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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 2 Dec 2021

Vol. 1015 No. 2

Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) Bill 2021: Committee and Remaining Stages

Amendment No. 1 has been ruled out of order, which has been communicated to Deputy Pringle.

Amendment No. 1 not moved.
Section 1 agreed to.

Amendment No. 2 has been deemed out of order.

Amendment No. 2 not moved.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 3, between lines 23 and 24, to insert the following:

“Report on remuneration of Oireachtas political staff

2. The Minister shall, within 6 months of the passing of this Act, lay a report before both Houses of the Oireachtas outlining—

(a) progress in relation to resolving the pay claim submitted on behalf of secretarial assistants working in the Oireachtas,

(b) progress in relation to the recognition of the work of secretarial assistants as being beyond both the title and description of the role,

(c) the potential for the transfer of functions in respect of pay of political staff from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to the Commission, and

(d) engagement the Minister has had with union representatives of political staff in respect of their pay claim.”.

The way that this country's national Parliament treats its staff is an embarrassment and it is shameful we even have to discuss this. It is unacceptable we have put our staff in a position where they are constantly having to fight for a fair wage and fair recognition, as if they do not already have enough to do in supporting us Members. Each Member of the Oireachtas would be lost without the staff who support him or her and we would all do well to remember this as we continue to debate the Bill.

Despite the many pay rises Government Deputies have given themselves, our secretarial staff in the Oireachtas still get paid below the living wage. Secretarial assistants, SAs, on the first point of the scale earn €24,423 per annum, which is a mere €11.75 per hour while the living wage is €12.90. How can we expect staff to work in Leinster House and live in Dublin on such an incredibly low wage? It is not possible. We are forcing our staff to take up additional jobs despite the fact they already work full time in a workplace that is an environment of long hours and overtime. We are forcing staff to live with their families due to the fact they are unable to afford the astronomical Dublin rents on such a low income. This rules out all potential staff who do not have the option of living at home. It also rules out those who are from outside of Dublin.

How can we be a representative Parliament when our staff are not representative of different backgrounds and areas? It is incredibly important we allow staff of all backgrounds the opportunity to work here for Irish politics to be fair, equal and representative of all citizens of the country. It is also important to give a voice to those in rural areas, such as my county of Donegal, to take the focus away from Dublin-centric policies.

A survey carried out by the Oireachtas HR unit found that Seanad secretarial assistants who are currently on this low income are performing similar work to Dáil parliamentary assistants, PAs. The survey identified work such as research, speech writing, drafting newsletters, and preparing materials on legislation and for committees as work which Seanad SAs regularly do for Senators as well as work that Dáil PAs undertake. The work of Senators is parliamentary and not constituency-based, and their staff should reflect this.

I call on the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to recognise Seanad SAs for what they are, which is parliamentary assistants. I also call on the Minister to scrap the title of secretarial assistant and rename the role to adequately reflect the work. We must scrap the secretarial assistant's pay scale and pay our SAs properly.

In 2018, SIPTU lodged a pay claim on behalf of SAs. This year, SAs were offered a pay increase of 1% in October, 1% in February and then 1% in October 2022. This offer is nothing short of insulting. It would bring the salary to €25,162 per year, or €12.09 per hour, which is still below the living wage. It does not pay them adequately nor does it address or recognise how the role has changed drastically since its inception nor the fact that Dáil and Seanad SAs have different roles.

Neither does the pay recognise the fact that Oireachtas staff are considered to be on temporary contracts and therefore struggle to apply for loans and mortgages. The sad truth is, financially and security-wise, a job in the Oireachtas has little to offer. The staff that are here and in these roles are doing so because they are passionate about the work, yet we price them out of their roles because financially they are unable to stay, meaning we lose out on a wealth of knowledge and experience.

Oireachtas staff are essential to the democratic process in this country. Now is the time for every single Member of the Oireachtas, as employers, to speak up on behalf of their staff. The staff go above and beyond to support us, and it is now our time to support them. I commend the staff and the union representatives who have been fighting for a fair wage and for fair recognition for years. I am sorry they have been forced to do this. It is not fair, and I will stand with them on this until they get the full recognition they deserve.

The amendment seeks that the Minister would provide a report to both Houses of the Oireachtas six months after the passing of the Act. This comes up every time a Bill is passed. This is vitally important, and a report should be provided on it and on all legislation that comes through the House. Various Ministers argue there is no need for a report. It might be said the legislation is minimal and does not merit a report, but in this case a report is warranted on the staff we have and what is being done to deal with the problems so that we can progress and resolve the pay claim of secretarial assistants and look at how it can be done. The Minister can report on the meetings he has had with unions and their staff representatives. That is vitally important. It is the least those in the House should expect as well.

As I understand it, the Bill has been put forward by the Houses of the Oireachtas, which is representative of us as the employer. The Bill is being put forward on our behalf. The least that should be done is for the Houses to report back on our behalf as well. The Minister is required to be part of the process because the mechanism must go through some Department in order for the engagement to take place. A report should be made to Members of the House so that we can be kept fully up to speed on what is being put forward.

There are a couple of principles at play here, the first one being the importance of a living wage. In many ways, the principle has been accepted by the Government insofar as there is a commitment to the living wage in the programme for Government. It is not clear exactly when that will happen, but at least the Government seems to recognise the principle that people should receive a living wage. As we know, the starting salary of SAs falls far short of that. It is not acceptable that people doing a responsible job should be paid so little starting off.

The second principle is that everyone should be entitled to equal pay for equal work. Many Members have set out examples of how SAs do essentially equal work at Seanad level to the work of PAs at Dáil level. Unfortunately, the principle of equal pay for equal work is not the case when it comes to the political staff in the Seanad. One of the most glaring pay disparities in the Oireachtas is between Seanad SAs and Dáil PAs.

The Oireachtas HR survey found a majority of Seanad SAs were performing tasks that would be considered PA level. They were doing research on legislation, drafting amendments, speech writing, communications and many other areas of work. Many have previous relevant experience and postgraduate qualifications, yet they are earning far below what is needed for any kind of acceptable standard of living, especially in Dublin.

It is important to emphasise how difficult and stressful the SA role can be. That applies in the case of the Seanad but even more so in the Dáil. Very often, staff must deal with very difficult calls and correspondence, which undoubtedly takes a toll on SAs. We all know that from our own experience. It can be hard to stop difficult cases following you home. In recent years in particular, many of us have been dealing with traumatic cases in our offices. There is the full spectrum of human concern about the general impact of the pandemic, the cost of living, income, loss of jobs, and serious concerns about health and waiting lists. Our staff are dealing with the full gamut of issues and it has been exceptionally stressful, to the point where there has been a recognition by the Houses that well-being and mental health supports must be provided. The past two years have been an extreme example of that.

It is very hard for staff to leave all of those concerns, emotion and anxiety behind at work and they, as well as Members, bring much of it home with them. It is also very often isolating work where somebody is in a constituency office or in an office in Leinster House on their own dealing with the public on a one-to-one basis. The volume of work and the range of issues coming into the office require a particular skill set, which can often be very difficult to find, especially when the pay is so bad.

We expect the people who work with us to have a wide range of expertise, experience and various skills. We also expect them to be good at dealing with the public and to be able to be diplomatic, sensitive and informative when people make contact with Deputy's offices, yet the starting pay is only slightly more than €24,000. It is also a very precarious role. Not only do Members have the sense, but so too do staff, that elections are always looming.

The question of political will arises in terms of addressing this matter. The biggest obstacle seems to be the lack of political will. We are making these points strongly to the Minister today, as Members did during the Second Stage debate, but it is all coming from this side of the House. However, I guarantee the Minister, if he asks anybody in any Department, he or she would agree this is a glaring issue that must be addressed urgently. As Deputy Pringle says, it is an embarrassment that people working for Members of the Oireachtas are starting on a pay level that is abysmally low. The matter must be addressed. I am sure the Minister agrees with that personally. He has been in this House a long time and he understands the work SAs do.

I am sure he will accept that the level of pay that is provided for them is wholly inadequate. What are we going to do about that? Unfortunately, the first two amendments here have been ruled out of order. It would have been reasonable for the Minister to allow some room within the context of what is a massive budget and a massive increase in spending, which is over €40 million for the next three years, but he did not see some way to provide further flexibility in the context of that big increase in the budget to cover a reasonable pay increase for SAs working in the Houses. He could have done that.

It is important to note who is responsible for this. Even though we are the employers, technically and legally, we do not have any control over this because it is the Minister’s Department which decides on the pay scales. We are saying that responsibility should be moved to the commission. It was a progressive move to establish the commission to deal with all of the associated spending in the Houses. Part of that should have been the setting of the pay scales for staff. I do not believe that there would be any dispute if a survey of Members were taken. The vast majority would agree that this long-running issue of concern needs to be dealt with urgently.

The amendment before us and the subsequent one ask the Minister to apply himself to this matter, to produce a progress report, to engage on the issue and to bring it to a resolution within a reasonable period of time. We are asking the Minister to come back to the House within six months with a report on the various aspects and implications of moving in the direction in which we all want to move. I think that is reasonable. I hope the Minister will consider supporting that amendment. It would be very hard to understand any kind of rationale for not doing so.

It is important to remember that it is two years since the Seanad passed a cross-party motion calling on the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to address this pay claim, but no meaningful progress has been made since then. It is up to the Minister now. He needs to step up because he has responsibility for the terms and conditions of the scheme, including the pay rates. That is why we are bringing forward these amendments. We hope he will respond positively.

The latest offer, which was rejected by SIPTU members, fell very far short of what SAs need or deserve. An increase of 1% in October, 1% next February and 1% the following October is just not on. That is wholly inadequate. It would have brought the salary up to just over €25,000. That is not acceptable at any level. Again, it is still short of and well below the living wage and works out at about €12.09 per hour. The proposed 3% increase is lower than the rate of inflation which, as we all know, has increased to 5% since the claim was lodged. That needs to be recognised, as do the structural problems in respect of low pay. It is embarrassing and shameful that this is all we are offering to essential staff members who work with all of us.

In conclusion, we could not run our offices without our SAs. They are a vital part of the Oireachtas community and that should be reflected in their being assured of decent pay scales. This cannot be swept under the carpet any longer. SAs have waited long enough. I strongly urge the Minister, at a very minimum, to support these amendments.

I am somewhat puzzled by this. I am glad we are having this debate in the Dáil. I do not think we would be having it were it not for the SAs who got themselves organised into the union, began to push to make this an issue and had webinar meetings with us in this Covid-19 time. Without them, we would not be discussing this matter in the way that we are. It is very important that we are honest with each other about this.

I could not do this job without the secretarial staff. My salary is now €92,000 or in that region. I am not banging on about it. I do not take the full salary. We take the average industrial wage and put the rest of the money away into a campaigning account. Having said that, there is still a very significant difference between my earnings and those of the staff without whom I would be lost. I would go out of my skull. I could not do this job without them. Very often they are in the background measuring exactly what I need to know today and what I need to handle because I have this meeting or that meeting. I may have to speak on several things, for example at the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action or the Joint Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community. They may decide that I do not need to know about some things that are coming at them in the office. They deal with the complex problems encountered by people as they try to access their rights in this State, for example with regard to social welfare, medical cards, HSE appointments or access for their children to proper care. While they are dealing with those very human and difficult conditions, either in the local office or over the phone, I am protected and insulated at the time it is happening. They do this in my good name. That is what I am elected for. They are a vital link to the community supports we can provide as Deputies.

By the way, we should not have to provide these things. If people have rights, those rights should be met in line with their entitlement to the things I have listed, for example in areas like social protection, health or education. These are rights that people should have. In this society, we often have to help people to fight for those rights and have them attained. It is the SAs who beaver away doing that in a sympathetic, compassionate and quiet manner. Since I was elected to this office, I have often received the most compliments about them and what they do. People really feel that the Conors, the Leahs and the Jacquis of this world are the face of compassion. They deliver and fight for issues and get the results that are required. They do not always get the results but they very frequently get the results that people cannot manage to get for themselves because the State has made it so cumbersome for them.

It is, quite frankly, embarrassing that we have to talk about this. It is embarrassing that when she started as a secretarial assistant for me, Leah Speight was on such a low rate of pay that she was entitled to claim the working family payment, which was then the family income support. At the same time, she was fighting tirelessly for other people to achieve their social welfare entitlements on an hourly and daily basis, just as Conor does in the office now. I do not mind naming them because I am very proud of them. They are politically conscious members of the People Before Profit Party. They are fighting to try to change the society that we are in and are doing so on absolute buttons. It is so embarrassing that they are being treated like this.

Over 20 years ago, I was a shop steward who represented people working in a trade union, ironically. We looked at our pay scales and said that they were awful. Again, we were at the coalface when workers contacted the office to say that they were about to be sacked or that their overtime had not been paid, or when they asked what they should do because their employer was making them work the following day when they were supposed to be off. We would take these queries, deal with them and pass them on to the officials. We discovered that the officials were on sometimes eight and ten times our salary. We did an analogue study which was a comparison between various trade unions. We compared our union with SIPTU, Unite, Fórsa and all of the unions and we arrived at a very intelligent claim for why our wages should be raised. We went to the Labour Court, made that intelligent claim and won our pay claim. I was thinking about how one would conduct an analogue study of the work of SAs who work for Deputies. Nothing compares to them. One could sing a song about it but there is nothing that compares to them. I cannot ask people in other organisations how their job compares to the job that our SAs do for us because there is no comparator. This is very much a case of injustice and discrimination. It needs to be addressed.

I do not understand this except to say that it occurred to me that perhaps there is a cultural, traditional and historical reason they are paid so low. Once upon a time it was just a lady, usually - a woman in the local constituency office who made the cup of tea, typed up a few letters and did the accounts at the end of the year. Nowadays, everybody is always connected through emails, phones, Facebook or WhatsApp. We are always connected. Productivity levels for all of us have gone up significantly, no matter where we are working or what we are doing, in comparison to what they were traditionally. This job needs to be reassessed and looked at in the cold reality of what it means.

For that we need a proper consultation process with those who carry out the function. It should come back to the Minister to reassess it in the cold light of day because at the end of the day he holds the purse strings. Why do we have people on family income support who are working their guts out to protect other people who cannot get family income support, medical cards or access to assessments for their children? There are so many problems in society.

I want to repeat that our secretarial assistants are always on; there is always connectivity and a way of reaching them and they always have loads of issues they have to pick up. Every one of us would be lost without them. They are heroes in many ways but they are not being recognised as such financially and they cannot continue to live on low pay. We will not be able to recruit the type of staff we need to perform the functions of Teachtaí or Senators unless we recognise that these are valued workers and that their input, compassion and understanding are valued. The pile-on they take from the rest of society on a daily and hourly basis has to be recognised. We need to look seriously at this. There may be cultural, historical and negative reasons why this is so but it is not fitting for 2021, never mind for 2022 and beyond.

As the Minister knows, I spoke at length on this issue on Second Stage and I provided him with the wisdom of my experience as a former secretarial assistant back in the day. It was my first full-time job in politics so I have seen this system evolve over the last 20 years and it has not always evolved in a positive fashion. It has been nothing other than regressive for secretarial assistants. Deputy Bríd Smith hit on something relevant in her contribution which chimes with some of the remarks I made on Second Stage when she said that a lot of this issue is gendered. If you look at the official description of a secretarial assistant's job it hearkens back to another day. It conjures up the notion that those who are doing this job are spending much of their time taking dictation, writing letters and answering the phone. We know their functions, roles and responsibilities are much more significant than that. They are highly skilled individuals who are sought after in the private sector. They should not have to pay a premium or accept a lower wage for the benefit, if I can describe it as that, of working in the political system. I said in my Second Stage remarks that there is almost an expectation out there that if you want to work in politics and get a start in politics, and if you are politically engaged and conscious and want to make a difference, you must enter the system at an extraordinarily low and derisory level of pay. That is never on and it shames us all. The reality of the role of a secretarial assistant has evolved significantly over the last five to ten years and there is a dichotomy between the functions, roles and responsibilities of a secretarial assistant working with a Senator and those of a secretarial assistant working with a Deputy.

The Minister probably feels under considerable pressure this afternoon. He is facing the serried ranks of the Opposition but as Deputy Shortall pointed out, all Government Deputies are probably of the view that this situation needs to change for secretarial assistants. I said in my Second Stage remarks that I believe the Minister believes it needs to change as well, given his experience of and commitment to public service and given the value he places on the work of public servants and everybody who works in the system. I have sympathy for the Minister because he is somewhat constrained in the level of engagement he and his officials can have. It is not appropriate, therefore, that we have running commentaries in this House on ongoing industrial relations negotiations. That can often be counterproductive for those who are involved in the negotiations but in this case there is an onus and a responsibility on us to do so because we have a responsibility to our staff.

The Minister will know that the amendment requires the Minister to present a report to the House on the conduct of the negotiations over the next six months. The Minister will also know from his experience that this is a device we use to try to draw attention to an issue. The Minister may feel he is not in a position to support the amendment itself but I ask him to articulate a political signal to those who are depending on us in this House to bring about change for them. I ask the Minister to indicate that he would have a preference that, for example, a comprehensive job evaluation proposition would be considered by negotiators. That would be a valuable contribution to this process. In so doing we could identify equivalent functions within the civil and public service. I made a proposal on the floor of this House the other day that the secretarial assistant grade may well be analogous to the executive officer higher scale where one would start at €35,000 per annum. You get to the top of that scale after six or seven increments rather than 18 as is the case with a secretarial assistant. That could be considered and changes could be made for secretarial assistants who are working with Senators. For example, they could be included on the parliamentary assistant pay scale rather than on the subsistence wages they are expected to live on.

Deputy Pringle referred earlier to the need for those of us working in these Houses, including Deputies and Senators, to be representative of this country in all its diversity. We need to represent that social, economic, cultural and ethnic diversity. This reminds me a little of the system of internships and traineeships where people who are networked and who know people get access to positions and can afford, perhaps with the support of wealthier parents and so on, to be able to get work in an environment where pay is low or where they are existing on subsistence wages. That should not be the case. These roles should not only be available to those who have wealth and can rely on the support of a family network to sustain them over a period of time. That would shame us all. These kinds of positions need to be available to everyone. Work always needs to pay and we need to start here. We need to get our house in order before we can tell others to get their respective houses in order.

Unfortunately I was not in attendance at the discussion on this Bill on Tuesday. Although I wanted to be here, I was not able to attend. I welcome this discussion, which goes to the heart of everything we do and to the heart of fairness and equity. I want to agree with something that Deputy Nash said. I would imagine that most Deputies in this Chamber are in agreement with this amendment and agree that secretarial assistants are facing difficulties with regard to their pay. A lot of what has been said already deals with what we know about. We know our secretarial assistants are at the forefront of the work we do and deal with the most difficult and pressing situations. They deal with a huge number of people who are in crisis for a range of different reasons and they are the people who a lot of our constituents turn to when they are in a moment of crisis. They are the people who need to have the empathy, understanding and ability to get things done and help people when they are in that crisis situation.

Many of our secretarial assistants are struggling financially. As someone who lives in Galway city where the rents are so high, I know that it is an absolute struggle for my own secretarial assistant and no doubt for other secretarial assistants in that constituency and in similar areas. This goes to the heart of fairness and equity. I agree with Deputy Bríd Smith that it is embarrassing that we are on such a high wage relative to our secretarial assistants, many of whom are struggling financially and struggling to do the work they do every single day. We are all aware of the huge volume of work that comes in to every Deputy's constituency office every day. Our secretarial assistants are dealing with people in crisis, many of whom come to our constituency offices in floods of tears. They try to assist them with issues they may never have dealt with before. They do their best to assist people in any way they can.

My party colleague, Deputy Clarke, spoke in my slot on Tuesday and said that this should not be about money but let us face facts, this will not cost an enormous amount. The report will not have a monetary implication. There is something that happens on Report Stage in this Dáil that I do not fully understand but maybe that is because I am still quite new. Obviously I am hoping the Minister will support this amendment but I do not understand why the Government does not support amendments providing for the preparation of reports when the said reports could actually assist in the formulation of Government policy and in analysing specific issues. This amendment, tabled by Deputy Pringle, is welcome and cost should not be an issue here. In the grand scheme of things, the cost of this report would not be significant. This is about equity and fairness for those people who really are on the front line in our constituency offices. We should do everything in our power to assist them and to further their case. It is really good to see cross-party support in the Chamber for this amendment. I am sure Government Deputies are also acutely aware of the struggles of their own staff as a result of their low pay. It is great that we are having this debate today and I urge the Minister to consider this amendment favourably. I do not know why this report cannot be supported.

I have a question relating to what the Minister said in the Seanad yesterday. He said the commission "makes a proposal to me, as Minister, on issues such as grading, salary rates and so on, and I then make a decision on that proposal". I ask the Minister to detail how that actually works. Obviously we know the Oireachtas HR department had been dealing with the pay claim that was before the WRC on behalf of the commission. At the last conciliation meeting, the HR department said it could not negotiate pay, terms and conditions without the approval of the Department. At that point, the Department had failed to show up and now we are hearing the proposal for pay, terms and conditions must be brought to the Minister for approval. I am interested in hearing how that would work. I ask the Minister to confirm that the Oireachtas HR department, acting in its capacity as agent for the Oireachtas Commission, has the power to directly negotiate with workers and unions and then send the outcome of such negotiations to the Minister for approval or rejection. If this is the case, will the Minister commit to making the commission aware of the Oireachtas HR department's capacity to negotiate on its behalf in advance of the next conciliation meeting so that meaningful discussions can take place? It is good that this issue is being discussed in the House and Deputies have made quite cogent arguments as to why this needs to be addressed. I am interested in hearing the Minister's response because I missed the Second Stage debate on Tuesday.

I thank all of my colleagues for their contributions on this amendment and on Second Stage. I acknowledge the points they have all made about the role of our secretarial assistants. They do extraordinary work. In the 30 or 35 minutes we have been in the Chamber we can be sure that the phones in our offices have rung more than once, many e-mails have arrived into our inboxes, messages have been left on our social media platforms and our staff are working incredibly hard. I absolutely agree with what has been said by colleagues, that we could not do the work we do without their support and their dedication is immense. That is certainly my experience. I have been in this House for more than 14 years and have had the same secretarial assistant throughout that period. Her name is Linda and she is outstanding. I could not do the work I do without her support. I want to be upfront and clear about that.

The nature of the role has changed even in the time I have been in this House. It has become more complex and busier. The multifaceted nature of the issues that are coming at Deputies and our staff is striking. Our secretarial assistants have to deal with such a wide range of issues and with the people we have the privilege of representing, often at a very difficult time in their lives. We know from our own experience that whatever is going on out there in society will make its way into a Deputy's office. We have a good sense or handle on what is going on because of the interaction we have with our constituents, in many instances through our staff. I want to make it very clear that from where I stand and from the perspective of the Government, our staff and our secretarial assistants are valued. The issue has been raised directly with me by colleagues in government too and I want to acknowledge that.

In terms of where the matter stands right now and my role, it is important for me to set that out in response to Deputy Mairéad Farrell's comments. Under the 2003 Act, the commission must obtain the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform of the day before reaching an agreement with any person in relation to rates of pay, conditions of employment or superannuation rights. The Act is quite clear that my consent is required on the basis of what is proposed to me. A proposal is made and I either give my consent or I do not. Of course, I consult and engage with officials when it gets to that point. In practice, what this means is that the commission advises on matters relating to resourcing, grading and terms and conditions of employment and submits proposals to the Minister for consideration and agreement. In other words, the commission makes a proposal to me, as Minister, on issues such as grading, salary rates and so on and I then make a decision on that proposal having consulted with my officials. That is the point I made in the Seanad yesterday.

There is a process underway. I have not said "No" to any proposal. No proposal has been put to me as Minister that I have rejected. I want to be upfront with all of the Deputies in that regard. My understanding is that both the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and SIPTU have written to the WRC and are proposing a re-engagement at the WRC. That should happen and there should be engagement at the WRC at that point.

Deputy Nash made a very considered contribution on Second Stage and again today. He understands the role I have and the role I do not have. I agree that a political signal is important and I am happy to send such a signal. I want this issue resolved and it is important to put that on the record of the House today. I will work positively with my own officials on this and will ask them to engage with the commission in a positive frame of mind to ensure we can bring about a resolution to this issue as soon as we possibly can. That is where I stand on the substantive matter.

I am not going to accept amendments Nos. 3 or 4 because I do not think they are necessary or appropriate. A process is ongoing and we should allow that to take its course. This debate has been really helpful and it will add fresh impetus to the process. I hope the fact that we are discussing this on the floor of our national Parliament and that I, as Minister, have made the points I have made will be helpful. That is where I stand in relation to the issue. I want to see the parties, namely the commission and SIPTU, representing the workers, engaging intensively. My officials are available to support or assist in any way they can, while recognising our role under the Act.

Our role is to consider a proposal put to us and then for me, as the Minister, to make the final decision. It is very clear in the legislation that the commission should obtain the consent of the Minister. In other words, the commission does the negotiations. We are not directly involved in the negotiations but to support it in any way we can and then that proposal is put to me for decision as to whether to give consent or not. That is where the matter stands. On that basis, I do not believe we should amend the legislation. I do not believe it is necessary or appropriate given that it is an ongoing process. I have outlined where the matter stands and how I think it can be resolved. I restate my view and that of the Government that we do want this issue resolved.

I thank the Minister for his response. It is obvious from it that he feels strongly about the situation and he wants to send the clear message that the situation does need to be resolved. I take on board that the Oireachtas Commission and the union must engage with the WRC and come up with a proposal before the Minister has a role in considering it. It is one thing to say it in the House here but it would send a very strong message if the Minister took these amendments on board so that they were written in the legislation. That would send out a very strong message that this needs to happen and that the Minister is quite willing to do his part when it comes to it. That is something that needs to happen. The Minister spoke of sending a political signal. There is no stronger signal than one written into the legislation that this needs to happen. That would not tie the Minister's hands or influence him on the outcome. It would just send a very strong message that this has to happen quickly.

It is not surprising to us on the Opposition that the Government is not accepting the amendment as traditionally the Government does not accept them but it would send an important message and a clear signal. It does not commit the Minister to doing anything except to produce a report which would be examined. I ask the Minister to reconsider.

It is good to hear that the Government party TDs have also been strong on the case and that the Minister understands where we are coming from. I agree with Deputy Pringle. It is great that we are having this discussion and I am not suggesting that anyone would purposely forget it but I am concerned that it could slip off the radar in time. That is why I think this kind of report would be of benefit and it keeps it on the agenda which is very important. I am worried that we will be here this time next year and remember that we discussed this last year and have to ask what had happened in the interim. It is something that is so important for those who are working in our constituency offices. The report would be good and it would also keep it on the agenda and in our own minds. It is very important. Deputy Pringle said that we are used to these reports being published and the Government not accepting them. I do not understand why that is not the case. These reports can only benefit everyone, the Government and the Opposition. Sometimes it is good to think in a different way and take on the reports from Opposition parties or Independents so that they can be looked at.

I am glad that the Minister is making a strong political signal on this. It is good that we had the discussion and that we all appear to be on the same page. My only concern is that we do not see this fall off the agenda.

I welcome the Minister's positive comments. He is sending a signal, there is no doubt. This is a very long-running issue. We cannot continue with a situation where we are not treating our staff in an acceptable manner. That is the reality. We should not allow it to continue any longer. I accept the Minister's bona fides but he must also accept ours. This is a reasonable amendment. It provides a reasonable timescale. We are saying to come back to us within six months and to lay that report before the Houses. We have seen how long this issue has run. There is real urgency about it. The concern is that it will not be dealt with in a timely manner or that another offer will be made that is just not acceptable. I ask the Minister please to be reasonable about this because I think that we are being reasonable. We are generally on the same page. All we are saying is that in order to keep a focus on this so that we do not waste more years and expect people to survive on fairly measly starting salaries that we ensure that there is a report, that the Minister follows through on what he is saying and that he presents a report to us on the progress that has been made. It is reasonable and we ask the Minister to be reasonable and to accept that request.

I thank the Minister for his positive contribution. Even in a short time he has travelled a considerable journey in terms of articulating that political signal and making it very clear that he wants that issue resolved in the interest of secretarial assistants and the sustainability and attractiveness of that employment. It is always a concern with public service negotiators that they may run the risk of creating some kind of precedent and getting themselves involved in a situation where an agreement with one sector of workers may have a knock-on effect or implications for other sectors of workers or, indeed, the integrity of the national agreement. However, it is my assessment that any positive conclusion to this set of negotiations would not have any implications for knock-on claims anywhere else by virtue of the fact that the job itself is unique. It is very difficult to compare it with any other role or function of any other public or civil servant across the system. We need to be mindful of that. The Minister, his officials and the officials at commission level need to be mindful of that too. There is no vulnerability there and there is no risk. It is a unique role and its uniqueness and the demands of the role need to be given very clear consideration by negotiations over the coming months.

On knock-on effects and pay increases across sectors, we have to acknowledge, and we would be putting our heads in the sand if we did not, that we have a problem with low pay in this country and particularly in the public sector. The ushers and service officers in this House, the cleaners, everyone who looks after us, are not paid enough. The pay is too low. We are not just singling out the secretarial assistants for the sake of it but this is the particular legislation that we are dealing with that pertains to them. There should be an acknowledgement that the rate of inflation, the cost of electricity, rent and of educating your kids is all going way out of kilter with the pay of ordinary workers and particularly with the grades that we meet daily in this House, right across the public sector and the civil service. Therefore, that acknowledgment is important. I welcome the political signal that the Minister is giving today on the secretarial assistants but I also think a political signal around the low pay of our public servants would be very helpful indeed, whether it is knock-on or not. An acknowledgement of it and telling things as they really are and the truth of what people face daily is important.

I am disappointed that the Minister is not going to accept the amendment because he knows that the reason it is there is because it is our job in the Opposition to make the Government accountable.

The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that no matter what the Minister says today - we are glad of his positive pronouncements - is what he actually means and that he is held accountable to that. That is why the amendment is there. I plead with him to accept it. It is not going to tie his feet to the floor, pull his toenails out, torture him or send him to Guantánamo Bay. It is only holding him to what he is saying here, on a piece of paper that says he will be accountable to this House when the chips are down.

Are any other Deputies offering before we go back to the Minister? We are not going to torture him now or anything.

Hopefully not, a Cheann Comhairle. I assure Deputy Smith that I am not going anywhere. I am never going to be far away from the House or Members. I can be held to account at any time and am happy to be held to account and to attend committees and plenary sessions as well. The Deputy should not underestimate the value of this debate. My officials are here while other officials are watching the debate remotely.

They are listening very carefully to all the contributions being made. There is an process ongoing at the moment. The amendment I am being asked to accept includes a report covering engagement the Minister has had with union representatives of political staff in respect of their pay claim. In fairness, that is not my role. It is not my role to engage directly with the unions. The commission is doing that work directly with SIPTU. The commission then, following that engagement and through the WRC, will make a proposal to me as Minister. It would not be helpful or appropriate for me as Minister to cut through and get directly involved before a negotiation is complete.

I acknowledge some of the points made earlier about the role itself and whether it needs to be reconsidered. Currently, the pay scale in question is analogous to the pay scale for clerical officers across the civil and public services. It is for the commission to come to a view on whether that is appropriate. Deputy Nash made the suggestion of a job evaluation, for example, and I am not going to advise the commission on how to do its work. It is a matter for the commission. I respect the commission's role. In essence, what we are providing for in the Bill are the enabling resources not just to run these Houses but also to provide support for Members and support for all our staff. I am satisfied there are adequate resources in the legislation, which we will hopefully pass in the coming days, to address this issue in an appropriate way.

Amendment put:
The Dáil divided: Tá, 44; Níl, 69; Staon, 0.

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Boyd Barrett, Richard.
  • Brady, John.
  • Browne, Martin.
  • Buckley, Pat.
  • Cairns, Holly.
  • Carthy, Matt.
  • Clarke, Sorca.
  • Connolly, Catherine.
  • Cronin, Réada.
  • Crowe, Seán.
  • Cullinane, David.
  • Daly, Pa.
  • Doherty, Pearse.
  • Ellis, Dessie.
  • Farrell, Mairéad.
  • Funchion, Kathleen.
  • Gannon, Gary.
  • Gould, Thomas.
  • Guirke, Johnny.
  • Kenny, Gino.
  • Kenny, Martin.
  • Kerrane, Claire.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • McNamara, Michael.
  • Munster, Imelda.
  • Murphy, Paul.
  • Mythen, Johnny.
  • Nash, Ged.
  • O'Callaghan, Cian.
  • O'Rourke, Darren.
  • Ó Murchú, Ruairí.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • Pringle, Thomas.
  • Quinlivan, Maurice.
  • Ryan, Patricia.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Smith, Bríd.
  • Smith, Duncan.
  • Stanley, Brian.
  • Tully, Pauline.
  • Ward, Mark.
  • Whitmore, Jennifer.


  • Berry, Cathal.
  • Brophy, Colm.
  • Browne, James.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Butler, Mary.
  • Calleary, Dara.
  • Canney, Seán.
  • Cannon, Ciarán.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Carroll MacNeill, Jennifer.
  • Chambers, Jack.
  • Collins, Niall.
  • Costello, Patrick.
  • Cowen, Barry.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • Crowe, Cathal.
  • Devlin, Cormac.
  • Dillon, Alan.
  • Donnelly, Stephen.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Duffy, Francis Noel.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • English, Damien.
  • Farrell, Alan.
  • Fitzpatrick, Peter.
  • Flaherty, Joe.
  • Flanagan, Charles.
  • Fleming, Sean.
  • Foley, Norma.
  • Griffin, Brendan.
  • Harris, Simon.
  • Haughey, Seán.
  • Heydon, Martin.
  • Higgins, Emer.
  • Hourigan, Neasa.
  • Humphreys, Heather.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Lahart, John.
  • Leddin, Brian.
  • Madigan, Josepha.
  • Martin, Catherine.
  • Matthews, Steven.
  • McAuliffe, Paul.
  • McGrath, Michael.
  • McHugh, Joe.
  • Moynihan, Aindrias.
  • Moynihan, Michael.
  • Murnane O'Connor, Jennifer.
  • Naughton, Hildegarde.
  • Noonan, Malcolm.
  • O'Brien, Darragh.
  • O'Brien, Joe.
  • O'Callaghan, Jim.
  • O'Dea, Willie.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Donovan, Patrick.
  • O'Dowd, Fergus.
  • O'Gorman, Roderic.
  • O'Sullivan, Christopher.
  • O'Sullivan, Pádraig.
  • Ó Cathasaigh, Marc.
  • Phelan, John Paul.
  • Rabbitte, Anne.
  • Richmond, Neale.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Smith, Brendan.
  • Smyth, Niamh.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Varadkar, Leo.


Tellers: Tá, Deputies Thomas Pringle and Róisín Shortall; Níl, Deputies Jack Chambers and Brendan Griffin.
Amendment declared lost.

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 3, between lines 23 and 24, to insert the following:

“Report on continuation of provisions of Scheme for Secretarial Assistance

2. The Minister shall, within 6 months of the passing of this Act, lay a report before both Houses of the Oireachtas outlining—

(a) considerations in respect of the replacement of the secretarial assistant grade with the parliamentary assistant grade in respect of those employed by a member of Seanad Éireann,

(b) considerations in respect of the replacement of the secretarial assistant grade with the administrative assistant grade in respect of those employed by members of Dáil Éireann, and

(c) considerations in respect of the additional staffing requirements of members of both Houses of the Oireachtas with due regard to the changes which have taken place in respect of the work of members of both Houses of the Oireachtas since the Scheme for Secretarial Assistance was created.”.

Does the Deputy wish to speak to the amendment?

Amendment put and declared lost.
Section 2 agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment, received for final consideration and passed.