Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Questions (5, 6, 7, 8, 9)

Joan Burton

Question:

5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, last met. [26520/18]

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Micheál Martin

Question:

6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that has oversight of child policy. [27689/18]

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Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [27646/18]

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Brendan Howlin

Question:

8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B (social policy and public services) last met; and when it plans to meet next. [27722/18]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B (social policy and public services) last met. [29097/18]

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Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 9, inclusive, together.

Cabinet committee B last met on 7 June. A date for the next meeting has not yet been scheduled. The committee covers the areas of social policy and public service reform, including education, children, social inclusion, Irish, arts and culture, and continued improvements and reform of public services. Cabinet committee B acts as the forum through which Government advances policies and services aimed at ensuring all citizens, including the most vulnerable, receive the necessary supports and opportunities to improve their lives and fulfil their potential.

The committee aims to ensure a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of the relevant commitments in A Programme for a Partnership Government. It provides the opportunity to shape proposals on issues such as equality, disability and disadvantage which require input from multiple Departments. Through policy interventions at Cabinet committee level and measures introduced as part of the budgetary cycle, the Government has introduced a number of sustainable reforms aimed at improving the lives and standard of living of those most in need. These include affordable childcare measures, the increase in the national minimum wage to €9.95 per hour and a €5 increase in all basic weekly welfare and pension payments.

The committee has a very broad remit and has sought to bring added value to a number of important social policy matters such as ensuring ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; advancing several important gender equality actions; and implementation of structures and funding to support the north-east inner city initiative.

I suppose I should thank the Taoiseach for his rather patronising remarks to myself and Deputy McDonald in respect of young people being unemployed. I do not care whether the figure of 750 young people being unemployed in Dublin West is by his calculation really only 5% - the statisticians in the CSO say it is 11% or 12%.

On the gender pay gap, I will have to read back over the Taoiseach's reply. Yesterday, his Minister for Finance told me that the seven top jobs in the Department of Finance are all held by men. That sounds to me as though, for the women in the Department of Finance who are bright, capable and ambitious, a penalty is being exacted for having children and families. It is not that they do not want to be promoted, as the Taoiseach is patronisingly suggesting to women, but that we have not amended the position in respect of women who, over a 40-year career, take three or six years off work because they have a number of children. What is unusual about women taking time off in such circumstances? That is what we need to change. I have said before that I was one of four women around a table of 18 men in the Cabinet. The Taoiseach has actually reduced that number since he came into office. I am not sure he gets gender equality. The reason for the pay gap is that women are concentrated in the lower echelons of the public service. When it comes to the Department of Finance, the budget, the rainy day fund and so on, nobody at the top level is a woman.

In the context of the social economy, we have been awaiting a report on social and community-based banking from the Government for some time. The main banks are closing their branches, particularly in rural Ireland and disadvantaged urban communities, and the post offices are planning to do the same. There is a proposal for community-based banking with perhaps a pilot scheme from Sparkasse, the German community bank that has been operating for a long time. It has offered to run a pilot scheme in Ireland to show how a new form of community banking that would include home loans would operate. I am told the Department of Finance - with no women at the helm, by the way - is actually set once again to give this the thumbs down. Is this real in terms of the crisis we have heard about this morning in different parts of rural Ireland? There is also a crisis in a significant number of disadvantaged communities that still have high unemployment.

A defining feature of Fine Gael's management of the Department of Health has been major Supplementary Estimates announced late in the year. This has been going on for a number of years. After a series of years in which the Supplementary Estimates related only to additional measures announced during the year, we now see permanent use of them to fund core health services. This is not about additional measures or whatever but the funding of core services. This has been accompanied by Ministers and Taoisigh denying overruns until late in the year and also refusing to explain whether the under-provision for services was a political decision or an administrative error. In today's newspapers it is reported that the health budget is again over allocation by €167 million and that the final annual figure is likely to be much higher than that. No explanation has been provided as to what is involved and it appears that we are likely to get another demonstration of the Taoiseach and his Ministers shaking their heads as if it has nothing to do with them. Can the Taoiseach give an assurance that during the preparation of this year's budget, there was no interference by any member of Cabinet in the service plan costings provided by the Health Service Executive? What is the current projection for the likely full-year costs in health?

The Taoiseach referenced disability. The Government is not performing on disability in respect of access to services for children, particularly the various therapies I outlined yesterday such as physiotherapy, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy as well as respite services and residential care. In the whole row about decongregation, many people with disabilities are being left behind. I get somewhat annoyed when people declare that we have ratified the UN declaration in respect of disability. It means absolutely nothing on the ground when vast sections of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 have not been implemented. The Taoiseach wrote to me following my raising of the matter on the Order of Business last week. It really puts a focus on the absence of delivery for children with special needs.

I am struck by the passive stance the Taoiseach and his Government seem to adopt around the gender pay gap. By way of response to me, he blithely stated that, as a matter of fact, we already have equal pay for work of equal value. I specifically referred to that provision, which has been on the Statute Book since the 1970s, for the simple reason that we do not have equal pay for work of equal value. Women are coming out on the wrong side of that bargain and, in addition, Deputy Burton is quite right to point out that it is scandalous that the top echelons in the Department of Finance are exclusively male. I do not believe there are no women of talent and learning and ambition who could perform at that level. It is the departmental equivalent of a "manel". I see the Ceann Comhairle looking at me curiously; that means a panel made up entirely of men.

Of course, it is much more serious because it is at the very heart of Government where key decisions are made. I invite the Taoiseach to be less passive and defensive and to engage properly and fully with these issues which, in the first instance, are of concern to women. They go to the very heart of a functioning economy, a healthy society and a representative democracy.

I am left with no option but to raise this matter in this format because I have written exhaustively to the Minister for Education and Skills and have received responses worthy only of an episode of "Yes Minister". It relates to the fact that nearly seven months have passed since the subcontractor walked off the site at Naomh Fionnbarra GAA Club in Cabra, which is my local GAA club, with just two weeks left to complete works on a pitch. The outstanding work is minor in nature. A pitch has to be laid and some electrical and fencing work must be completed. This publicly funded project was directly impacted by the collapse of Carillion. Despite dozens - and I mean dozens - of communications from me - I am sure others have been in touch - it appears that the Minister is either not interested or does not care but he is certainly not prepared to do anything to get the workers back on site.

As the Taoiseach said, this committee also deals with the area of arts and culture so I will continue to draw his attention to the film industry because €80 million goes out in grants from the Irish Film Board and section 481 tax relief. I will put it dramatically so that it will draw, I hope, the Taoiseach's attention. I do not expect him to know everything about this.

There is something rotten in the Irish film industry. The law governing section 481 requires that section 481 tax relief - €70 million per year - provide "an effective stimulus to film making in the State through, among other things, the provision of quality employment and training opportunities". That is the law. There is no training system in the film industry. Someone can be a trainee for years, be paid the trainee rate and have no career progression and no certainty of any kind of future employment no matter how long he or she has been in it. If the person steps out of line once with the production company that is in receipt of all this money, that person will not work in the industry again. That is how it works. It is project to project and it is a different kind of industry but it involves the provision of €80 million that is supposed to create an industry when nobody knows whether they will have a job next week.

Twelve companies are the recipients of this money. I went to the trouble of meeting the Comptroller and Auditor General for two hours two weeks ago to ask him to look into this. That is how seriously I take this. When I ask those 12 companies that received €183 million in tax relief in the past three years how many people they employ, they cannot give an answer because the number is three or four. That is not on. There is something wrong in the industry. People in the industry accept that it is project to project but something is wrong if the same production company that is getting all this money can employ a person for one project but say to that person when the next project comes along in a month or two that they are not taking that person because they asked about overtime or they complained about working hours in excess of the working time directive.

I am asking the Taoiseach to look at this. While we should give lots of money to arts and film because it is a very important industry, it must be an industry where there are some rights for employees and some sort of expectation of being able to work in the industry over their lifetime so that if people do not do something terrible, they will continue to be employed in that industry, because it is public money.

We have a gender pay gap in Ireland. There are many reasons for it, two of which I cited. I said that women do not get a fair go. They do not get a fair crack of the whip when it comes to promotion in the workplaces because women are very often unfairly expected to carry a greater burden of child care then men. I do not think there is anything wrong about that. I think both those things are very true. That is what I said, so if Deputy McDonald wants to check the record, she can do so. Those things need to change. We need to see more women being promoted in the workplace, be it in the public or private sector, because women do not get a fair go when it comes to promotion.

I am conscious that every couple is different but we need to see men taking on their fair share of caring and child-rearing. We can do that through things like extended paternity leave, which we have introduced, much better family leave, and more family-friendly workplaces. Far from being passive, this Government is being active. We are the Government that is bringing in gender pay gap legislation. It could have been done by any previous Government. We are the ones who are doing it. That will require initially companies with 250 employees, reducing to 50 later, to publish their gender pay gap. That will bring about transparency. Companies will be asked to explain why they have a gender pay gap and why their gender pay gap is bigger than that of their competitors. That is an example of where we are being very active and are certainly not being passive.

Last year, for the first time ever, 52% of appointments to State boards by the Government were female. We want to get to the point where we have equal representation, from 40-60 to 50-50, but for the first time in a very long time, if not ever, 52% of people appointed to State boards were women and that is because of a major effort to promote that as a policy with hard targets. We will now introduce a new initiative around company boards similar to a measure introduced in the UK, a Government-led initiative to put pressure on private sector companies to put more women on their boards. Interview panels are developed from boards. Therefore, there will be more women on interview panels and, therefore, women will be more likely to get a fair chance of being promoted. This is an issue on which the Government is very committed to acting and where it is doing things no previous Government did and could have done.

In respect of community banking, the Government is considering the Sparkassen proposal. What might not come across a lot of the time is the fact that Sparkassen's request is that the Government would put €150 million or more into this. It is one thing if a bank wants to set up in Ireland, and we welcome competition and want more banks to set up in Ireland and give more credit, but it is another thing when the bank is asking the Government to pay for the setting up and to capitalise it. That is a definite difficulty we have. We must also bear in mind that we have some forms of community banking such as credit unions which provide all sorts of community banking and can probably do more. We would like to see An Post provide banking services more. For the Government to stump up the money for an institution to come in and do it is a very different question. This point has been missed in the debate.

The HSE service plan must be approved by the Minister for Health. It generally goes to Cabinet as well. There is a debate over the costings. It is the job of the Department of Health to second-guess costings of financial projections put forward by the HSE. It is the job of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to do the same, to examine any costings and projections Departments or agencies come up with and second-guess them. That happens and should happen.

Every year the Supplementary Estimate is part of the core services. It is as if a proper, accurate Estimate is not given at the beginning of every year and that there is a bit of manipulation going on and a lack of transparency.

I do not have any particular information about the educational matter raised by Deputy McDonald but I will certainly tell the Minister for Education and Skills that it was raised here when I see him tomorrow.

The fundamental idea behind any tax relief or incentive, particularly if it is one that is commercially focused and aimed at the private sector, is that the benefits should outweigh the cost, so the theory at least is that by having these tax incentives in place, film, media and audiovisual productions happen in Ireland that otherwise would not. They would happen in another country if we did not have those reliefs and incentives in place. That is the basic calculation we must do. Does having these very generous tax incentives and reliefs, and they are very generous, benefit the economy in the round because of the investment brought into the country?

It is not clear that it does.

It may not be. All tax reliefs should be regularly reviewed.

Who is in government?