Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Questions (85)

Mairéad Farrell

Question:

85. Deputy Mairéad Farrell asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the status of the negotiations for a new public service stability agreement, PSSA; the date formal negotiations took place; and the expected date for their completion. [36717/20]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Public)

The PSSA, the current public sector pay deal, is due to run out at the end of this year. I have raised concerns with the Minister previously about what appears to be a lack of progress on a new deal. This must be prioritised by the Minister and the Government. Will the Minister advise what the status of these negotiations is, the date on which formal negotiations took place and the expected date of their completion?

The current system of collective agreements has been in place in the public service since the Croke Park agreement was negotiated back in 2010. These collective agreements have helped to ensure that public pay is managed in a sustainable, affordable and orderly manner. These agreements have also enabled significant reform of public services and changes to work practices.

The current public service agreement, the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020, has provided for benefits to different income groups, ranging from 6.2% to 7.4% over three years, and up to 10% for new entrant members of the single public service pension scheme. At the end of the agreement, financial emergency measures in the public interest pay reductions were reversed for all public servants earning up to €70,000, which equates to almost 90% of public servants. In addition, an agreement under the framework of the PSSA was reached with the Irish Congress for Trade Unions, ICTU, in 2018 to deal with the issue of new entrant pay. The final pay adjustment of the current agreement was implemented as planned on 1 October last, with pay for public servants increased by 2%. Also on 1 October, fixed allowances were increased by between 5% and 8% as part of the unwinding of pay reductions set out under the Public Service Pay and Pensions Act 2017.

The Government was determined to ensure the current agreement was honoured in full, not least in recognition of the contribution that public servants have made in supporting the country through this unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic. As the Deputy is aware, I have instructed my officials to engage in exploratory talks with the public services committee of ICTU to establish if there is a basis for a successor agreement to the PSSA that would ensure pay stability, industrial peace and the delivery of quality public services. These exploratory discussions are ongoing. As the Deputy will appreciate, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the detail of those talks, which should remain confidential to the parties. These are difficult discussions taking place against a difficult backdrop but there is real value for both sides in having a deal and I sincerely hope one can be agreed.

I completely agree with the Minister. It is extremely important for both sides that we have a deal of this nature because it will provide stability in the delivery of public services in the first instance. Of equal importance is that it will provide a level of justice for workers. Public sector workers have been a significant part of the front-line workforce during this pandemic, as we have often mentioned in this Chamber, and they cannot be left behind. They deserve to have economic security and to know their jobs are not left in a precarious position. I hope the Government does not let this matter slide as it would be neglectful to do so. In this instance, the State is the employer and it needs to deal with it in a timely fashion. My other concern is that during this pandemic, we are greatly relying on the public services and I would hate to see unrest as a result of a failure to reach an agreement. Is the Minister giving a commitment to do everything in his power to ensure a deal is reached?

What I can commit to is that the Government will do all it can to reach agreement. There are significant discussions under way and I am describing them as exploratory in nature. As the Deputy knows from experience, the way these things work is that if the parties feel there is a possible landing zone, they will enter into a more formal set of negotiations. I hope we can get there quite quickly. The current agreement expires at the end of the year. We need to strike a balance in this. We must recognise the immense value of the work of our public servants, and I echo the Deputy's comments in that regard. However, there is also an economic reality and a difficult backdrop that we are all living with. That has clearly impacted on the economy and our public finances. There is, however, real value in having a deal. The public service pay bill for next year of close to €22 billion amounts to approximately 30% of overall expenditure. I want to achieve an agreement and I hope one can be achieved in the weeks ahead.

I hear the Minister referring to "an economic reality" but the State is the employer in this instance and it is important that it gives some security to these workers. I would also be concerned if a deal is reached at the eleventh hour because we know that such a deal needs to be debated and voted on by all the public sector workers across this State. This is a lengthy process in normal times and it is an even more difficult process in these times. I am wary that we will have a scenario where a deal is done at the last minute when there was time to work on this issue months ago. We have known for years that this agreement would run out at the end of December 2020. I understand that the Minister was only appointed in the summer but he will have been acutely aware that this was coming down the line. It should have been a priority for the Department. These agreements are usually agreed with months to spare because they may not be ratified initially, which means that parties have to come back to the negotiating table. It also means that everyone gets a fair turn of hearing exactly what the situation is. If there was to be a second round of negotiations, it would be unfair for the employer to leave these workers, who have given so much during the pandemic, in such a precarious position.

The State is a good employer, and the State has been a good employer during the Covid-19 pandemic. That is, of course, a reflection of the work our public servants have been doing. We now have a public service with around 346,000 people working within it. As part of the budget which we brought forward last month, we have provided for an increase in the number of people employed across the public service of the order of 22,000, with the majority of those being in the area of health, given the decision we made to permanently increase the capacity in our health service.

These are not, however, normal times. It requires two parties to negotiate and, ultimately, reach an agreement. I am conscious that time is tight between now and the end of the year. As the Deputy is aware, just last month we honoured the final leg of the public service stability agreement, PSSA. The exploratory talks are at a pretty intensive stage. It will become clear reasonably shortly, hopefully, as to whether there is a basis for meaningful and formal talks at official level. If those talks do take place they can, potentially, be concluded quickly. Then, as the Deputy said, a process of ratification is required, and I am conscious of that. I am also factoring that into the timeline.