Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Joint Labour Committees

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, back to the House. She is very welcome.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I want to discuss terms, conditions and pay in the hospitality sector and the need for the Government to be much more proactive in trying to establish a joint labour committee in the sector. I have raised this with a number of the Minister of State's colleagues and I will ask her some of the same questions. I regret to say I did not get any answers on previous occasions, but I am optimistic today.

I will get straight to the heart of this issue. The average rate of pay in the hospitality sector according to the Government's CSO statistics for June this year is €12.54 per hour, a figure which includes the highest paid people in the sector. The bulk of the people in the sector, that is, the people who are changing our beds, serving our drinks and working behind counters get considerably less than €12.54 per hour. For the large part, they are earning the minimum wage or just above it. A EUROSTAT comparison done by Michael Taft showed that compared with people working in hospitality in other parts of the EU, our people would need a 50% pay rise just to gain equity with them. I have stated these statistics because I am sometimes told I have picked some bad examples. These are the statistics for the hospitality sector as a whole. People in the sector are paid 50% less than their European counterparts.

The terms and conditions in the sector are pretty appalling. I will give one example from the best hotel in Limerick, which I will not name. A contract states, in respect of a working week, that, "As a casual employee your hours will be communicated to you by the departmental rota." In other words, people do not know what hours they are working from one week to the next. I checked with some colleagues in hotels last week whether this is still the case, and nothing has changed since new legislation was introduced. Not only are hotel workers paid appallingly, most of the time they do not know what hours they will work from one week to the next.

I will read out some of the details of the findings of an independent research study by Dr. Deirdre Curran from NUI Galway on how people are treated in the sector: 76% of respondents to the survey said they experienced verbal abuse sometimes or often; 64% of workers in the hospitality sector said they experienced psychological abuse sometimes or often; 15% said they experienced physical abuse sometimes or often; 52% said they do not get the breaks they are entitled to; 42% said they had no written record of their contract term; 16% said they had no access to payslips; 55% said they had witnessed or experienced harassment based on sexuality, age or race, I know the Minister of State will be aware that most of the people we are talking about in the sector are women; 63% said they had experienced or witnessed bullying; and 48% said they had no voice or access to union representation.

My point is that we need action from the Government. We cannot let this appalling treatment of workers continue in the sector. I hope the Minister of State will have something positive to say today.

I thank Senator Gavan. I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys. As we know, joint labour committees are bodies established to provide machinery for fixing statutory minimum rates of pay and conditions of employment for employees across certain sectors. They are composed of equal numbers of representatives of employers and workers in an employment sector. The committee meets under an independent chairman and industrial relations officers of the Workplace Relations Commission appointed by the relevant Minister to discuss and agree proposals for terms and conditions to apply to specified grades or categories of workers in the sector concerned.

If agreement is reached on the terms and conditions the joint labour committee, JLC, publishes the details and invites submissions from interested parties. After consideration of the submissions, the committee accepts the proposals. It then submits them to the Labour Court for consideration. The court will then make a recommendation to the Minister and, providing the correct procedures under the legislation have been followed by the court, an order known as an employment regulation order, ERO, will be signed into law. There are currently eight JLCs in place. Of these, two are relevant to the hospitality sector, one is in the hotels industry and one is in the catering industry.

Separately, sectoral employment orders, SEOs, set out the terms and conditions for workers in the economic sector to which they apply. There are currently three SEOs in place in the construction, electrical contracting and mechanical engineering sectors. The process to put an SEO in place begins when a request is formally made to the Labour Court under the legislation to review the terms and conditions for workers in a particular economic sector. A request to the Labour Court can be made separately or jointly by organisations that substantially represent employers or workers, such as a trade union or an employers' body. Again, the role of the Minister is to ensure that the Labour Court has followed the procedures set out in legislation. I must emphasise the voluntary nature of Ireland's approach to industrial relations. Our role is to provide a statutory framework within which parties can come together voluntarily.

I appreciate that the Minister of State is standing in for a colleague, but that is a particularly disappointing response. I am aware of the statutory framework. The fact of the matter is that the employer bodies have refused to engage with it. That begs a question to which no-one has been able to give me an answer. If someone works in the hospitality sector, how does he or she get a pay rise? I have not heard anyone explain that to me. Deputy Mitchell O'Connor will be the third Minister I have asked. I have had no response whatsoever. I have reeled off statistics to show the appalling rates of pay. These are Government statistics. This is not a handful of hotels, but a statistical representation of the sector. There are appalling rates of pay, appalling terms and conditions and precarious work, but the members of the Government appear to be sitting with their arms folded, saying it is nothing to do with them. That is not good enough.

I thank the Senator. I emphasise the voluntary nature of Ireland's long-standing approach to industrial relations, including the JLCs. I nearly said "language" there because it was in my head. I was previously before the Seanad to speak about English language schools. I was the one who proposed an employment regulation order for teachers in English language schools. I am not sure if the Senator knows about that.

I am fully aware of it and I supported it.

It has been agreed and will be given statutory effect from December 2019. To return to the Senator's question, it is the role of the State to ensure an appropriate legislative process. We have a strong suite of legislation covering employment rights in areas such as minimum rates of pay. Regarding the area I was in charge of, I am really proud that I put an ERO in place, working with the various stakeholders and the Labour Court. I am really glad I was the one who proposed it and we now have that order for English language schools.

I thank the Minister of State and Senator Gavan. That concludes the first Commencement debate. The second Commencement debate is in the name of Senator Robbie Gallagher. I believe the Minister of State is multitasking today and will address this one as well.

Tenant Purchase Scheme

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Most people and most families would like to own their own home.

That is a credible ambition for most people. Unfortunately, under the tenant purchase scheme, people who live in what are called Part V houses, that is, houses provided under Part V of the legislation, are excluded from that option. This clearly discriminates against those who live in such properties. Amending the tenant purchase scheme would facilitate a positive transfer of wealth to a section of society which does not always have the opportunity to purchase a home. There are more than 4,000 Part V houses in the country, of which approximately 160 are in counties Monaghan and Cavan. I have been contacted by many young families who are heartbroken because those living in Part V houses are prohibited from buying out their home under the tenant purchase scheme. Unfortunately, the dream of owning their home is out of their reach until this scheme is amended.

Not everyone living in a Part V house will wish to purchase their home but the legislation needs to be amended for those who wish to do so. I know of many families who, when allocated a Part V house a number of years ago, did not realise the legislation prevented them from buying their property. In many housing estates around the country people in Part V houses living alongside other local authority tenants see neighbouring tenants who wish to buy their properties do so, while they are not allowed that luxury.

The sale of Part V houses would generate much needed income for the State which could be ring-fenced for housing in each local authority area. It would also save local authorities money in the long run as there would be no need for ongoing maintenance. I earnestly ask that the Government change the regulations to allow people in Part V houses to purchase them if they wish to do so. Those who dream of owning their own home, many of whom have spent money on the houses they rent and are keeping them very well, would like the option to purchase.

I raised this issue 12 months ago and the Minister of the day indicated a report on the tenant purchase scheme was imminent and would be published shortly. That was November last year and we are still waiting for that report to be published. I would like the Minister of State, if possible, to give us an update on the report and provide assurance to those people living in Part V houses that the dream of owning their own home, if they wish to purchase their home, will be within reach.

I also ask the Minister of State to comment on the position regarding people living in houses provided by social housing bodies as I understand they are also prohibited from purchasing their properties. I ask her to comment on the thresholds for those who qualify for social housing. There are some discussions under way in that respect. I understand the thresholds will be raised, as they must be, to allow more people to avail of social housing or local authority housing, where possible. I look forward to the Minister of State’s response.

I thank the Senator for tabling this Commencement matter. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is unavailable today and has asked me to take this matter on his behalf.

The Housing (Sale of the Local Authority Houses) Regulations 2015 provide the basis for the tenant incremental purchase scheme for existing local authority houses. The scheme, as the Senator will know, is open to eligible tenants, including joint tenants, of local authority houses that are available for sale under the scheme. To be eligible, tenants must meet certain criteria, including having a minimum reckonable income of €15,000 per annum and having been in receipt of social housing support for at least one year.

The 2015 regulations governing this scheme provide for a number of specified classes of houses to be excluded from sale.

These include: houses provided to local authorities under Part V of the Planning and Development Act, as amended; houses specifically designed for older persons; group Traveller housing; and houses provided to facilitate people with disabilities transferring from institutional care to community-based living. The provisions in Part V of the Act, as amended, are designed to enable the development of mixed-tenure, sustainable communities. Under the terms of the tenant incremental purchase scheme 2016, Part V homes, regardless of when they were tenanted, are excluded in order to ensure that homes delivered under this mechanism will remain available for people in need of social housing support and that the original policy goals of the legislation are not eroded over time.

The continued development of mixed-tenure communities remains very important in promoting social integration. Local authorities may, within the provisions of the regulations, exclude certain houses which in their opinion should not be sold for reasons such as proper stock or estate management. It is a matter for each individual local authority to administer the scheme in its operational area with the overarching provisions of the governing legislation for the scheme and in a manner appropriate to its housing requirements.

I welcome a former Deputy and county councillor of many years service, Mr. James Breen, and his guests to the Visitors Gallery. Mr. Breen is very welcome. It is nice to see a former Member returning to the Houses.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. I appreciate that this matter does not relate to her brief. The reply is disappointing. If I were to rewind the clock 12 months, I would have got a similar reply. It is disappointing for those who are waiting for the review and the recommendations of the Government to be published. For those who aspire to own their own homes, and who are currently in Part V housing, the dream is still beyond them.

I derive some hope from the final paragraph of the reply, which states that the intent is to bring the measures of reform to the Government very shortly or in the near future. Perhaps she will clarify this. Could she give me the Government's definition of what constitutes "the near future"? What period are we talking about, bearing in mind that the lifetime of this Government is, according to the Taoiseach, due to come to an end by May? Perhaps the Minister of State can give me a timeframe for when the Government intends to bring the new measures forward.

The Senator asked what is meant by the reference to the near future. As a member of Fianna Fáil, he knows that it could be any time from now until an election is called. In all seriousness, I hope the measures will be published very soon.

I look forward to that.

Garda Stations

The Minister of State, Deputy Moran, is very welcome. We are here to talk about Rush Garda station once again. I have been raising this matter constantly over the past couple of years. Rush is a town in north County Dublin and it has a population of approximately 10,000. It is growing rapidly. Its Garda station was closed in early 2012, causing great disappointment and shock among the people of the town and surrounding area. The surrounding towns - Lusk, Skerries and Donabate - are also expanding rapidly so there is a great need for better and more frequent policing in the area.

The closure of Rush Garda station came as a blow to the town. The people of Rush demanded it be reopened and in November 2017, it was announced it would be one of the Garda stations to be reopened following a period of refurbishment and upgrading.

We were told the refurbishment and upgrading would be complete by the end of July 2019 and the Garda station would move from the hands of the Office of Public Works, OPW, to those of An Garda Síochána, which would be responsible for staffing and opening it. We were then told it would happen at the end of September of this year, but it is now the middle of December and Rush Garda station has still not reopened. It has been refurbished and looks great from the outside. The works were ongoing for a number of months and people want to know what is causing the hold-up, why the refurbishment appears to have stalled and why the station has not been handed over. Has the work been done and will the station be handed over soon? If so, when will it reopen?

The programme for Government outlined the reopening on a pilot basis of six closed Garda stations in various parts of the country, including Rush Garda station in County Dublin. A brief of requirements for Rush Garda station was received from An Garda Síochána in early 2018. The OPW undertook an assessment of all stations identified in the pilot programme of stations reopening, based on the Garda brief of requirements received. The OPW undertook a technical survey of the station and building condition reports were completed. In April 2018, the OPW advised An Garda Síochána on the works required and the indicative costs involved.

In July 2018, the OPW received confirmation from the Department of Justice and Equality that funding was available and conveyed instructions to proceed with the implementation of the reopening of the six pilot Garda stations, including that in Rush. Following the procurement process, work on the site commenced in August 2019 and was due to be completed by the end of September 2019. The contract completion date was extended by agreement to 25 October 2019, due to delays in the delivery of installation of new external doors and windows.

In recent weeks, the ESB connection was reactivated. The works requirements were submitted to the ESB and are being scheduled in accordance with the ESB workload. It is hoped the execution of the works will take place in the near future. All other works have finished, and the handover of the building to An Garda Síochána will take place as soon as the ESB connection has been completed. The exact date for the opening of the station will be an operational matter for An Garda Síochána.

It is good to hear that just one job is outstanding. While I accept that the Minister of State does not know the exact date on which the ESB connection work will begin, will he outline how long he expects it to take?

Given that everything has been agreed, it is just a matter of the ESB getting on to the ground. I hope the station will be handed over soon, ideally before the end of the year. A great deal of wonderful work has taken place, as the Senator rightly noted, but sometimes the work is out of our control and in the hands of contractors. The ESB, in particular, has an overload of work but it has given a commitment to being on site as soon as possible.

The Minister of State believes the station will be handed over by the end of the year.

I hope it will be handed over by the end of the year.

HIV-AIDS Programmes

I raise the issue of the availability of pre-exposure prophylaxis, PrEP, in Cork. It is important that Cork, in conjunction with other cities and large towns, have access to PrEP and its availability be widespread. The availability of PrEP is just one part of a sexual health programme, along with the excellent work done by the Sexual Health Centre in Cork to provide rapid HIV testing.

The Government has announced a national programme around HIV PrEP. Roll out of the programme in Cork is sadly awaited. Cork is a designated centre for this programme in the south. This means that people will travel to Cork to avail of the service but we have been waiting for it for the past month. Funding is available which means the provision of PrEP under the sexual health and crisis pregnancy programme should be expedited as a matter of urgency. It is already available in Dublin and Limerick. If it is administered and available outside Dublin, then it is important it is made available in Cork.

The Minister of State will be aware Cork University Hospital recently opened the Galtee suite providing a new space for HIV care in Cork. This significant positive development is to be welcomed. It is the first time a designated space will be available in Cork University Hospital for HIV treatment. Arising from that, it is about putting in place pathways and access to care for people. I commend all those involved in working on sexual health and HIV in Cork University Hospital.

This is an important matter, particularly at a time when HIV figures are increasing and the Department of Health has invested significantly in this area. It is about assisting the work done by the Cork Gay Project and the Cork Sexual Health Centre. I commend all those in the Cork Sexual Health Centre, under the directorship of Martin Davoren, for their work. For example, the rapid HIV testing saw 1,000 people in Cork tested. It is not just about going in and out to get tested. It is about a discussion around the whole issue of sexual activity and ensuring there is a referral pathway. This programme is important. I look forward to the response of the Minister of State and access to PrEP being rolled out promptly.

I thank Senator Buttimer for raising this important issue, as well as for his dedication and commitment to health and disability matters in the Cork area.

Sexual health is a priority for the Department of Health. This was evidenced by the publication of the National Sexual Health Strategy 2015-2020, the first major strategy to tackle this vital area. We have made good progress with implementation of the strategy since 2015. The Department of Health, along with the HSE's sexual health and crisis pregnancy programme, has worked hard to build important partnerships with a range of community and voluntary groups, all of which are working with us to implement a range of important sexual health initiatives. We will begin work on a new strategy in 2020.

One area of concern to us all continues to be the rise in new diagnoses of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. This year has seen several major actions launched to combat these rising rates of infection. In June, Ireland formally became a member of the HIV fast-track cities initiative, a major global partnership committed to accelerating local HIV/AIDS responses. Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway have joined this network with €450,000 in funding provided in 2019 for the implementation of local actions, such as increased access to HIV testing. Cork Sexual Health Centre has benefitted from this funding allocation.

The most significant development this year has been the introduction of a national programme of HIV PrEP. This involves the pre-emptive use of anti-retroviral medication to prevent HIV infection within a holistic prevention service which includes regular monitoring and testing, as well as advice and counselling on safer sex practices. Funding was provided in 2019 to services which met national standards and were ready to commence a service. Since 4 November, eight public sexual health services in Dublin, Portlaoise, Galway, Limerick and Waterford have commenced providing a HIV PrEP programme.

A number of private providers who meet national standards for PrEP have also been approved. Funding of €5.4 million has been secured for 2020 to allow a full national roll-out of a high quality, holistic programme and fund the additional staff and other resources required to provide HIV PrEP within a broader sexual health and HIV prevention programme. I am pleased to inform the Senator that funding has been approved for a HIV PrEP service in Cork University Hospital, CUH. Cork University Hospital has been providing HIV services for over 20 years. Over that time the services have developed and currently provide care to approximately 700 people with HIV. As part of the ongoing developments in CUH, a PrEP clinic will commence shortly. The recruitment of the necessary personnel to support this development has commenced and currently is progressing. A PrEP service in CUH is therefore expected to start in February 2020.

I welcome the allocation of €5.4 million for the national roll-out, the Minister of State's commitment for the HIV PrEP service in CUH and the February date for its opening. We had been promised 4 November. It is important that we instill confidence in the service to augment and support the work being done locally and that February is not an arbitrary date, but one that can be met. I look forward to working with the Minister of State and the Department to ensure that it is met.

I thank Senator Buttimer. I am glad he has welcomed the funding and I commend him for his work on this issue. In addition to the important initiatives on sexual health which I outlined in my opening statement, I would like to conclude by providing some further information on other measures being taken in this important area of health and well-being.

A key element in the prevention of infection is condom use. The national condom distribution service works directly with at-risk groups and in 2018 the service provided 409,000 condoms to 67 organisations working with at-risk groups. This service is currently being expanded to provide services to third level students, by way of condom dispensing machines on third level campus facilities.

A particular focus of the sexual health strategy is on equipping our young people with the knowledge and skills to meet the challenges of relationships and sexual health. I will also bring the Senator's message on the February date back to the Minister, Deputy Harris.