Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Living Wage Implementation

Yesterday the living wage rose to €12.30 an hour because of the cost of living and the housing crisis. It is a measure designed to ensure people can afford the essentials in life. Those earning below the living wage are forced to do without certain essentials, which affects their nutrition in providing an appropriate diet for their families. That is one of the most important consequences. Companies such as Aldi, Lidl and Ikea, the majority of non-governmental organisations, NGOs, to which I speak and many small and medium-sized enterprises, SMEs, are paying the living wage but the State does not. In budget 2019 it could have brought childcare workers from a minimum entry wage to the living wage at a cost of approximately €15 million. It could have moved public sector and Civil Service workers to the living wage at a cost of €34 million. They are hard-working individuals employed by the State. We learned today, for example, that 1,400 members of the Defence Forces quit last year. In the private sector there are hospitality workers and shop assistants. We could make a real difference to their lives. However, the State, continues to pay workers poverty wages and maintains the status quo when it comes to low pay. Rather than cutting taxes at a cost of €350 million to the Exchequer and squandering money, the State could have moved to increase wages to the living wage. Workers deserve to be paid fairly. It is not acceptable that tens of thousands of workers have to endure poverty and a low standard of living as a result of low pay. Will the Government reassess its approach to this issue? Will it start to live in the real world by taking steps to put the living wage on a legislative footing?

We should not confuse the living wage with the national minimum wage. They are very different. The living wage is an estimate made by a number of NGOs and academics who make up the self-appointed living wage technical group. It does not engage with business or many other groups. Its work is based on research to identify the income required to have the minimum essential standard of living by a single adult household in Ireland conducted by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice. Achieving the 2019 minimum essential standard of living, as calculated by the group, would require gross earnings of €25,198 for a single person, implying a living wage hourly rate of €12.30 based on a 39 hour week over 52 weeks. This represents an increase of 40 cent on the 2018 living wage of €11.90. The main drivers of the increase are cited as changes in the cost of living and the tax system; however, the main driver of the increase in the living wage is understood to be the current housing market pressures and associated increases in rent levels.

It is important that Ireland’s statutory national minimum wage and the living wage concept are not conflated. As a voluntary initiative, the living wage has no legislative basis and confers no statutory entitlement. The national minimum wage, on the other hand, has a legislative basis and confers a statutory entitlement on employees and a statutory obligation on employers. It is the legally binding lowest average hourly rate that can be paid by an employer to an employee. The rate is set and governed by the National Minimum Wage Act 2000 which applies to all employees, including full-time, part-time, temporary and casual employees, with some exceptions.

The National Minimum Wage (Low Pay Commission) Act 2015 established the Low Pay Commission, an independent body which makes recommendations on the national minimum wage to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty. Since its establishment, the recommendations submitted by the commission have all been accepted by the Government and represent an increase in the national minimum wage of 13.3% since 2015. The national minimum wage has increased every year since the commission was established by Fine Gael and the Labour Party.

With effect from 1 January 2019, the current rate for the national minimum wage is €9.80 per hour. The national minimum wage approach seeks to find a balance between a fair and sustainable rate for low paid workers and one that will not have significant negative consequences for employers and competitiveness. It can be seen as a pragmatic approach, providing a clearly defined minimum hourly rate for employers, giving them the freedom to pay higher rates, while concurrently providing a measure of security for low paid workers. As it is legally enforceable, it provides that protection for workers.

More broadly, the setting of wages is a matter between employers and employees. It takes place in the context of the market. The Government does not and cannot interfere unduly in that process. In the past three years the number of workers earning the national minimum wage has ranged anywhere between 6% and 9% of all employees. On average, over the four quarters of 2018, national minimum wage employees accounted for 7% of all employees. The average number of individuals earning the national minimum wage or less in 2018 as a percentage of the total labour force was 8.5%.

The Government has accepted and implemented the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission in respect of the national minimum wage since the commission was established in 2015 by a Fine Gael and Labour Party Government. A Programme for a Partnership Government provides that the Government will rely on the annual recommendations of the commission. Relying on an independent body such as the Low Pay Commission is the most appropriate approach to take to achieve the right balance and a yearly adjustment to national minimum wage levels. The commission is working on its recommendations for this year and will report to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection in the coming weeks. Any recommendation the commission makes will be considered by the Government in the context of the upcoming budget.

The Government can interfere in the market, as that is exactly what the national minimum wage does. Sinn Féin is suggesting the legally binding lowest average hourly rate become the living wage of €12.30 an hour. Whom would it affect the most? The majority on the national minimum wage are women, half of whom are young people, while 25% were born abroad. We can interfere in the market, but in response to a question about the issue yesterday the Taoiseach said it would result in job losses and affect the number of hours of work available. In 2016 the national minimum wage was increased from €8.65 to €9.15 an hour, a 50 cent increase. The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, found that there was no evidence that the increase had led to job losses. It found that there had been no adverse affects on low paid workers and that it had not led to job losses. They are the facts. We need to increase the national minimum wage to the living wage in order that people will be able to afford to live in this city and across the State.

There is a need to strike a balance. The living wage technical group comprises representatives of NGOs and academics. It does not engage with the business sector. To strike the right balance, that engagement needs to take place. On the basis of engagement, we have made sure the national minimum wage has been increased in the past four years. It has been increased by 13.3%. If a recommendation is made that it be increased this year, I am sure it will be taken on board by the Minister, but we would need to make sure there would be no unintended consequences, as the Taoiseach said yesterday. The Senator rightly pointed to what the Taoiseach had said. If we interfere with the market unduly - in my earlier contribution I spoke about interfering in the market unduly - and increase the national minimum wage above and beyond what has been recommended, we may see people's hours being cut and jobs being lost because it may not be possible for employers to keep them on. We need to be sure we will strike that balance. We need to make sure the lowest paid workers will be given the highest possible wages. It will then be up to employers whether they want to go above and beyond the set national minimum wage. We need to do this within the existing statutory framework which was established in 2015. We will continue to engage with the Low Pay Commission to make sure any recommendation it makes in consultation with all sectors and bodies involved is taken on board.

Autism Support Services

This is not the first occasion in recent times on which someone has tabled a Commencement matter and then withdrawn it. I see other Senators here such as Senators Boyhan and Mulherin who did not get a bite at the cherry. When a Senator declines to raise a Commencement matter which has been selected for discussion by me, it is frustrating for those who are waiting to have matters selected. That is not Senator Mullen's problem, but I am trying to be as fair as possible. Senator Mullen has not had a matter selected for a while, which is why I selected his Commencement matter for discussion today.

Is mór dom sin. Táim go mór faoi chomaoin ag an gCathaoirleach agus cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this important Commencement matter which deals with school supports for children with autism. I thank the Minister of State for attending to take it.

As the Minister of State may be aware, in the past few years there has been an attempt to integrate children with an autism diagnosis into mainstream schools at both primary and secondary level. I acknowledge that much of this work has yielded positive and transformative outcomes, not only for the children concerned but also the schools which have had their learning horizons expanded significantly. That said, there remain significant and, to some extent, growing concerns about the curtailment of access to teaching hours through the application of what are termed as reduced timetables. As I understand it, the Department’s view is that reduced timetables should not be used as a behavioural management technique, or seen de facto as amounting to suspension or expulsion. There is no legislative provision for their use for particular pupils or groups of pupils. We are talking about a situation where the State is resourcing schools, but because of behavioural issues or whatever else, the children in need of support are not receiving it because they are being placed on reduced timetables. The autism support organisation AsIAm made this clear in its submission to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills in late April and again at a recent briefing in the AV room. From its consultation with parents, autistic children and teachers, it concluded that reduced timetables were being used de facto as a behavioural management option and had the obvious outcome that children were being denied access to class time. It stated this was mainly down to the failure of the Department to ensure schools were sufficiently autism friendly. It is one thing to provide funding and resources but another to ensure delivery. AsIAm also noted that there were what might be termed regulatory lacunae, in the sense that while there was a commitment on paper to adapt the school environment to meet the needs of autistic students, it was not always given practical effect, either because of a lack of training or because of inadequate psychological support structures.

Pavee Point has independently arrived at pretty much the same conclusions in the case of Traveller children. Ms Maria Joyce told the Joint Committee on Education and Skills on 30 May on the issue of Traveller children on reduced hours that it had almost reached the point where it had become policy, rather than an exceptional measure in dealing with a child with particular needs. It is being resorted to far too easily and not being used as a last option. Will the Minister of State accept, therefore, that exclusion from access to classroom time is almost at the point where it is becoming systemic within schools? Will she also accept that unless and until more effective autism supports are put in place within schools, the problem is likely to become embedded and that it will become far more challenging to reverse it?

This is ultimately a question of whether we are genuinely committed to ensuring that these children are made to feel welcome in the school environment, despite the challenges that often present for school staff who are, in fairness, committed and dedicated.

I will answer to the best of my ability. Where I cannot answer today, I will certainly respond later to the Senator. We all work with parents and try to provide the best care while ensuring that all students are given access to the supports they need and that are relevant and appropriate for them in any type of school. It is important to note that the Government is committed to that, as is everyone in this House and in the Dáil. I thank the Senator for raising this issue, and in particular the challenges faced by children with autism in getting an education.

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills will publish its report later on the use of reduced timetables by schools and its impact on children with special educational needs. The Minister for Education and Skills and his officials will consider the views of the committee over coming weeks. I am sure they will revert to the Senator and to every other Member. Enabling children with special educational needs, including autism, to receive an education is a priority for the Government. This year we will invest €1.8 billion in providing supports for children with special educational needs, including additional teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs. It also includes an allocation of more than €300 million towards providing additional resources specifically to support students with autism in schools.

The greater proportion of children with autism attend mainstream classes, but some may find it difficult to manage full-time placement in mainstream and, therefore, placement in a special class or special school setting is deemed more appropriate. Enrolment of a child in a special class or special school placement is based on a professional assessment in consultation with the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. The NCSE is responsible for planning, co-ordinating and advising on education provision for children with special educational needs. It is planning to ensure that every child has a school placement appropriate to his or her needs for the 2019-20 school year and is working closely with the Department of Education and Skills in this regard.

I will outline some facts associated with this issue. Since 2011, the number of special classes has increased significantly from 548 in 2011 to 1,459 across the country now. That is almost a threefold increase of which almost 1,200 are autism spectrum disorder, ASD, special classes. In addition, there are 124 special schools, of which 20 cater exclusively for children with autism. The NCSE team of special education needs organisers, SENOs, are locally based and are available to support families of children with special needs.

The National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, supports children with ASD, including those who may also present with anxiety. This may involve in-depth consultation, an assessment or building schools' capacity to better understand triggers, interventions, solutions and strategies in response to the presenting needs. The Department and the NCSE provide a range of supports, including professional development, advice and guidance for schools and teachers teaching children with special needs. Schools are required to have policies in place to support students who experience difficulties that impact on their ability to fully participate in school life. As we all know, intervention at an early stage is key.

Reduced timetables should not be used as a behavioural management technique, or as any kind of a de facto suspension or expulsion. There are legal provisions relating to the exclusion and expulsion of students and these are the responsibility of Tusla. Notwithstanding that, the Department of Education and Skills is aware that reduced timetables are being used in circumstances where that may not be considered the most appropriate means of dealing with a behavioural issue. The Department is working with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Tusla on the development of guidelines for schools on this issue.

I have spoken to the Minister in regard to this issue previously. He is anxious that every child’s entitlement to an education be vindicated. This means that children are supported to ensure maximum attendance and participation. I am satisfied that the necessary legislative framework and structures across both Departments and their agencies are in place to deliver on this important objective.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. There will always be a gap in all human affairs between rhetoric and reality; it is inevitable. What we have to work to is narrowing that gap as much as possible. I will be somewhat parochial for a moment. In December 2018, the Galway Autism Partnership, which provides a service to 200 families, appealed to all Oireachtas Members to make representations to the Department on its behalf. I understand that the unit, based in Athenry and serving Roscommon and Galway, had no service at all for people with autism for all of 2013. Its most recent report is from 2017 and it highlighted the fact that it receives no State funding and relies on extensive fundraising, donations from members of the public and corporate sponsorship.

I hope that can change. The Minister of State will not have the information to hand but I would be grateful if I could be reverted to on this issue. I raise this point because it highlights in another way the gap between the rhetoric of the State regarding autism supports and the reality on the ground. I accept that there is a commitment to the principle of subsidiarity at play, which is commendable. Parents and students, however, need the commitment at local level to be reciprocated at departmental level. The issue I raise referred to reduced timetables. It concerns how allocated resources are being used, but it links in with the issue of the allocation of resources in other situations. Both of these issues concern the need to narrow the gap between rhetoric and reality on the ground.

I will have to respond later to the Senator regarding the funding of specific organisations. It is not something I can comment on now. Organisations throughout the country, including in my constituency of Meath East, do fantastic work supporting parents, families, teachers, schools and young children with autism. It is important to acknowledge that and support them where we can.

Regarding the specific concern raised by the Senator on the use of reduced timetables, I again stress that the Minister is aware of this. Reduced timetables cannot, and should not, be used as a behavioural management technique or as any kind of suspension or expulsion mechanism. The Minister and his Department are working with Tusla to try to address those concerns. There has been a significant increase in the supports and funding available. The Senator is correct that it is important that the money reaches the students who need it and that it is applied appropriately. The Department is doing everything possible to ensure that is the case. If there are concerns regarding specific issues, it is important that the Senator or anyone else can raise them and make the Minister aware of them as well.

Flood Relief Schemes Status

I thank the Minister of State for making time available to deal with this matter. The seventh anniversary of the flooding of Meadowbrook in Glanmire was on 28 June. More than 60 houses and businesses were flooded. That flooding was 4 ft to 5 ft high in some parts of the estate. Many houses were severely damaged. The situation now is that it is impossible to get insurance for those houses and they have been devalued. The damage cost people much money and brought them a great deal of grief as well. The county council has done much work in preparing a flood relief programme for the Glashaboy river. It carried out an environmental impact study, which was furnished to the Minister of State's Department. I acknowledge that this project has to go through procedures and the environmental impact study has to be reviewed.

When he was here previously, the Minister of State gave his full support to funding being allocated for the remedial work to be carried out. We still have had no sign of that money being assigned. Even if the funding was allocated today, it would be necessary to invite tenders. That will take another three to four months. It will then take another month or two to sign the contracts while the work itself will probably take a year to complete. If we agreed to the funding today, it would probably still be February or March of next year before any work would start. This issue is a priority for the people in the area, for the families living in Meadowbrook in Glanmire, for the immediate Glanmire area and for those businesses that suffered damage as a result of that flooding. I am wondering about the current status of the project.

I thank Senator Burke for raising this matter and I am pleased to provide an update on the Glashaboy flood relief scheme, Glanmire, County Cork. He has raised this matter with me before and I am pleased to say that good progress is being made to advance this much-needed scheme.

As the Senator will know, the locations identified in this scheme include Sallybrook Industrial Estate, Hazelwood Shopping Centre, Meadowbrook housing estate, Butlerstown, Glenmore and from Glanmire Bridge to O'Callaghan Park. Following detailed assessment by the consultants, a number of measures were identified to address flood risk in the area, including direct defences such as walls and earth embankments, culvert upgrades, flood relief culverts, channel widening and road regrading. The scheme will benefit 103 properties in total of which 78 are residential properties and 25 are commercial premises. Two public information days were held in February 2014 and February 2015. Following the development of the options and preparation of the necessary environmental and engineering reports, a formal exhibition of the proposed Glashaboy flood relief scheme took place in November and December 2016, which showed the preferred option developed by the design team.

The Office of Public Works has submitted the Glashaboy flood relief scheme to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for formal confirmation under the Arterial Drainage Acts. The Minister will undertake an environmental assessment of the proposed scheme over the coming months. The assessment will be in line with required legislative requirements and will involve a public consultation. Cork County Council will progress the appointment of a contractor for this scheme following ministerial confirmation.

I praise Senator Burke on the work that he has done not only on behalf of the residents and the people he represents but also on the work that he has done with my Department, and we work closely with the county council. This is an ongoing flood scheme that he brought to my attention. This Government is very much committed and very much to the forefront in putting funding in place. I have read recent reports saying that because there was a cut in funding for my Department money may go towards the children's hospital. I assure the Senator that the money has been ring-fenced for this scheme. I assure him and the people he represents that that is the case.

Since I took up this job two years ago I have put huge emphasis on the Glashaboy scheme. As the Senator will know, I have brought the scheme to the attention of the Department of Finance. The project must go through an independent review. As soon as I have the review the people in his area, and working with the local authority, will get the green light to start the project.

I shall allow the Senator to ask a brief supplementary.

I thank the Minister of State. I fully appreciate and understand his role in the Office of Public Works. I have found all of his staff in the office to be extremely helpful and supportive of this flood relief work. I fully understand where the Minister of State is coming from. Anything I said is not a criticism of him or his Department but local residents are frustrated with the situation. I take on board what he has said about the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I have expressed my concerns and will continue to do so to that Department about the allocation being provided and signed off. I am sure that he will understand that if the allocation is signed off today work will not start for seven or eight months. In the not too distant future we will face into another winter of high water levels. Unfortunately, residents are extremely concerned and stressed out every winter because the necessary works have not been completed. I thank the Minister of State for his work on this area.

I appreciate that the temperature is rising and the sun is shining today. However, I always say regarding people who have been affected by flooding and suffered the consequences of floodwater hitting their radiators, one is always only three days away from flooding. When a new Garda station is announced seven years could elapse before there is a brick on the ground. It is incredible the amount of work that must be done once flooding schemes have been announced. It takes between three to five years to prepare a scheme. I will work closely with the Senator from here on in. I assure him that we are working closely together to make sure, for the people of Glashaboy that he represents, that there is funding and that the work starts thus easing the pressure on residents. I cannot emphasise enough that the money has been ring-fenced for the Glashaboy scheme. Therefore, it is wrong for people to say that the money has been diverted elsewhere. Again, I assure the Senator that there is money for the scheme.

I thank the Minister of State.

I shall allow the Senator to raise the issue again in November if it has not been remedied.

I thank the Cathaoirleach.

Sitting suspended at 11.05 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.