Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Questions (70)

Bríd Smith


70. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he will meet with representatives of retired public and semi-State workers (details supplied) to discuss their grievances about reductions and changes to their pension schemes in previous years which have not been fully restored ahead of the upcoming budget; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39615/19]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Public)

Will the Minister meet with representatives of retired public servants and semi-State workers to discuss their grievances about reductions in their pensions and changes to their pension schemes in previous years which have not been fully restored ahead of the forthcoming budget, and will he make a statement on the matter?

My officials and I have engaged with public service pensioners regarding public service pensions issues through meetings with the Alliance of Retired Public Servants, ARPS.

Over the past few years, the interests and concerns of public service pensioners have been regularly articulated in those meetings. Through this process of engagement, I believe that public service pensioners have had, and continue to be afforded, a meaningful and direct means of articulating their concerns on pensions and related issues. The Deputy should note that two of the three bodies mentioned in the details supplied are members of this alliance. It is my intention to make arrangements for further engagement with the alliance in the near future.

A number of developments are in progress that directly address pensioner concerns.

First, there has been a significant further lessening of the public service pension reduction, PSPR, which was imposed on pensions under the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest, FEMPI, Acts. When fully in place from January 2020, the PSPR amelioration measures will mean that the vast majority of public service retirees, 97%, will be entirely free from the PSPR.

Second, for the duration of the current wage agreement the Government is committed to a conditions-bound return to the non-statutory pensions increase policy known as pay parity. This means that, in general, individuals who retired after 1 March 2012 will qualify for increases while, as the agreement progresses, a greater proportion of pensioners who retired before that date will also qualify.

The Minister has said publicly on a number of occasions that he would meet representative groups, but he has yet to do so personally. They have been in contact with the Minister recently to seek a meeting prior to the budget. The point, however, is that the right of these groups to be represented should not be based on the grace and favour of the Minister. It is not tea and sympathy they need, but workers' rights and the right to use the industrial relations mechanisms of the State. The protest outside the House today comprised representative groups of teachers, gardaí, fire fighters, local authority workers, workers from the ESB, CIE and so forth, people who served the State for all their adult lives. Some of them were children when they started at 15 or 16 years of age. They have been let down poorly by the Minister. First, they do not have the right to sit at the table when pay negotiations for public servants are taking place. They are often overlooked and sidelined. They are seeking industrial relations rights, recognition that they matter and to be able to explain and negotiate their case at the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. Their second requirement is for the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman to recognise them as a collective, not just as individuals who take individual cases. They need that collective bargaining strength. Will the Minister do something about this?

I acknowledge the contribution that retired public servants have made to our country. I also acknowledge the fact that if one is a retired public servant, one does not have the options to increase one's income that somebody who is still active and working in the workforce has. Significant changes have already been made to public pension payments during the lifetime of this agreement. The levy or reduction that caused such frustration to so many pensioners is now in the process of being unwound. Depending on when pensioners retired, we have a policy in place, which is a consequence of the wage agreement, to gradually make payment increases available. I believe we are making progress on this matter.

Regarding whether I will seek to include retired public sector workers in the negotiation of collective agreements, that is not a change I plan to make. If we are dealing with public pay policy, it is only appropriate that we engage and work with those who represent people who are in work. However, when we are making decisions in this regard I always bear in mind the effect they will have on those who have retired.

The Minister talks about the consequences of the wage agreement. Certainly, the consequences of the wage agreement affected existing workers, but those workers will one day be pensioners too and the index with their work and pay has been broken. Has the index with the Minister's pension and his rights and pay been broken or is that just for the fire fighters, council workers, gardaí, ESB workers and those who served the State for many years of their lives? Consider the systemic nature of how pensioners have been treated in both the public and private sectors. In the public sector, in particular, there was an impression that they all had gold-plated pensions. In fact, it is Ministers and former taoisigh who have gold-plated pensions, rather than the ordinary workers. However, they have been consistently scapegoated, with their pensions and pension rights reduced. A number of measures must be taken. The one in which the Minister can have a key role is unlocking that break in the index with current workers, whereby their pensions are severely suffering as a result.

I am not scapegoating anybody.

I am not saying the Minister did. I said they were scapegoated.

Given the view the Deputy articulated regarding pensioners being scapegoated, it is only fair to outline my view on it. I recall that when I was dealing with this issue during the period in which the current wage agreement was being negotiated about two years ago I saw the average pension levels that are available to those who have worked for many decades in our public services. They are a long way from some of the higher value pensions that were the source of public debate and controversy some time ago. I am aware of the issues the Deputy mentioned. I will ensure that my officials meet the alliance in the future when we review where we are with this agreement and what might take its place in the future. I want to hear the views of retired workers with regard to decisions I might make in the future.