Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 6

Public Service Pay Bill 2020: Report and Final Stages

Amendment No. 1 has been ruled out of order.

Amendment No. 1 not moved.
Bill received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

My colleagues and I are very disappointed that our amendment was rejected. I would like to say a few words on the Bill before it passes. We do not intend to oppose it but I would like to make some general points and ask a number of questions.

I acknowledge that the Building Momentum deal has been accepted by a large majority of the workers and trade unions that were balloted on it. We are told this is a technical Bill that will allow for some fairly small pay rises to be paid to our public servants, many of whom were and still are on the front line of the battle against Covid. The Bill amends the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act 2009 to permit the State to award a small pay increase to thousands of public servants. The 2009 Act was blocking that. Every June since I came into the Dáil in 2016, I have queried the reason for the Act's continued existence on the Statute Book. Every June, the Minister was obliged to come in and lay a report before the House that claimed we still had a financial emergency and, therefore, we still needed the emergency legislation and the powers it gives the State. Lest we forget, it is an extraordinary Act. It is described as emergency legislation but, 12 years after its introduction, it remains on the Statute Book and retains its power such that we need to amend it to allow a small pay increase for public servants.

The original 2009 Act allowed the Government of the day and succeeding Governments to hammer public sector workers by passing provisions to cut their pay, pensions and conditions. Subsequent amendments to the Act, also mentioned in this Bill, gave extraordinary powers to the Government to select for punishment any trade union that dared not to accept a national pay deal. The Act and its subsequent amendments were a fundamental and extraordinary attack on workers, the right to collective bargaining, and retired workers and their pension schemes. We know what the justification was and is for that attack. The financial emergency referred to was the collapse of the global banking system caused by the greed, deregulation and systemic corruption at the heart of that system. We know its particular impact in this country, which was caused by the banks, developers and others who were bailed out by the State, many of whom are now back in business and looking forward to a bumper time ahead when the Land Development Agency, LDA, lands are handed over to them.

What happened 11 years go is history but, every June since 2016, I have asked the Minister for Finance to come into the House and tell us why the legislation is being renewed. Each year, he has come in and declared that we still had a financial emergency and still need the Act. Every June, the Government declared a fictional emergency in order to retain the legislation and its anti-worker provisions. Clearly, we did not have an emergency for many of those years but the Minister still declared it in order to retain the legislation. An emergency law has become a permanent law and its use is a warning to many of us, particularly in the light of the earlier discussion around emergency legislation. It is clear that the Government, like its predecessors, finds emergency laws very useful to discipline workers and trade unions.

The Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, is proposing to pass this Bill to give what is a pathetic reward for our front-line workers. I want to place on the record that what was done to people during the financial emergency has not been forgotten and forgiven. I refer to the nurses who continue to work unpaid hours as a result of the provisions in the 2009 Act and the subsequent amendments to it, the pensioners who continue to deal with the impact of cuts and attack on their pensions because of the legislation, and the new workers in the public service who continue to deal with pay apartheid, reduced pension rights and new labour practices arising out of the 2009 Act.

The financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, and what was done to people during the financial emergency, has not been forgotten and forgiven. We are told this Bill effectively marks the end of the FEMPI era and takes those handcuffs off. I disagree. This Bill continues the tradition and indeed the aims of FEMPI.

There is little to say about the Bill itself. The increases are an insult to many public servants, for example those in the health sector who have fought heroically against Covid-19. I note much of the commentary by Ministers and others around the Covid crisis and the acceptance of new work practices by public servants. Their commentary amounts to the Government thanking public servants who have all bent over backwards during this emergency and saying it would like to reward them by continuing the emergency measures that change their work practices and make them permanent, regardless of the diminution that might involve in the quality of their lives.

I note in passing two more aspects of the Bill. The sectoral bargaining element really offers at best an extra 1% which will not address the crisis in our health or other key public services, nor address the many outstanding issues for public servants in those sectors, be they Defence Forces staff, nurses or other grades. While the clause that deals with the unpaid hours element has a date of 2022 and a pot of €150 million to cover all the sectors affected, we know the combined value of the increased work from the hours these people gave for free was €583 million in 2016 alone. Additional hours worked by public servants under both agreements equated to 15 million unpaid hours. Therefore, this deal does not deal with the unpaid element of the crisis measures and is an insult to public sector workers. The deal offers 2% over two years, with a possible 1% through local bargaining which may be used to pay outstanding adjudications and rewards. Therefore, only 2% is guaranteed. Across the economy wages increased by 6.9% over the two years of 2018 and 2019. This deal will not allow public servants to catch up and it does not acknowledge the heroic efforts during the Covid crisis. Despite the massive shift to home working, there is no compensation to cover the significant costs from working at home. Like all workers, public sector workers have faced rising costs. Their pay rose by 2% and 1.7% in 2018 and 2019, while rents rose by 6% each year. In 2020 they increased by 2% even with the Covid restrictions.

This deal means the introduction of new ways of working across the board and new systems in the workplace. It refers to "maximum use of innovative and flexible models of service delivery", "[embracing] ... the use of technology" and allowing for "greater movement of staff". We are being asked to sign up to a sectoral action plan yet to be agreed. Payment of wage increases is dependent on these plans being implemented. Despite the claims of union leadership, outsourcing of public sector jobs will continue under this deal. Management will still be able to claim exceptional circumstances as a justification for privatisation and outsourcing. This, therefore, is not a very happy day for public sector workers. It is a rather sad day because they are having to accept the crumbs off the table without the acknowledgement they absolutely deserve.

I thank the Deputy. I remind Members we are on Fifth Stage and as such should be speaking directly to elements within the Bill.

I am very grateful for an opportunity to speak to the Bill before it progresses because there are an awful lot of issues surrounding this. For instance, I want to remember members of the public who were adversely affected by FEMPI and marched on the Dáil, whether it was in regard to pay restoration or their pension rights and pension restoration. People who were adversely affected, and who paid a very dear price for the wrongdoing of others, had to struggle through very lean years.

I remember also front-line workers and the putting up of posters and ads on television and the praising of these people. Instead of paying them, the Government was praising them. I continuously condemned that practice in the House because it was wrong to be coming out with silly ads telling people how great they were while at the same time not recognising their work by paying them properly. We have a situation where there are people working in healthcare who have not received an increase in 12 or 13 years. If one considers the high cost of fuel, heat, electricity, rents, mortgages and childcare, one can see these are the people who have really been struggling over the last number of years. I know the Minister is acutely aware of that. He is an excellent representative for his own constituency and a good, sound, solid person and always has been. He recognises what these families are struggling with and going through at present. Do people realise how costs have increased? People's electricity bills have doubled in the last number of years and that is putting a tremendous strain on them. We have an awful issue at present, namely, fuel poverty. That is why I am so adamantly and strongly speaking against elements of the climate action Bill which are going to make those families struggle more and more. That is why, when we are talking about this Bill and elements of it, we must think about restoring people's pay to try to see if they can keep up with the commitments they have. We need to look at the increase in childcare costs and how much they have gone up in the last number or years. Do I blame the people providing the childcare? Absolutely not. Their costs have gone up. Their rents have gone up. The cost of providing the service has gone up enormously for them so they must pass that cost to the young family who are starting out and entrusting their children to the providers' excellent care. Therefore it is not the providers' fault but the combination of the high cost of living. If we look at where we are going as a country and at the massive increase in the price of steel and timber at present, what is that going to do but drive rents up further?

I must mention a group of people who were thrown to the wolves in a desperate way. It would be awfully wrong not to mention them in the context of this debate because we are talking about pay, public sector pay and people's rights and entitlements. I refer to the Debenhams workers who had to stand in the cold and rain, 24 hours a day, for over 400 days on a point of principle. There was a group in the town of Tralee, for instance. I want to remember every hour those Debenhams workers gave and how kind they were. When their own battle was lost, they were concerned about other people and ensuring no other person would have to go through what they as workers had to go through with their employer. The words "Debenhams workers" will be ingrained in people's minds and memories for many years for the respectful way they fought for what was rightly theirs, namely, their own money which they were entitled to but did not get. That was so wrong. I do not want to delay. I thank the Acting Chairman for this little opportunity.

I thank all the Members who participated in the debate on this Bill on Second Stage and also on Committee Stage recently. I thank Deputies Bríd Smith and Michael Healy-Rae for their contributions as well.

In essence, this Bill is a key enabler for the new public service pay agreement, Building Momentum, and allows for a range of reforming pay matters including implementation of aspects of Sláintecare. This public service pay deal, which has been voted on and ratified by the public service unions, recognises the value of the work of our public servants during the pandemic and provides for affordable increases with pay adjustments weighted towards those on lower incomes. The agreement also sets out an important reform agenda. Each sector will produce and publish reform plans that will demonstrate delivery each year. Payment of a 1% sectoral fund will be conditional on the delivery of actual reforms. As I have said previously, the Bill will enable progress on a range of pay reform matters including Sláintecare and the establishment of a public-only consultant contract which is a key provision in the Government's plans for the reform of the health service. Colleagues have touched on the contents of Building Momentum, the public service pay deal. While it provides for the 1% general round pay increase later this year and a further 1% next year, there is also the 1% provided for a sectoral bargaining fund.

That is a new and innovative way of dealing with what are, in some cases, long-standing outstanding matters relating to pay and allowances. We are also putting in place a process that would seek to address the Haddington Road agreement hours, and we are providing money to make a tangible start on the process next year. I welcome all those elements.

I will answer Deputy Smith's point, although I am not entirely clear on whether she is advocating for the FEMPI Acts to be rescinded in their entirety. Of course, if we did that, all the remaining restoration for higher-earning public servants would have to be provided immediately. The Acts must continue in force because they represent the legal basis for the benefits of the public service agreements from 2013 to 2020 and for pay restoration to continue up to 1 July 2022. They also contain important definitions of public servants, public service bodies, ministerial controls on pay and terms and conditions and provision for the additional superannuation contribution, for example. These are just some of the reasons the Acts remain in place.

As colleagues will be aware, we have now achieved full restoration for public servants earning up to €70,000 and there is a timetable laid out for the restoration beyond that. The agreement being enabled through the passage of this legislation provides certainty on the public service pay bill until the end of next year. It also provides moderate and affordable pay increases over the next year and a half or so weighted in particular to public servants at the lower end of the pay scale. I am happy to commend the Bill to the House and I very much welcome the support of colleagues getting the Bill to this point.

Question put and agreed to.

The Bill will be sent to the Seanad.