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Seanad Éireann debate -
Monday, 14 Jun 2021

Vol. 277 No. 1

Public Service Pay Bill 2020: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I thank Members for facilitating this Bill. This Bill is a key enabler for the new public service pay agreement, Building Momentum, and allows for a range of reforming pay matters, including implementation of aspects of Sláintecare. It continues the process of unwinding and repealing financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, legislation. As such, it builds on changes that began with the Lansdowne Road agreement in 2015 and the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act of 2015, and continued with the Public Service Pay and Pensions Act 2017 and the public service stability agreement of 2018 to 2020.

The Bill will allow implementation of the pay increases provided for by Building Momentum. Before dealing with the specific provisions of the Bill, I note that in December 2020 negotiations concluded on a new public service pay agreement, entitled Building Momentum, which will apply for the next two years. This agreement was accepted by my colleagues in Cabinet and ratified by the public services committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, on 23 February. That decision by ICTU is welcome as it will deliver stability for the Government, public service users and public servants over the lifetime of the agreement.

We will all agree that the public service has stepped up to the challenge of the Covid-19 crisis and delivered a world-class response. Public servants have been quick to adapt and re-adjust the way in which services are delivered so as to minimise the negative impact of the pandemic on the public. It is important that this agreement recognises the value of the work of our public servants during this pandemic and provides for affordable increases with pay adjustments weighted towards those on lower incomes. This is balanced by ensuring that the Government continues to exercise a prudent approach to the overall management of our public finances.

The economic sustainability of this agreement is based on a pay pause for the majority of 2021 and modest but reasonable pay increases in 2022, when we expect a strengthening economy and labour market recovery as the vaccine roll-out takes effect. The agreement provides for general pay increases of 1% in October 2021 and October 2022, or €500, whichever is greater. I am also allocating a sectoral fund amounting to 1% of basic pay to resolve any outstanding issues such as those that resulted in industrial action in the period of previous agreements.

The agreement is weighted towards those at lower incomes with an increase of approximately 5% for the lowest paid public servants. These groups will also benefit more from other measures in the agreement, including changes to overtime rates and premium payment adjustments. The pay adjustments provided for by the agreement are phased, with implementation commencing later in 2021. In that regard, the agreement is fair, affordable and sustainable, and recognises the economic challenges facing the country. Most important, the agreement provides certainty on pay and industrial peace over the next two challenging years. A key element of the deal, one which taxpayers expect and the unions have now agreed, is that industrial peace will be maintained and that there be no additional cost-increasing claims.

The agreement sets out a reform agenda that seeks to embed the agility demonstrated during Covid into enhanced public service delivery in the future. These include harnessing the capacity of technology and remote working across public services. It takes a new sectoral approach which recognises that different areas may have unique and innovative approaches to providing service delivery. A key element of this is that each sector will produce and publish reform plans that will demonstrate delivery every year. Crucially, payment of the 1% sectoral fund will be conditional on the delivery of actual reforms.

There will be scope to extend opening hours of public-facing services, so when people need to see someone to access a public service, it will be at a time which is convenient for them. Learning from experience in the Covid-19 pandemic, mechanisms will be agreed where staff will move quickly to different parts of the public service to deliver a response to critical or urgent demands.

As noted, the Bill will also enable progress on a range of pay reform matters. I will touch briefly on two of these: Sláintecare and the seagoing commitment scheme in the Naval Service. A key objective of the Sláintecare implementation process is to remove consultant private practice from public hospitals. Central to implementation of this reform is a move to public-only consultant contracts and to tailor such contracts to align with wider Sláintecare reforms. Taking that into account, all future consultant appointments will be to a new Sláintecare public-only consultant contract from a date to be decided shortly. The Sláintecare contract will have no provision for private practice and will be available to all existing consultants. The offer will be informed by a process of consultation with key stakeholders. The new contract, noting the significant reforms involved, is to be offered at an increased pay level.

The seagoing commitment scheme is one of a number of measures advanced in 2020 to support recruitment and retention in the Naval Service. It provides for a €5,000 payment for each 12 months of seagoing service. Naval personnel of able rating and above with at least three years' service of enlisted rank of able rating and above and of officer ranks are eligible.

These measures, which support reform, recruitment and retention in particular areas of our public service, cannot be progressed to payment under existing FEMPI Acts.

This underscores the need for the amending legislation.

In summary terms, the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (No. 2) Act 2009 provided that no change could be made in the pay of a public servant without legislative amendment, a court order or a determination that there is a legal entitlement to a pay increase. While it is possible to set a pay rate for a new grade or post, it is not possible to change the pay of an existing public servant in a post. The Bill provides for amendment of the restrictions on increases to public service pay introduced by the Act of 2009. This will allow the Government to provide for changes to remuneration and greater flexibility in the allocation of available resources to public service pay requirements. In the short term it will allow implementation of the pay increases provided for by Building Momentum - A New Public Service Agreement 2021-2022, the new public-only Sláintecare consultant contract and seagoing service commitment scheme.

I will turn to the details of the legislation. The Bill amends or repeals sections 4 and 5 of the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (No. 2) Act 2009 and section 12A of the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Act 2011. This means the Bill provides for amendment of the restrictions on increases to public service pay introduced by the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (No. 2) Act 2009. It provides that, in addition to changes to pay arising from an Act of the Oireachtas, an order of a court or a determination that there is a legal entitlement to a pay increase, increases in the pay or allowances of public servants may be sanctioned. It amends the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Act 2011 to ensure that where a contract of employment is amended in accordance with amended provisions of the Act of 2009 no further ministerial sanction is required under that Act.

I will break the Bill down by section. Section 1 sets out a definition of the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (No. 2) Act 2009 as the "Act of 2009". Section 2 amends section 4 of the Act of 2009 to provide that in addition to changes to pay arising from an Act of the Oireachtas, an order of the civil courts, an order of the Labour Court or a determination that there is a legal entitlement to a pay increase, increases in the pay or allowances of public servants may be sanctioned. Section 3 amends section 5 of the Act of 2009 to provide for retrospective application, up to the date on which this proposed Bill is enacted, of a provision allowing for amendment of contracts of employment to increase pay. Section 4 amends section 16A of the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Act 2011 to ensure that where a contract of employment is amended in accordance with section 4 of the Act of 2009, as amended by this proposed legislation, no further ministerial sanction is required under the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Act 2011. Section 5 provides that the Short Title of the proposed legislation is the Public Service Pay Act 2020.

Concluding the repeal of the financial emergency legislation is an important milestone in the history of the State. Underpinning this achievement and the new public service pay agreement is the strong performance of the economy. The economy is expected to recover next year. Indeed, in 2022 the economy is expected to grow by approximately 4.3 % as outlined in the forecasts of the Central Bank, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council and the OECD. These institutions forecast GDP growth of 4.6%, 4.1% and 4.3%, respectively.

Labour market conditions are also expected to improve next year with employment growth of 3.2% and 3.6% projected by the Central Bank and the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council for 2022. As a result of the growth in employment the unemployment rate is projected to decline to 7.8% or 6.7% in 2022. These would be well below the record levels recorded in 2020.

Our approach is about balancing the need for pay restraint, stability and certainty in the delivery of public services with the need to support ongoing public service reform. Key areas of our public services have experienced and responded to challenging demands over the past year. The Bill allows for implementation of reasonable pay increases and provides a means of using pay, where appropriate, to support the wider public service reform agenda. On that basis I commend the Bill to the House. I look forward to hearing the views of everyone in the House.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I welcome the publication of the Bill. It is a throwback to the last financial crisis of 2008-09 which has been with us throughout the past decade. In that time we have gone through the Croke Park, Lansdowne Road and Haddington Road agreements, the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act of 2015, the Public Service Pay and Pensions Act 2017, the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 and Building Momentum, which was ratified by ICTU in February. I wish to acknowledge the role of Government in all of this.

I have been watching "Reeling in the Years" for the past number of Sundays. The programme is a reminder of the consequences of the financial crisis. Through those crisis years the solidarity of the unions in recognising the benefits of engaging in an agreement with Government has gotten us back on track as a country. Covid-19 has set back but not ended the economic progress of the country. It is worth bearing that in mind. A strong economy due to businesses, workers and Government policy means an increased tax take to reinvest in society and services. Capital projects are particularly important for the ongoing ability to grow and sustain the economy and create jobs.

Covid-19 has changed things of course. Unemployment has, unfortunately, soared. However, thankfully, due to our books being balanced, the waiving of the fiscal rules within the EU because of the crisis and the good name of Ireland on international markets we were able to borrow to provide supports such as the pandemic unemployment payment, the temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme and other supports.

The Building Momentum agreement recognises the need for a prudent approach while also giving more support to those on lowest pay. The agreement is based on a pay pause until October 2021 but allows for increases in 2022. The agreement provides certainty on pay and industrial peace in the coming two years as we rebuild our economy, finances and workforce.

As a member of the Joint Committee on Health I welcome in particular the progress on one of the core objectives of Sláintecare, that is, the removal of private consultant practice from public hospitals, as announced by the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, in December 2019. This will bring us more in line with international best practice. I hope that as part of this move we can roster in or allow 24-7 health services. The use of theatres at weekends will be part of that. I also welcome moves to support recruitment and retention in the Naval Service. This has been commented on a great deal in respect of our ability to keep ships sailing and in respect of the valuable work our naval personnel do in coastal defence and all else that they do.

The issue of remote working is not new but it has certainly grown in stature and importance because of Covid-19. I wish to acknowledge the work of Údarás na Gaeltachta. The Gréasán Digiteach na Gaeltachta or gteic network of digital hubs predated Covid-19. It was rolled out in advance of Covid-19. The work of the Western Development Commission as part of the Atlantic economic corridor has been significant as well.

We have seen an extraordinary focus on remote working because of Covid and as part of the response to Covid. It has worked well across much of the public sector. Is any analysis being done on how well it has worked in improving efficiencies and productivity? Is it the case that the people who are most productive while working in an office are the most productive while working from home? Has that changed? Has there been any analysis of that?

Remote working has an important part to play in our public services in future as well as in improving quality of life by reducing travel time, providing more time with families and more time at home, and ensuring less stress from commuting. Moreover, it is good for the environment by reducing our carbon footprint.

This is changing all the time and there are great benefits for the regions. We all preach about regional balanced development and ensuring that all regions grow, including those in the west and the midlands. This has the potential to encourage redevelopment of some of our more peripheral locations and those that have had low growth rates in recent years.

I welcome the Bill. It is a throwback to the past but something that remains of concern to some of our public servants. I wish the Minister of State well in the deliberations in the House.

The Minister of State is welcome to the House. I welcome in particular the unwinding of the financial emergency measures in the public interest. I was heavily involved in trade unionism at the time the FEMPI legislation was running through. I remember in particular the pain we inflicted on our public servants in the draconian way in which we cut their salaries.

There were public servants who had bought houses and set their lives in train when, suddenly, along came the financial emergency measures in the public interest legislation and their lives were destroyed. It is good to see that it is coming to an end.

There is one question we have to ask. The Minister of State was not in power at the time, so this question is not a reflection on him. Last week or the week before, we saw Microsoft returning profits of €227 billion through a Dublin office without paying one penny in tax. How is that still happening? This country was on its knees in 2008 and in 2012. I travelled the length and breadth of Ireland explaining to members of my union why we had to take a pay cut. I feel such a cheat now because there are those in this country who are living a bloody good life and who never suffered at any point during the collapse of the economy in 2008 to 2009 or in the following period from 2010 to 2012. I appreciate the county had to get back on its feet but I am afraid the pain and suffering all went in one direction. The easy target was picked and that target was the public servants. I accept that quite a number of private sector employees lost their jobs, but the ones who stayed working, the ones who managed the vulture funds and those in the accountancy and legal firms all boomed during the collapse of the economy.

As my colleague has just said, the move to improve Sláintecare is fantastic. Let us see the hospitals work better for the public.

The seagoing commitment has been a failure. Our Naval Service is now what is referred to as a two-tier service. As a result of the three-year service requirement, there can be two sailors on the same ship, one having two years' service and the other four years' service, and there is a difference in their income. We have to go back and look at that to see how it can be rectified. Instead of helping with retention, this measure has exacerbated the issue of departures from the Naval Service. That needs to be looked at again and fairly quickly.

The restoration of pensions for public servants is a welcome measure. In speaking about the restoration of pensions for public servants, I will say that the public servants who have no representation anywhere are the Members of this House. We are hit with class K PRSI, which was brought in through an Act in 2021, as far as I remember. It effectively uses the social welfare system as a tax. Some 4% of our salary is taken and we get nothing for it. Deputies and Senators who lost their seats in the previous election had nothing to call on. Their social welfare records were broken and that will travel with them for the rest of their lives. That is fundamentally wrong. Another issue is that Members of this House who had been paying pension contributions into a long-service increment had this increment taken off them arbitrarily. I hope that is going to be restored as FEMPI is unwound because, at the end of the day, we are all workers in one way or another.

I will speak about an issue affecting members of the Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána in particular. Provision for pension abatement has been around since the 1920s, or certainly the 1930s, but it had never been enacted. It is now the case that any public servant who retires and then comes back into the public sector has his or her pension abated. A prisoner in Mountjoy Prison had his pension taken from him because he was a guest of the state; he was in jail. That prisoner took his case to the Supreme Court, which ruled that a pension cannot be touched as it is a property right. Unless the State recognises the property rights of those public servants who had paid for and earned a full pension and restores those pensions, such public servants will have to go to the courts and force it to do so. I have no difficulty with the concept of a person not being able to profit by returning to the public service, but this requires legislation to allow for different rates of pay or different pay scales. Right now, the Defence Forces are in dire need of specialist personnel, for example, armourers and artificers in the Naval Service. They cannot get qualified people to come back. Why would they come back? They lose their entire pension as soon as they step through the gate. Not only that, but they also run risks with respect to the future.

We are going to have to look at the issue of pension abatement. A pension is a property right. Indeed, a former Member of this House, whom I will not name, went to jail for improper actions and people cried out for his pension to be taken from him because of the money he had cost the public. At the end of the day, the courts ruled a pension is a property right. In addition to unwinding the damage done to pensioners through FEMPI, the issue of pension abatement needs to be looked at and the provisions in this regard repealed. If you want public servants with pensions who are returning to the public service to be paid less, then that should be done through their current pay rather than through their pensions. Their pensions are theirs. I do not expect the Minister of State to be able to give an answer on that matter today but I would like it if he would communicate with me in the coming days and let me know where we stand with respect to pension abatement. It is wrong in every sense of the word.

The seagoing commitment scheme was a great idea but it has not worked out in the way we expected. There was a latent aspect to it which has backfired. We need to look at that. We also need to look at the tax break that was available to sailors in the previous budget to see if it could be improved a little bit. These are all incremental steps which would bring us along the way.

Finally, we might thank the public servants, including Members of this House, who took a serious hit to keep this country in its worst times. I am afraid, however, that FEMPI will always be seen by those of us who worked in the public service as the most draconian measure and one which set out to target those who could not fight back. At the end of the day, we are told the country is on the up again. I agree with my colleague that Covid has set things back but the predictions for the future are good. I would hope to see some of the damage done over that period being undone. I wish the Minister of State the best of luck with the Bill.

I thank the Minister of State. It is my first time to be in the House with him since his elevation to ministerial office. We served together on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and I am delighted to see him in his current position. I am delighted for him. Well done.

If I wanted to have a trade union representative, I suppose I could look to Senator Craughwell who referred to those who lost their seats last year. I was one of those unfortunate Senators who lost their seats in the middle of a pandemic and, as the Senator has mentioned, I was not entitled to anything because I paid class K PRSI. As I said to the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, in the Seanad four or five years ago when he was the Minister for Social Protection, this class of PRSI is a supertax on public service. If that is what we want it to be, we should say that. We should not call it pay related social insurance if we are to pay it at a rate of 4% only to find there is nothing available to us when we go looking for it. I knew there was no point in looking for anything but, about a year into it, I decided to look into it and found that class K PRSI contributors are not eligible for the pandemic unemployment payment, an eye test or dental benefit. We are eligible for nothing. If the system wants everybody in this House and judges to pay 4% for nothing, we should call it a supertax on politicians and judges. There may not be public sympathy for us; so be it. This, however, goes back to an era when politicians probably had many other sources of income. They ran businesses or had other professions. Many people in this House are at it pretty much full-time. They do not necessarily have other sources of income. If that is the case, let us not pretend this 4% deduction is for social insurance.

To go back to the Bill about which we are actually talking, the Public Service Pay Bill 2020, as someone who had four grandparents who were public servants at various stages of their careers, civil servants, gardaí, teachers and so on, and two parents who also worked in the public service, I am very understanding of what happened during the period of FEMPI with regard to both pay and pensions. As a councillor, I paid class K PRSI. This used to be paid at 0%. One paid nothing and got nothing. It then became 4% but one still got nothing. This Bill, however, is a welcome development, particularly as it relates to Sláintecare and hospital care.

The idea now that consultants who are paid by the system must work exclusively for the system is a positive and let us see how Sláintecare works out. There is a big body of work to be done. I wish the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and all of the team involved with it the very best.

I am not going to rehash everything that the Minister of State has said in his very comprehensive opening statement, but I will point out that the deal is there to implement Building Momentum and is very welcome more than ten years on from FEMPI. I remember being at a meeting at which the Taoiseach of the time, Brian Cowen, outlined that public spending was approximately €60 billion per year, of which €20 billion was being spent on social welfare, including children's allowance, pensions and the wider social welfare, and another €20 billion was being spent on public sector pay and pensions. His point was that if the Government were to make cuts to the remaining €20 billion, it would be sending local authority workers out with no materials to use - nothing to cut the grass with, nothing to put in their lawnmowers, nothing to fill the roads with and nothing to use to fix the traffic lights. It was a very painful time but, it is good and very welcome to see FEMPI being wound down. It will be gone in the very near future. This Bill allows the Minister to do certain things. It was very sensibly said at the time in the FEMPI legislation that no more could be done. It has been very restrictive in what it has done.

I would like the Minister of State to reflect on a matter that he will not be able to deal with today. There has been a very welcome increase in councillors' pay in the last month or so, but councillors are the only people in the entire public service who are not entitled to a pension. All of the 949 local authority members are in the public service and work hard. They pay taxes, the universal social charge, PAYE and PRSI but at the end of it all they have no pension. A part-time person in a very lowly paid State job is entitled to a pension. It will not be a very valuable pension because he or she will not be paid very much but it is a pension. In many cases, councillors with long service have given up career opportunities and other opportunities to work very diligently on behalf of their local communities. Therefore, I ask that the Government considers giving councillors a pension sooner rather than later. It would not be a very expensive pension for the State to fund because councillors' pay, albeit with an increase, is still very close to the bottom of the pile in terms of what people in the public service are paid.

The wider public needs to appreciate where their taxes go. It goes into gardaí, teachers, nurses, local authority workers and everybody in the wider public service, including the health service. All of the people on whom we rely every day for everything we need, in many cases, are in the public service and that is why we need to tax people. Of course multinationals need to pay their way, but if they funnel revenue through Ireland with no property in Ireland and no revenue being generated here, it may not be us they need to pay. I refer to the famous Apple row, in which there was not necessarily any reason we should collect the money. I am certainly in favour of the idea that stateless companies and companies that can hide their revenue from the whole world are taxed. Clearly, Ireland produces and generates much revenue for these companies through its employees in this country providing services for the worldwide users of their services.

I wish to reflect on an ongoing row that is simmering away for the secretarial assistants of many of the Members of this House and the Lower House. Technically, secretarial assistants work for the State and for the Members but they are not officially civil servants. The Minister of State is aware of this very long-standing issue and I would like him to address it in his concluding remarks, if he can.

It is positive that we have partnership with the unions and the public service. There has been agreement right back to the era of Charlie Haughey on various things. Back in the 1980s it was much better to work together than to have divisive rows about various terms and conditions. It is very positive that we have the Public Sector Pay Bill 202. I wish the Minister well in its implementation. Equally, I wish the Minister for Health, who will benefit most from Sláintecare, the very best in that implementation. I commend this Bill to the House.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I very much welcome the opportunity to speak on this important legislation. As a Senator elected to the labour panel following nomination by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and as a former SIPTU official, I am conscious of the real impact that the Building Momentum wage agreement will have on workers across the public sector, particularly lower-paid workers across the public service such as healthcare assistants, home helps, special needs assistants, hospital porters, staff in clerical grades and local authority workers. The reality is that if these workers worked in the private sector, many of them would fare much worse. In some ways, Building Momentum represents so much about what is good about being employed in the public service, which is job security, pay progression and protection for trade union membership.

The pay increases for many staff are very modest, with 2% over a two-year period or €1,000, whichever is of greater benefit. Building Momentum is not just a pay agreement. It is an agreement that commits to reduce working hours and provide protections on public service outsourcing. The trade union movement fought for and won those commitments in this country's darkest days when public service pay rounds were being negotiated during the bailout. There is a commitment to restore overtime rates and twilight premiums for certain sectors. The support within the trade union movement is very obvious. In excess of 90% of the membership of Fórsa, SIPTU and the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, voted for this pay deal. Not every union could support this pay deal and we need to think of them as well. In particular, I think of the Medical Laboratory Scientists Association and other unions that have long-standing grievances that did not arise today or yesterday. There are issues with grade recognition and alignment that need to be resolved.

I wish to make three specific comments. First, I shall refer to sectoral funds, the focus on which is an innovation of this pay deal. Over the last number of years, we have seen calls within certain elements of the public sector and, indeed, some public sector unions. I have also seen some academics look on from outside and argue that we need to have sectoral pay deals. This pay deal recognises that we need a pay agreement for all of the public sector. We cannot pit librarians against nurses or pit maintenance workers within local authorities against some other public sector worker. We need to look at their pay together. However, there are some "stone in the shoe" issues. I am heartened that the issue of teachers' pay has made considerable progress in this deal but there are other issues, particularly student nurses' pay. There are other issues across the public sector and I hope that some progress can be made within these sectoral funds. I note that the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, and the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, have said that the fund is conditional on the delivery of actual reforms elsewhere. We cannot have some of these long-standing pay alignment issues held to ransom by demands for reforms elsewhere. We need to consider those issues that have become a source of huge frustration within the public service.

The second key issue I would like to mention is the question of who is and is not covered, or who did and did not have a voice at the negotiating table in the context of this pay agreement. We have an ongoing situation where both the Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána continue to be denied a seat at the table. We have a series of opinions.

Most recently, the European Committee on Social Rights highlighted that Ireland is out of step and in breach of the European Social Charter through its failure to allow the Defence Forces to be represented by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in the negotiations. That is not acceptable to members of the Defence Forces. I acknowledge there are measures in the Bill that relate to the Defence Forces but, ultimately, it is about their ability to be recognised and to have a seat at the negotiating table.

The last issue I wish to raise relates to the setting of higher level pay rates within the public service. There has been an unseemly situation relating to the Secretary General of the Department of Health and how the pay of that person was set in recent months. There was a group tasked with determining pay for senior civil servants but it was disbanded several years ago and we are now in a situation where the recruitment of senior civil servants is dealt with in a structured process through the top-level appointments committee, TLAC, but the decisions made with regard to the pay of those senior civil servants are vested in the power of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. There are serious questions for the Government with regard to whether this situation can be allowed to continue. The most senior civil servant in the State acknowledged when he appeared before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment some weeks ago that it is not a good system. It is incumbent on the Government to put a system in place for determining pay because it is not good enough that while student nurses who were working were denied pay, the Government saw fit to grant a pay increase of slightly more than €80,000 to a person coming into the role of Secretary General of the Department of Health. That is not good enough. The optics of that decision and the message it sends to public sector workers is not acceptable. We need a new system to be put in place.

I welcome the Bill but it is only a bridge to a much longer and more comprehensive deal that needs to commence next year in terms of pay for public sector workers in the next decade.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit as teacht isteach. Is deas é a fheiceáil. I welcome the Bill. It is really important. I will focus on three major points in the Bill that it is important to clarify and speak to. For me, it is massive that public consultants are now going to be paid to only be public consultants. As a person who has only had access to public healthcare, I have felt the wrath of consultants trying to bi-locate, for want of a better word, having been left waiting on trolleys in corridors as consultants tried to keep private patients happy while working in a public hospital. I have experienced consultants being very undermining and dismissive of the health issues with which I was dealing and also of the health issues of my son. This is a massive day for anybody who only deals with the public health system. The passage of the Bill means we might actually get to meet consultants rather than just meeting their registrars. I often went to see a consultant whose name was on the door but never met him or her. It is a massive day for anybody in the public health system as consultants will be paid just to be our doctors, rather than the doctors of others who can afford to pay for private healthcare. To get pushed up and seen mid-consultation is a horrendous practice. It is great that this is finally happening. It is very important because those who cannot afford private healthcare are often made to feel lesser anyway, not to mention the consultants not bothering with them or walking out of the room mid-consultation because they have been called by a richer person. This is a significant day for the couple of million people who cannot afford private healthcare. As private healthcare becomes more expensive, more people will rely on public healthcare. As politicians, one of our key jobs is to provide good healthcare, so I really welcome that aspect of the Bill.

It is really good that the Bill will reinstate the pensions that were taken away after the recession from pensioners who deserved them. Those pensioners will now be back on an equal footing with others. We want to have equality and this Bill will bring it about.

A few school friends of mine were in the Naval Service. It is really good that the Bill will bring about improved payment for those in what is referred to as the seagoing service. That is a good day for them.

The Bill does not affect everybody. It is almost naive for people to demand everything of a Bill. I have learned in my 11 months in the Seanad that there is no one Bill that will fix everything relating to public service pay but the Bill before the House rectifies three clear problems, so I welcome it.

To return to my passionate first point with regard to consultants, I am curious whether there is further information available with regard to what this will mean for public health users. Will there be more consultants? Is the plan that there will be shorter waiting lists as a result? Will it be possible to hire more public consultants as a result of this pay increase making it more enticing for them to just deal with those who do not have private healthcare? Will such patients finally get to meet consultants rather than just their registrars?

It is nice to see the Minister of State. He is very welcome. I welcome the Bill on behalf of Sinn Féin. It was very hard fought for. The negotiations by the trade union movement were intense and, at stages, looked like they would not be successful. Thankfully, they were successful in the sense that enough was delivered for the trade unions to go back to their members. I pay tribute in particular to the leadership of the major unions and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions for negotiating a skilful agreement.

There are a couple of aspects of the Bill that are worth highlighting. The first is that the pay increases are not ideal but the fact it is set out in such a progressive manner, with the lowest paid benefitting most, is significant. That was very important in terms of carrying the agreement through. We often forget that the salaries of many public servants start at approximately €25,000 and, after ten years, get to €35,0000. I refer to operatives in local authorities, healthcare attendants in hospitals and cleaners in schools. They are the real backbone of the public service. Those people are not well paid. The fact that the Bill has a progressive element in terms of that pay rise was crucial.

The second important part is the sectoral bargaining element, which is significant. It, too, was very skilfully negotiated. There is a host of issues that have been building up in the health service in particular over the past ten years. They have been ten very difficult years for public servants. The Bill should give them the ability to sign off on agreements and actually recognise pay awards that should have been made in that time. It is really important that those awards are implemented and that the process is not dragged out in terms of not delivering particular reforms because it is really important that the Government does not take public servants for granted. This pay increase is not particularly significant but it is progressive and there are other elements of the Bill, particularly the sectoral bargaining element, that are very important. However, it is crucially important that they are implemented.

The other aspect of the Bill I wish to recognise is the continuing protection against outsourcing. That is vital because, unfortunately, the track record shows that both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil like to outsource. They like to take things that belong to the people and hive them off to the private sector, so it is crucial to have that provision as a bulwark of protection, again negotiated by the trade union movement.

The Bill is significant in terms of pay equality. That was well fought for by the teachers' unions in particular to bring about the restoration of pay equality for new entrants to teaching. That had been more than upsetting for members of the teaching profession so it is a very welcome development in the deal. It is important to put on the record that we expect further and significant recognition of public servants, the people who have been keeping the country going to a large degree, particularly the front-line workers in the public service, when this particular deal concludes at the end of 2022.

While we are speaking about agreements and dealing with trade unions, it is important to raise a couple of related issues. The first, which has already been raised, is the ongoing failure to really deal with the issue of the Defence Forces and to recognise there is a fundamental wrong in terms of not allowing its members to have proper trade union recognition.

I ask that the Minister of State address that in his response. It has gone on for too long. There is no reason it should not be dealt with in a way that is fair and progressive. As Senator Craughwell outlined, it is clear that not enough has been done for those workers. Equally, the issue of student nurses has not been dealt with satisfactorily. It is something that is in the Minister of State's power to address and I hope he will do that.

Above all, it is very important the Government addresses the elephant in the room when it comes to trade unions, namely, the ongoing refusal to support the right to collective bargaining for workers in this country. It was more than disappointing to see the Tánaiste write to the European Commission asking it not to make binding the directive on minimum wages. That directive would have had a key knock-on element of increasing the scope of collective bargaining here and committing the Government to see that happening, yet the Government has gone out of its way to align itself with some of the most right-wing governments in Europe to ask the Commission not to make the directive binding. We do not want to have to do that. We have not heard an explanation for that. Maybe the Minister of State might give it us in his response. Members of my union, SIPTU, and across the Irish Congress of Trade Unions are more than disappointed by this stance. If we believe in the value of workers, of front-line workers in particular, how can we not grant them the right to collective bargaining? How can we continue to be one of the outliers in the European Union in not granting that right? It is a key issue that needs to be addressed.

Otherwise, we welcome this Bill. I pay tribute to the trade union movement in particular and look forward to the Minister of State's response.

I welcome the Minister of State and wish him well with this legislation. It is a very short Bill but it is very important. I am disappointed by some aspects. It does not go into great detail on benchmarking. I was a Member of this House when benchmarking was introduced. It was supposed to be the bee's knees for the way forward but we have not done any analysis of where we are with benchmarking or what we achieved with it. It gave huge pay increases, not least to us in this House and to the Members of the other House. It gave huge increases to the public sector. It drove up a lot of costs. I would like to know what we have achieved since the then Minister, Mr. Charlie McCreevy, brought in benchmarking going back 20 years. It is time we had a big analysis of that.

I welcome the Bill and many of its contents. I very much welcome Sláintecare. It is great we would have fully dedicated consultants working on behalf of people in hospitals and in health areas. Restoration for teachers is also very important. It is important that pay is increased for new entrants to the teaching profession. All those things are very welcome.

The Tánaiste outlined there will be two week's sick pay for workers. There is maternity, paternity, statutory redundancy of two weeks and now we have sick pay. All this has to be paid for. People who are working are quite entitled to all things, not only the public sector but also the private sector, but to get them they have to be paid for. How are they paid for? They can only be paid for by collecting taxes and increases in product prices. There is no doubt the prices of products will have to be increased to pay for all of these things. It is only right the people who are working would get well paid and have all these entitlements that are outlined.

There is a golden opportunity to open up the public sector. It is a closed shop and this Bill does not address any part of it. Look at John Bruton, for instance. He was the European ambassador to America; quite a big job. He would not qualify to be an ambassador of Ireland to even the smallest country in the world. I do not know where anyone from outside the Civil Service was brought in to be an ambassador. There are quite a lot of people who have graced the Houses of the Oireachtas, Dáil and Seanad, such as Bertie Ahern, Enda Kenny and Brian Cowen. Is there any reason they would not make great ambassadors for this country? This is an area that should be looked at. This Bill should encompass those things. We should have a good debate on those issues. The public sector is a closed shop in many cases. It is very difficult to come from outside to get into the public sector. You do not have the experience, you do not have the knowledge, you do not have this or you do not have that. That is what people are being told from the outside when they try to get into the public sector. We have an independent body that selects people for those jobs but it is an area that should be looked at. These Houses should play a more hands-on approach on some of these issues.

I was a few minutes late. I was in Roscommon town on personal business this morning and when I came out, the tyre burst on my car. I thank the lads in Roscommon who did a quick change for me and sorted me out. I should have been before. That is the reason I am running a bit late. Thanks to everyone, and I appreciate the House letting me speak after I was supposed to be here.

Like many others, I welcome this Bill. As others have pointed out, the Sláintecare consultant contract will require consultants employed by the State to focus 100% of their time on the public work within the public health system. At present, under the financial emergency measures in the public interest Acts, which everyone knows as FEMPI, no changes can be made to the public service pay for particular groups or individuals in the absence of legislative amendments. This limits the Government's ability to deliver key policy commitments as they arise. The Government is committed to reform of our health services, and that has to happen. The Sláintecare consultant contract, as we all know and accept, has to be key to that. This legislation will enable the contract to be progressed by the Minister for Health in the coming months. Similarly, the proposed new enabling legislation is also required to enable public health doctors to move to consultant contracts. The Minister for Health has said he wants the consultants for public health to be put in place as quickly as possible.

There has been much talk here about the public service. I agree with Senator Burke, I would like to see it opened up. There should be new initiatives and new ideas. We should pay tribute to many in the public service, and indeed to the rest of us, for their excellent duty and care to their jobs over the very dark period for our society. Despite all the criticisms, we can say Ireland handled the Covid shock in quite an exemplary way. Our vaccine roll-out has been well handled. Some of the problems that arose were due to the shortage of vaccines coming into the country. How our local authorities have responded has been remarkable. In some cases we got things done we were told in recent years could not be done, which is also an eye-opener. I found a huge amount of co-operation from the staff in the Department of Social Protection whenever I called about people's issues. All that should be recognised.

Sometimes, derogatory comments are made about the public service but I must remind everyone the FEMPI cuts took a lot of money away from the people in the public service.

The cuts have not been totally unwound yet. It must be acknowledged when rebuilding our economy after a very dark period that the public service played its part. The workers were angry about what was asked of them but they did it. They did it for the sake of the country, and that should be acknowledged.

Like others, I welcome this development today. Naturally, my party is supporting the Bill but I hope that we can have further reform of the public service, as others have said. It would be good for our country. If Covid has done anything, it has shown us that Irish people like a challenge. They have risen to the current challenge. Our public service has done so also.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I welcome the Bill because it is facilitating pay restoration. It was very difficult in this House between 2011 and 2014. The decisions that had to be made were extremely difficult. It is, therefore, very welcome to be passing legislation now that is having the opposite effect.

I, too, would like to see the public service transformed in the way I know it wants itself to be transformed. Its staff are by and large fantastic. During Covid, they demonstrated exemplary flexibility and an ability to adapt and transfer when necessary. We saw thousands upon thousands of public servants providing an excellent service working from home. Many lessons have been learned. The Government has certainly taken note of the positives that have been demonstrated by the public service.

Admittedly, the health service needs a lot of attention. We are going to see significant change regarding health. That said, it is important to acknowledge the wonderful public servants in the Department of Health, led by the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, and his deputy, Dr. Ronan Glynn, whom I believe exemplify everything that is positive about the public service and of which we can be proud. That is just to name two people. In many ways, they are figureheads but they are important figureheads because of how they do their business and advise the Government. The respect the Government has for them, in spite of pushback on many occasions, reflects their quality. There are many more like them throughout the public service. I have had the great privilege for ten years in this House to work with senior public servants to try to effect change. By and large, my experience has always been very positive.

The public service needs to be modernised. I listened carefully to what Senator Burke said about Ireland's ambassadorial appointments throughout the world. He makes a very good point. There needs to be more fusion between the private and public sectors. Those entering the public sector should not see their doing so as taking on a role for life. If they so wish, they should be able to develop their skill set and move into the private sector, and perhaps move back into the public sector afterwards. That type of flexibility and transferability very much needs to be facilitated. The public service needs to be attractive to people from the private sector because it needs to keep attracting the best society has to offer. I note the number of new staff promoted in the Houses of the Oireachtas, even within the committee secretariat and other sections. Considerable experience has been lost through retirement, which is a pity. The Minister of State is very aware that there is a big loss of skills and knowledge but, at the same time, some of the people coming up along the line and who have become clerks of committees and have taken on very senior roles, even in this branch of the public service, are people one would be immensely proud to work alongside. They have done a phenomenal job. That is reflected throughout the public service. The public service needs to become more flexible and dynamic, however. It needs to become more attractive to the private sector. It even needs to become more attractive to Irish citizens abroad who might be working in specialised areas and who might like to come home to join it. Therefore, there is much work to be done. However, this legislation, which is to restore pay and create a framework for the elimination of the FEMPI cuts, is very much welcome.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, duine atá mar chomharsa liom i nDún Laoghaire. D'fhreastail mé ar an gComhairle Contae Dhún Laoghaire–Ráth an Dúin leis an Aire Stáit freisin. Go háirithe sa chás sin, cuirim fáilte roimhe.

I welcome the Bill. It is tremendously important as we return to some form of normality. After the cuts under the FEMPI legislation, it is only appropriate that we restore the pay. I absolutely endorse the comments made by Members on the need to recognise the good work done by the public service. It is so easy, in the media and public opinion, to do down the public service, including the Civil Service, and to disregard their work. It is so easy to forget that, without them, the country does not run and the systems do not function. The needed services we receive throughout this country, be they in the health service or An Garda Síochána, and the services offered by Civil Service officials do not happen without the hard work done by the members of the public service. It is entirely appropriate that we recognise that.

I am going to raise a branch of the public service that is so often forgotten because those concerned are not employed directly by the State. They are self-employed people, namely, barristers, particularly barristers who work for the State and barristers who work as part of the criminal justice system. I am a criminal barrister and have worked for quite a long time as part of that system. Therefore, I do not deny that there is no self-interest in my comments. Setting that aside, however, I am aware that the Chair of the Council of the Bar of Ireland, Ms Maura McNally, SC, has been in the media quite a lot recently raising this issue because it is an important one. The problem has reached crisis point. Approximately 250 barristers work in the area of criminal law in Dublin and throughout the rest of the country. They are specialists in this area but they are self-employed. They operate through the criminal legal aid system, which is what pays them for the work they do. From the State's perspective, they offer a huge package that offers great value for money because it does not have to pay them or look after them as it must do with employees. It does not have to pay holiday pay, sick pay or maternity pay. The barristers do not enjoy any of the other rights that ordinary employees of the State benefit from, particularly in the public service. It is, of course, correct that those rights exist but an external consultant or contractor to the State gets none of the benefits. With regard to the criminal Bar, the State benefits from a couple of hundred people whose work is extremely specialised and who have spent a lot of their own money qualifying. They have survived in very difficult times to get to the point they are at and to provide their service, which is tremendously important because it allows the criminal justice system to work and allows us to comply with our obligations under international law. The way they have been treated by the State is quite appalling. Criminal barristers' levels of pay are the same as they were in 2002. They comprise the only group of which I am aware that has received no restitution or reinstatement whatsoever of the fees they were paid before the crash. Under the FEMPI legislation, depending on the category one is talking about, cuts may be of up to 70% of the pay that would have been received from the State.

There is a very popular misconception that barristers are at the top end of pay scales and all the rest of it. That is definitely not true. The maxim that crime does not pay certainly applies to criminal barristers. The figure that has been mentioned for junior barristers appearing in the District Court, for example, is €25 per day. That is what we are talking about. They have never had their fees reinstated. It is appropriate, although barristers are not covered by this Bill, which cannot help them, that we remember that there are still individuals who are de facto public servants. Even though they are self-employed, they are serving us all as a public and serving the State. They are forgotten by the Government in terms of the reinstatement of their pay. It is appropriate to raise that. I ask the Minister of State to bear it in mind.

This is not an exercise in theatre. I am here to listen to everything Senators have to say, to consider it properly and to discuss it with officials in the Department before we move to Committee Stage. The contributions were-----

The Minister of State may continue until 5.30 p.m.

Thank you very much. I am not a person for speaking a long time. Many of the Senators' contributions were surprising and insightful. I definitely took something from them. I could not have predicted what they were going to say. I do not know if that is a failing on my part.

It is great to see Senators Horkan and Ward again, who are former colleagues from Dún Laoghaire county council.

It is Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, of course.

Of course. Senator Horkan raised the issue of pensions for councillors, which I did not expect to hear about and which is not covered by this Bill, a point Senator Horkan made. He also raised the case of secretarial assistants, who fall between two stools as they work in the public sector but are not public sector employees. Their pay was not cut by FEMPI, but it was already incredibly low and their plight is recognised. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is in talks with the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission because the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has to approve any changes to their pay and conditions. I would like to see a change in their pay and conditions. Talks in that regard are ongoing and I will talk to my officials about the issue.

Senators Sherlock and Gavan were praiseworthy of the Bill and pointed out there had been union co-operation to reach this point. They also pointed out it is progressive and people at the lower end of the salary scale will receive much higher increases than those at the top. That is as it should be. We can see the hard work done by special needs assistants, SNAs, and often the people who are the essential workers and who are the low paid, as we were all reminded during the pandemic.

Senator Sherlock made the point she would like to see a new system for the determination of pay and pointed out the cases of Secretaries General in particular Departments. This Bill is not needed to change the salary for a vacant position. It was always possible to change that, but it was not always possible to change the salary of somebody already in position. This Bill allows that to be possible without having to come up with primary legislation or go to the Labour Court for a determination.

Senator Garvey mentioned the new public consultant contract. I am delighted that public health specialists, who have come to the fore during the pandemic, whose value to society is incredible and who prevent health problems before they happen, will, as a result of this legislation if it passes, all now be entitled to apply for the new consultant contract. This will mean the public health service will be consultant-led rather than specialist-led, which has been a request for many years.

Senator Kyne referenced working from home and asked whether there was any analysis of homeworking and whether it had been a success. Studies have been done and it is clear from people's own accounts that a large proportion of them would like to work from home full-time, a larger proportion would like to mix working from home with working in the office, and a smaller number of people want to return to the office full-time. The Department for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, under the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, is providing guidelines to support that and allow people to work from home unless it is not possible to do so. Most people's desire is to achieve that hybrid status where they can work it around their lives, spending some days at home while having meetings or social contact in the office for a couple of days as well. It will be one of the positives to come out of the pandemic that will be possible and people will have a better quality of life as a result. There have been academic studies on it. Previous studies on working from home had not shown it was a positive thing to do, and it turned out the people who volunteered, who had self-selected to work from home, were perhaps not the most industrious. When everybody was made to work from home, it turned out the average person was more efficient at home and got more done.

Senator Craughwell asked about the Defence Forces. Union recognition for the Defence Forces is a matter for the Minister for Defence and cannot be changed by this Bill or by my Department. I am committed to seeing the Defence Forces and Garda associations fully represented in public sector pay talks, as they ought to be. I look forward to what comes out of the review of the Defence Forces that is ongoing. Senator Craughwell also mentioned the pension abatement for public sector workers and suggested it would be better if pay rather than pensions were abated. He referred to pensions as a property right and compared it to the right of prisoners to claim pensions when they reach pension age. That is something I have not considered but I will do so.

Senator Gavan praised the Bill for a number of reasons including the sectoral bargaining element and the restoration of pay equality for new entrant teachers, which was sought for many years. He referred to the right to collective bargaining. I am a little confused by that because, as far as I am aware, it is enshrined in European law under one of the treaties we ratified. I believe it is the Charter of Fundamental Rights that guarantees the right of all European citizens to collective bargaining and perhaps we can-----

We do not have legislation on this.

Is the Senator saying we have not transposed it?

Exactly. It is Article 28.

I will come back to the Senator on that. Senator Burke suggested ambassadors could be drawn from outside the public service. That is certainly an original suggestion and the names he provided were also interesting. Clearly, some countries have a hybrid model where either a civil service track is followed or someone is selected by government. I am not sure if that is under consideration but I will pass it on to the Department of Foreign Affairs and ask it.

Senator Conway referred to the need for a flexible and dynamic public sector, which is absolutely right. It is why the issue of reform and linking reform with pay rises are present throughout this Bill.

Senator Ward highlighted the plight of criminal justice barristers who are on very low pay and had their fees cut during the previous financial emergency. Those fees were not raised subsequently and there has not been a pay rise since 2002. It is true that barristers are in a profession where, like rock stars, a tiny number of people earn a lot and a large number earn barely anything at all. It is a matter for the Department of Justice, probably in consultation with my Department, to determine rates. I am happy to talk to Senator Ward or anybody else who wants to discuss that. I am sure there are plenty of barristers in this House and in the Dáil.

I look forward to the Bill being progressed in the weeks ahead, particularly as it is needed to give effect to the Building Momentum pay agreement. That agreement involves general pay increases in October, and in October of next year, of 1% each or €500, whichever is greater. It also involves a new sectoral bargaining fund amounting to 1% of basic pay to resolve any outstanding issues such as those that resulted in industrial actions in the period of previous agreements. Work on the implementation of the fund and the identification of the sectoral bargaining units, for example, is well under way and I look forward to seeing it progress over the period ahead.

This Bill is needed not just for Building Momentum but also for the implementation of the Sláintecare consultant contract in the health service, which is a key part of the reform of the public health system. The Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, and his Department will continue to work on the advancement of the new Sláintecare public-only consultant contract. The Bill is also needed for the implementation of the seagoing service commitment scheme, which is a very important reform for the retention of staff in the Naval Service.

I look forward to continuing to work with Members of the House on progressing the Bill. I hope it will pass Second Stage and proceed to Committee Stage so that implementation of the new public service agreement and related matters can proceed. The views expressed here today will be carefully considered prior to Committee Stage.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Monday, 21 June 2021.
Sitting suspended at 5.20 p.m. and resumed at 5.45 p.m.