriate to its area of work on an ongoing basis.

Given the number of questions I ask Members to be relatively concise, please.

As the Taoiseach is aware, five more people experiencing homelessness died last week. These deaths were not only tragic, they may have been avoidable. So far, 50 people have died this year. This means that by year end the number of people experiencing homelessness who have died on our streets will have doubled in 2020. Does the Taoiseach agree that this alarming increase in deaths requires urgent intervention at Government level? Has the Taoiseach brought this matter to Cabinet, and if not will he do so? It is my own strong view that an urgent intervention is required and that this has to include an acceleration of the programme for Government commitments.

The Government must enable local authorities to end the use of congregated or dormitory-style accommodation and to expedite expansion of the Housing First model. It is clearly time now to introduce adult safeguarding reviews. I believe there is agreement across the House on the solutions but we lack urgent action. The challenge of all of this is not new, but the significant increase in deaths should be a cause for alarm for every single one of us. In my constituency there is a proliferation of congregated homeless accommodation, but there is no wrap-around service in these settings for those with addiction or mental health issues. This lack of support has an impact on the entire community. Services are overstretched and waiting lists mean that people fall not just through the cracks but through chasms.

It is unacceptable that we do not have a system of adult safety reviews in place for when a person who is experiencing homelessness dies as a result of violence, addiction or suicide. Those who die are usually known to the services and yet no effort is made to understand how these same people met untimely deaths, despite these interactions. We have to learn from these tragedies so we can minimise them in future. We are aware that people who experience homelessness are at much greater risk of harm, addiction and significant mental health problems, and yet there is still no coherent State response for this small group of people who desperately need us to step up. Will the Taoiseach prioritise these matters and bring them to Cabinet with the intention of delivering a whole-of-government strategy to tackle the increasing number of people in homelessness who meet avoidable deaths?

I want to ask the Taoiseach about the Land Development Agency. In my area, the councillors on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council are going to be asked to vote for the disposal of public land to the Land Development Agency, supposedly to build social and affordable housing, which we and others have campaigned for on the Shanganagh Castle site for a long time. There is, however, absolutely no statutory basis to the Land Development Agency, LDA. I do not know why on earth that councillors in Dún Laoghaire or anywhere else would vote to hand over public land, which could be used for public and genuinely affordable housing, to an agency that does not have a statutory basis but which seems, essentially, geared up to privatise parts of public land. This is supposedly to deliver some public and affordable housing but in reality could be a back door to privatising parts of those many public sites that should be developed for public and genuinely affordable housing. We also have no idea what genuinely affordable housing will be via the LDA. I do not see why we need the agency.

Will the Taoiseach clarify when the LDA will be put on a statutory basis or when will we even get to discuss these things? Why on earth should any public land be disposed of to this body until it is absolutely clear what the agency is going to do and that there will be no question of privatising public lands that should be used to help address the massive housing crisis that persists in this country due to the chronic lack of public and affordable housing, which is the responsibility of successive governments that have landed us with the housing crisis we now face?

We are now approaching the sixth anniversary of the tragic death of Jonathan Corrie outside the gates of Dáil Éireann, a victim of the housing and homelessness crisis. At that time everyone promised that the death of Jonathan would be a wake-up call and that the Government would finally realise that urgent action was needed. The Taoiseach himself condemned at the time the inaction that had led to the homeless crisis, but on his watch as Taoiseach the situation is even worse. In the past ten days alone, five people experiencing homelessness have died. These were five needless and preventable deaths on the Taoiseach's watch. Already, before the winter hits, more people have died on the streets of Dublin than in any other year in recent memory.

The eviction ban worked during the start of the pandemic and then the Government lifted it. It has been reinstated with level 5 restrictions, but the Government seems hell bent on delivering misery for people at Christmas by removing the eviction ban again, promising a flood of eviction notices coming together with Christmas cards. Those facing high rents, precarious housing and homelessness are fed up with tea and sympathy and with thoughts and prayers. They need a permanent eviction ban, a Housing First policy, and investment in building public and genuinely affordable homes.

Five homeless people died in the State in the seven days to the end of October. There needs to be a bit of anger and a bit of outrage in this Chamber about what is happening. This is an absolute scandal. There used to be the time when if a homeless person died on the streets it would be national headlines and a national talking point. Now we have a situation, as was rightly said, on the Taoiseach's watch where five homeless people have died on the streets in the space of seven days and it is not a major talking point in society. Where is the action from the Taoiseach and his Government?

Caitriona Twomey, who runs Penny Dinners in Cork, while not in any way commenting on these specific cases but making a general point, has pointed to the issue of mental health in the pandemic as being really important:

This (the issue of suicide) hasn’t leveled off since March and the government is going to have to take it seriously [and referring to the local situation] The good people of Cork can only do so much. Our government needs to step up. We need to protect people who fall into places where they feel the only option is 'out’.

Ms Twomey raised the specific idea of investment in teams of workers who are mental health professionals to be on the streets to deal with people one to one. What will the Taoiseach do about the crisis we face on this issue?

On the issues raised by the Deputies, in the budget, unprecedented levels of resources are being targeted at the homelessness issue. My sympathies do go out to the families and all those connected to those who have died, and especially the people who were homeless who passed away in recent times and over recent weeks. Our focus and priority is homelessness and the prevention of homelessness, with a holistic approach to dealing with the homelessness situation that involves not just housing but also the health services. When I was the Minister for Health and Children I was involved in making sure there were health services on the ground and in the centres along with those who were providing homeless services at the time.

We are committed to Housing First and to making sure it is actively pursued, but also to developing a fully holistic integrated approach involving health, housing and other services to help those with addiction challenges, for example, which is very important. We also need to make sure there are supports in place when people are allocated housing provision. That is something to which we remain committed. I have spoken to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on this issue and I suspect there is no correlation between legislation pertaining to evictions and what has happened with deaths. Deputy Paul Murphy made that point but I do not think that is the case.

The eviction ban remained in place throughout the summer for anyone who was under any pressure as a result of Covid and when we were not in level 5. After going back into level 5, the original eviction ban that applied during the first lockdown has been reapplied because one can legally do that in the context of a comprehensive lockdown like level 5. It is constitutionally unsound outside of such a severe lockdown. Those are the legal facts which the Deputies continue to deliberately ignore to develop a propaganda war against the Government on this issue. We are committed to helping deal with the homelessness issue. The Government has been in place for four months now and it is going to continue to prioritise this issue.

Deputy Boyd Barrett asked about the statutory basis for the Land Development Agency. We need more housing. The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in less housing because of the first lockdown and so we kept construction going during level 5 because we need to build houses. We need affordable houses, social houses and houses built in the private sector as well because we are not building enough houses. Due to the first lockdown we will come in below target at the end of 2020 for the number of house builds the previous Government had targeted. Every effort is being made to pull back and to achieve as close to that target as we can.

I have worked with the Minister on the matter of the Land Development Agency and prioritised it as Taoiseach. I want this agency to be put on a proper statutory footing. It has gone to the Government and there are complex issues involved but they can be dealt with and addressed. I have engaged with the Attorney General, who is engaging with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to get this legislation through. If we are genuinely supportive of the need to end homelessness, we must support projects. There are people on councils who have opposed every project since time began, it seems to me, and will continue to do so. They will always find a reason. We need to support projects now. I have no issue with social housing on public lands. We should pursue that but giving statutory underpinning to the Land Development Agency is designed to achieve that across the board. That should happen and we should let it happen. Let us get housing built.

Mother and Baby Homes Inquiries

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

6. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Taoiseach if he has met with the Attorney General to discuss the position held by the Data Protection Commission as expressed in its observation on the data protection impact assessment commissioned on the legislation on mother and baby homes. [33529/20]

Following discussion of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes on 28 October last, the Government issued a statement on the matters of recent public concern and the next steps proposed by the Government. The statement sets out that the Government acknowledges and regrets the genuine hurt felt by many people across Irish society. It is determined to take the necessary actions to ensure those concerns are dealt with in a manner that is timely, appropriate and focused on the needs of victims and survivors. Also set out was a commitment that the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, along with Tusla, will continue to engage closely with the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner to ensure that the rights of all citizens to access personal information about themselves, under data protection legislation and the general data protection regulation, GDPR, are fully respected and implemented and that additional resources will be provided where necessary.

Following further detailed engagement on the issue of access to the records of the commission, the Attorney General wrote to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, on 28 October and advised that individuals will have a right to access personal data held by the Minister. The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is liaising with the Attorney General's office and the Data Protection Commission on supporting this right of access. As set out in its statement, the Government is committed to publishing the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes as soon as possible and to developing a comprehensive State response to its findings and recommendations.

We now know that the Attorney General did not advise the Minister in respect of the GDPR legislation when we were told that he had. Was the Taoiseach aware of this? Will he now acknowledge that the information peddled by the Minister, the Taoiseach and the Government was totally false? This concerns me because we were led to believe that there was engagement on this matter with the Attorney General. Time and again the Taoiseach and his Ministers come in here and tell us that the advice of the Attorney General is whatever it may be on the day, but can we really believe them? We now know that the Minister was fully entitled under the 2018 GDPR legislation and the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 to take custody of the whole of the archive and all the records gathered and created by the commission, including all personal data in those archives. Under the GDPR, archiving purposes in the public interest are lawful grounds for processing personal data. Why was this not considered before the legislation was rushed through?

I welcome that the Department, under the new advice from the Attorney General, has changed its position and that the Government is now telling survivors that the Act does not preclude consideration of data access by the Department when it receives the archives from the commission. We should be working to ensure maximum transparency and access to files. I welcome what has happened in recent days, but we need to make sure the Government is going forward on a solid basis of acknowledgement and maybe even a bit of humility for not having listened to the survivors, their families and their representatives. It is important that we do that and that we outline the timeline around the Attorney General and where his advice comes from.

Will the Taoiseach confirm that GDPR applies to the archive of the commission of investigation both now and once the Minister receives it? Will he also confirm that all necessary resources and independent expertise will be put in place to correct the practice of all controllers of historical abuse records, including religious and other non-State bodies, from holding on to these records? Does the State now have the authority to instruct them to release all the records? When will the Minister reconvene the independently appointed collaborative forum for former residents of mother and baby homes to advise the Government on how to respond to issues of institutional abuse? When will the independent committees of data protection law experts be set up? We have an opportunity to do this right. We need to listen and to act in a timely way.

After the debate that took place on mother and baby homes in the Dáil, we, like many other Deputies, were overwhelmed by the response from people and the anger, anxiety and concern expressed, particularly by those who had been in those institutions and suffered abuse in them. I held an online public meeting which was attended by hundreds of people, many of whom had suffered horrific abuse and who were very angry. Their anger can only have been magnified by the information that has emerged since then that the Minister misled the House about the advice from the Attorney General. There was no advice. The suggestion was made that GDPR did not apply under the condition that it might jeopardise the work of this or future commissions, but that was not a basis under GDPR. Why did the Minister claim he got this advice from the Attorney General? Why did he claim something that simply was not true, when GDPR did not do as he suggested it did? He wrongly suggested that it applied in a certain way.

More generally, what was expressed by the survivors and those who had a stake in this matter was how angry they were that they were not consulted, were not part of the process and were not at the centre of the Government's considerations on how to deal with this matter.

Even with the matter of the proposed archive, what is said by the survivors is that this is the place that the narrative will be set about their lives and histories. They want to determine that narrative, not somebody else, and not so-called experts. They want to determine the narrative about their lives and histories. They want to have a real stake and involvement in how that archive is operated. Even now, after the admission following the Data Protection Commissioner's intervention in the debate, the Taoiseach or the Minister said that the right to people's information and history is not absolute. That is worrying. The Government misled the House about GDPR and then said that a person's right to identity and history is not absolute. All of that adds to the suspicion of a group of people who have been robbed of histories and identities and been abused. There needs to be an admission that what was said was wrong and the needs, wishes and direct involvement of the survivors of the process, and the people whose identity and history are at stake, need to be at the centre of how we deal with this matter.

In the course of the debate on the legislation, the Minister was advised that his position was wrong. He was challenged on that point and advised that European law and instruments had primacy over the 2004 Act that he was citing. That went in one ear and out the other. It alarms me that the House was misled and that there were repeated public policy statements about sealing an archive for 30 years, which were clearly unlawful, and that it was echoed repeatedly as the position of the Minister, the Government and therefore the State. This is concerning because it is the latest evidence in a long litany of evidence of the capacity of the State, despite everything that happened and that we know, to be in denial and to visit further suffering and cruelty on citizens whom it has failed badly. The belated recognition that GDPR rights are real and will be honoured and vindicated by the State is good but I share the concern about the limitation of those rights. Will survivors have a right to all of their personal information? When I say all of their personal information, I include administrative files that tell the story of the institutions in which those individuals found themselves. In addition to the mother and baby homes files, will GDPR rights be recognised in respect of the McAleese and Ryan files? Will the State finally open up and allow victims and survivors to have complete knowledge and access to their own files?

In the past decade or so, the State has opened up in an unprecedented way on many issues. I initiated the inquiry into the industrial schools as Minister for Education. Many people did not expect that would happen. I was the first to do it despite many survivors having gone to successive Governments before that without any satisfaction. Likewise, we introduced and started inquiries into the church in relation to sexual abuse. I initiated the inquiry into Ferns, for example. The then Minister, Senator McDowell, initiated an inquiry about Dublin and the then Minister of State, Barry Andrews, initiated the Cloyne inquiry, without fear or favour. A previous Government initiated this inquiry into the mother and baby homes, which was designed to reveal and open up the story.

It is disingenuous and wrong of the Opposition and Deputy McDonald to suggest that someone was trying to undermine people's rights or to seal off archives. That is the opposite of the intention of setting up a commission of inquiry in the first instance. The same applies to the Magdalen laundries, which the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, initiated an inquiry into. It was to open it up. GDPR applies to all records since it is a European law. People can apply for access to their data in all records under GDPR. That is adjudicated on, as Deputy Barry knows. The 2004 Act relates to certain people giving evidence so that we could find out what was going on in those institutions, when people wanted to avail of confidentiality clauses so that they could be protected. There is a good article by Patsy McGarry in The Irish Times which lays that out. He made the point that the provisions of that Act enable us to find out much more and to have these inquiries in a more expeditious and effective way.

It is important that the Deputies opposite acknowledge their failings too. They deliberately misrepresented the 2004 Act. I could imagine the debate that we would have in this House this week if it was discovered that, having been told by the commission of inquiry that if he did not legislate, the records would be destroyed, rendered useless and redundant, the Minister did not act to legislate, and the uproar and furore that there would be in the House. Those were the bona fide reasons the Minister brought in that legislation. The Deputies need to show humility too because some of the assertions made in that debate were wrong and the Minister's bona fides were wrongly undermined. He has no interest in closing off any archive, yet he was presented as such. That was wrong and did not do public debate any good. It did not help to ease the anxieties and genuine concerns of survivors, which should be all of our primary concerns.

The commission of investigation has compiled a database of all the mothers and children who were resident in the main mother and baby homes. They said to the Minister that it is clear that this database would be of considerable assistance to those involved in providing information and tracing services under existing legislation. They said the database would effectively have to be destroyed. As the information compiled in the database is all sensitive personal information, the commission would be obliged under existing legislation, prior to the Minister introducing the Bill, to redact the names and other identifying information about the residents of these homes before submitting it to the Minister. That is not what we wanted. The commission stated that this would have the effect of rendering the database useless, and of course that is not what we wanted. That is why the legislation was introduced. I accept that it was in a hurry. It was to make sure that by the time the commission's report was sent to the Minister, we would have protected the records for the survivors so that they could access them under GDPR, yet that was horribly misrepresented. The Minister accepted that he should have consulted with the groups and he accepted some fault regarding communication, but in my humble opinion, it still should not have been misrepresented and distorted to the degree that it was that weekend. I am putting that on the record of the House in a fair manner and would like some acknowledgement of that.

We have got to the end and need to move to the next question.

I want to finally say that I want to work with Members of the House on this. I am committed to having a centre which will tell the story and give people access. The Government is on the side of giving as much access as we possibly can and applying GDPR to the optimal extent to vindicate the rights of access to information of survivors of these institutions. I accept people to accept our bona fides in that regard. I assure Members that we have no other agenda.

Social Dialogue

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social dialogue coordination unit of his Department. [33559/20]

The Government recognises the importance of regular and open engagement with all sectors of society. This is particularly important as we steer our way out of the pandemic, rebuild our economy, and support communities that have been severely impacted by Covid-19. As committed to in the programme for Government, a social dialogue unit has been established within the economic division of my Department.

This division already has extensive engagement with the social partners. The initial focus of the unit will be on supporting and enhancing engagement with the social partners, including through existing mechanisms such as the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, which deals with labour market issues. The Labour Employer Economic Forum has helped ensure useful discussions between the Government, employers and trade unions during the Covid-19 crisis.

I chaired the most recent meeting of the LEEF on 28 October, which saw engagement on a number of issues, including Covid-19 and Brexit. It was agreed at that meeting that officials would engage with the employer and trade union representatives on options for further strengthening the LEEF process. They will also explore how to enhance wider social dialogue mechanisms consistent with the commitments in the programme for Government.

A number of fundamentals have to be right for social dialogue to be successful. First, the processes, custom, practice and expected standards applied to interactions between the State and others should be understood, respected and adhered to. That means, for example, handing a confidential document to one of one's buddies because one is the Taoiseach and can do so, is not a solid foundation on which to build any type of robust process that will be trusted and can deliver for one and all. The second matter that must be recognised is the reality of deep, structural inequalities in our society and the reality of low pay. Entire sections of the Irish economy are low-wage jobs and often insecure employment, with all that flows from that by way of housing insecurity, fuel poverty and the other things we know, or at least should know. Social dialogue must have as its objective not just a mechanism to tread water or to rehash the same age-old positions, but at its core a desire to land on social justice. If it is not about that, one wonders about the value of engaging in it at all.

In that vein, I want to bring two matters to the Taoiseach's attention. They have been raised with him previously and, in fact, were raised by me and other Deputies yesterday. One is the ongoing pay issue for front-line student nurses. I am at a loss as to and do not understand why the Minister for Health is taking so long to resolve this. No right-minded Government sends people into the trenches on the front line without pay, yet that is what is being asked of student nurses during a pandemic. It is unconscionable. These nurses have traditionally relied on part-time work in private nursing homes just to make ends meet, but that practice, rightly, is to be discouraged because of the risk of Covid-19 and our concern to keep people in congregated settings safe. Why is the Minister for Health dragging his heels on this matter? When will it be resolved for once and for all? I note that the HSE has been unhelpful in this regard. It has taken a quite entrenched position. Be that as it may, it is ultimately for the Government to resolve the matter.

Second, I wish to raise again the testing and tracing staff and the need to ramp up our capacity. The essential point is that one cannot ask anybody to be on a zero-hour contract. A Government that talks about social dialogue must be committed to social justice as its end. Such a Government could not tolerate the type of sharp, abusive practices that zero-hour contracts represent. If the State is making use of the services of an agency that engages in such sharp practices, the agency should be dropped. That should happen immediately.

I wish to apologise to the ambulance paramedics because I meant to raise this matter last night in the context of the debate with the Tánaiste. There are many angles to that discussion, but one is the attitude the Government takes to negotiating with trade unions or representative organisations. A huge contrast was glaringly apparent, and this is directly related to the issue of social dialogue. At around the same time that the then Taoiseach was sending back channel packages to his mate in the National Association of General Practitioners, NAGP, he was refusing repeated requests from Deputy Bríd Smith, former Deputy Ruth Coppinger and others to engage with the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA, the ambulance paramedics. The then Taoiseach said explicitly at the time that one could join whatever union one wishes to join, but it does not have to be recognised. The HSE does not have to recognise it.

The then Taoiseach refused the requests to instruct the HSE to engage with the ambulance paramedics and said - this is relevant to the evidence the Tánaiste gave yesterday - that the Government engages with the trade union movement through ICTU. That was the Government policy. I do not agree with that policy. I believe it should engage with the organisations by whom workers choose to be represented. Clearly, however, the then Taoiseach did not abide by that policy. He operated a back channel to his mate in the NAGP, but would not extend the same courtesy to the ambulance paramedics, who are still denied recognition by the HSE. What does the Taoiseach think of that in terms of double standards and not being willing to recognise the chosen representatives of a group of workers, in this case ambulance paramedics?

I wish to make a second point. On 20 October, I raised with the Taoiseach the issue of student nurses and the failure to pay them. They were given healthcare assistant pay in March and April, rightly, for the major role they were playing in the dangerous environment of Covid-19. The Taoiseach said that they should get the pay they got in March and April and that he would follow through on it. Nothing has happened since then. When I asked the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, last night about paying these student nurses, he essentially made it clear that it was not the Government's intention. These student nurses are, in many cases, holding hospital wards and health workplaces together in the context of Covid-19, in which massive numbers of employed staff are out of work because of extraordinarily high levels of infection with Covid-19 among nurses and healthcare assistants. It is unacceptable that we continue to exploit them when they are holding workplaces together on the front line in dealing with Covid-19. There is much anger among student nurses about this. The Taoiseach should follow through on the commitment he made to me on 20 October and ensure that the exploitation of student nurses ends and that they are given the respect and remuneration they deserve for the role they are playing in the fight against Covid-19.

First, I am a strong believer in social dialogue and I am working with our social partners on the challenges facing society in areas such as housing, climate, education and health services.

That is something that I want to strengthen during my time as Taoiseach. These issues concerning how we could strengthen social partnership in the future were explored in the recent meeting we had with ICTU and IBEC. My officials will work with the partners on how we can enhance and strengthen the existing LEEF programme and approach to make sure we can advance that agenda. That very much speaks to the issue of social justice and also to the area of low wages. I accept that the Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated the gaps and disparities in income terms between different sectors of the economy. The Tánaiste has identified this. The aim of working towards a living wage is in the programme for Government. It is something that will form part of the agenda of the Government, notwithstanding the very difficult circumstances that we are in, with the implications of the pandemic and so forth.

I have raised the issue pertaining to student nurses with the Minister. I do not conduct the negotiations between the HSE and the INMO. There have been negotiations and my understanding is that they are ongoing. There are issues on both sides. I urge that they would be resolved. Nobody wants to exploit anybody in any situation. I hope we will see a resolution of that and a positive outcome to the negotiations that are currently ongoing.

In the context of the social dialogue and the remarks made by Deputy McDonald, one has to be fair all round. The current public service pay talks will commence with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, leading them. Public service agreements were reached under the previous Government and the then Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, was centrally involved in them. There were no breaches during those talks. My firm view is that the forthcoming engagement with the unions on pay issues will be robust and challenging but will be conducted in the normal way, as previous talks have been, with respect to both sides in terms of the confidentiality that applies to such talks and the teasing out of issues by the various parties to the talks.

I take Deputy Boyd Barrett's point on NASRA. He said he does not agree with the ICTU position. ICTU has a very strong view about new unions emerging, splits from unions, and multiple unions creating difficulties in terms of efficiencies and the effectiveness of negotiations. I have a bit of a conflict myself in this regard. I was reared in a different environment and my late father broke ranks with the then Irish Transport and General Workers Union, ITGWU, and founded the National Busmen's Union, NBU. He was a founding member of the NBU in Cork and was involved in much industrial activity in terms of strikes and other such actions. He always strongly defended the actions he took at the time but, latterly, he also understood the need for balance and some coherence in the representation of workers in various sectors, in terms of how one pursues one's rights to pay, pension entitlements and so on.

However, I understand the point Deputy Boyd Barrett makes. Regarding the GP contract, because of the independent contractor status of GPs, it is in many ways one that must ultimately be adopted by each individual GP in terms of whether he or she signs on for the offer that is presented by the HSE in that regard. My view is that if one has too much fragmentation in unions, that can be very negative too. Historically in Ireland, we had too much fragmentation and that resulted in a lot of unnecessary industrial action and strife when unions were competing with each other to win membership and in so doing undermined workers.

NASRA is not doing that.

I am not talking about NASRA in that context. I am just speaking generally. That is why ICTU's position has validity. The reason I respect ICTU's position on this is because ultimately it has resulted in significant advances in society as well, through a whole range of its own activities and how it has pursued pay and pension issues but also wider social justice issues. That has to be acknowledged in this debate.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
Sitting suspended at 2.05 p.m. and resumed at 3.06 p.m.