Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Questions (16, 17, 18, 19, 20)

Cian O'Callaghan

Question:

16. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social dialogue co-ordination unit of his Department. [43654/21]

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Mick Barry

Question:

17. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social dialogue co-ordination unit of his Department. [44873/21]

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Alan Kelly

Question:

18. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social dialogue unit of his Department. [44766/21]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

19. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social dialogue co-ordination unit of his Department. [46800/21]

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Paul Murphy

Question:

20. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social dialogue co-ordination unit of his Department. [46803/21]

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Oral answers (34 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 16 to 20, inclusive, together.

The social dialogue unit, which is part of the economic division of my Department, works to co-ordinate and support the Government's overall approach to social dialogue. The work of the unit involves supporting engagement with the social partners through a variety of mechanisms, including the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, which deals with labour market issues. The LEEF meets regularly to facilitate discussions with the Government on issues related to the Covid-19 pandemic and our economic recovery. The most recent plenary meeting, which I chaired, took place on 5 July. A further meeting will take place in the coming weeks.

Under the auspices of LEEF, there has been significant progress on other issues such as the introduction of statutory sick pay, remote working and the establishment of a high-level review of collective bargaining. There are also LEEF subgroups dealing with issues including aviation and childcare. Social dialogue through the LEEF process has also played a crucial role in ensuring workplaces are safe during the Covid-19 pandemic and an updated version of the work safely protocol was agreed and published earlier this month.

The social dialogue unit also supports engagement with representatives from the environmental pillar, the community and voluntary pillar and the farming and agriculture pillar. This includes a series of meetings between myself and key Ministers with those groups held before the summer. This was an opportunity to discuss how social dialogue can be strengthened as well as current issues of concern to those sectors.

Social dialogue also takes place through structures like the National Economic Dialogue, the National Economic and Social Council and many sectoral groups. There is also regular dialogue between the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and public service trade unions.

Overall, I believe this is strong evidence of the Government's commitment to social dialogue. However, given the scale of challenges which lie ahead, for example in areas like climate action, housing and economic recovery, I will continue to work with Ministers to strengthen the structures and practice of social dialogue across all areas.

In following up the earlier response on the Stardust issue, it is welcome that the Government is committed to the inquest, that €8 million has been assigned and that legal aid is to be given to the families but the issue is that, while all the other legal teams involved in the inquest have been funded to prepare for the inquest, the legal representatives of the families have not been funded to carry out that important work. The families must be at the heart of this inquest and must be treated equally and fairly, along with all of the other participants in the inquest. That is at the heart of this. The funding must be released to those families to ensure that they are represented properly at the inquest and so that preparatory work can be done. I ask the Taoiseach to follow up on that specific issue with regard to the Stardust inquest.

I would like to begin with two quotes. The first comes from a senior Aer Lingus cabin crew member:

I have young cabin crew colleagues regularly attending soup kitchens for meals and getting help from St Vincent de Paul. My own brother bought my son’s school books this year. Mental health is on the floor.

The second comes from an Aer Lingus ground crew worker:

We’re having everything taken away. My parents have done food shopping for us throughout the pandemic. I’m paying rent of €1,550 with two children to support.

Both of these quotes were given in interviews with my colleague, Ruth Coppinger, last week. This week, Aer Lingus's parent company saw its share price climb 21%. Aer Lingus kept its hand out for massive State subsidies while continuing to push for its workforce to submit to a four-year pay freeze, new yellow-pack starting rates and cuts to sick pay and shift allowances.

Will the Taoiseach intervene in this situation? Will he tell this company that continued State aid is conditional on an end to attempts to force brutal austerity on its workforce?

The Government seems to be getting itself into a mess over the issue of recognising the huge role workers played in sustaining our society during the Covid pandemic. I will give a few suggestions in that regard. First, health workers who were on the front line in hospitals fighting to keep the disease at bay and getting infected are a particular category whose work must be recognised, along with that of other people, including home carers and anybody in the health service who was directly confronting the health consequences. Beyond that, there are other groups not in the front line in that sense, such as retail workers, transport workers, teachers, local authority workers, civil servants, contact tracers and so on, who need recognition.

There is a more fundamental point, which is that during the pandemic we realised the key role played by many working people who suffer low pay and precarious work, and are generally not acknowledged, in sustaining us. In some cases, such as musicians, artists and so on, we really felt their absence because they could not work. That requires a more general response, rather than a once-off response, in terms of addressing low pay. We need to have something like a €15 living wage as a mandatory minimum wage, to do something serious about precarity in employment and to bring bank and statutory holidays, not on a once-off basis, up to the levels we have in Europe. They are much lower here. There needs to be a general recognition that before the pandemic, we failed to fully recognise how important many categories of workers are. If we are to learn the lesson of the pandemic and have a better future, we need to make those changes.

I call Deputy McDonald.

Is there not somebody ahead of me?

The Deputy is not on this list, but go ahead.

I am on this one.

You are not on the one I have.

Gremlins at work. I thank the Ceann Comhairle. A few weeks ago, I participated in a protest of local employment service workers at the Department of Finance and around to the front of the Dáil. They were protesting against the proposal, which the Government is pushing ahead with, for the outsourcing or tendering of their work. They were able to tell stories of how they help the long-term unemployed. They work alongside them to try to get jobs that would be suitable for them. They rightly pointed out that the drive of the Government would turn this from a useful service that helps people into a JobPath 2, where the service is outsourced to private companies that have horrific records in Britain and here, put pressure on people and are just interested in ticking boxes that maximise their profit. They are not interested in helping people to get out of unemployment and into quality, decent jobs. In doing this, the Government will ironically make a bunch of people unemployed and create further unemployment when it is meant to be addressing the unemployment crisis. Will the Government back off on this proposal to effectively outsource these vital services and this important work done by local employment service workers?

Prior to the recess, the Taoiseach briefly reported that the unit had a good meeting with the community and social pillar. What were the outcomes of the meeting? Will the issues raised be reflected in the upcoming budget?

Over recent months, I have met with community-based services across the country. The work they do is extraordinary but the overwhelming feeling of those providing and accessing the services is one of invisibility. For each of the services I have met, every month is a struggle as they deliver services to hundreds of thousands of citizens, many of whom are very vulnerable. Inadequate infrastructure, insufficient funds for staff and a dogged refusal of Departments and State agencies to provide multi-annual funding are universal challenges.

I have a particular concern for family carers, in terms of the inadequacy of State supports and their physical and mental health. During a meeting I had with Family Carers Ireland services in Wexford and those that support them, it was clear an informed and progressive shift by the Government on specific policy areas would be transformational in terms of quality of life and care.

I welcome the work of the social dialogue unit and the Taoiseach's engagement with the Government partners in the community and voluntary sector but I urge the Taoiseach to ensure that there is an outcome from these engagements, and that the outcome is progressively reflected in next month's budget.

I thank all the Deputies who raised issues. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan raised the question of the Stardust inquiry. When he spoke of issues around the preparation for the inquest, is that relating to historical cost claims in terms of independent researchers? I understand claims for historical costs by independent researchers are the subject of civil proceedings instituted by them against the Minister for Justice. I will revert to the Minister-----

I was just referring to the preparation for the inquest.

The money has been allocated and the regulations have been signed. The aid is available to legal teams.

It has not been given to the legal teams to be able to prepare.

It is available to them. I do not understand why it has not been accessed.

They have not been able to access it.

They are not being given any funding.

The funding has been sanctioned on an exceptional basis.

It is not getting to the legal teams.

The regulation has been signed by the Minister. I will talk to the Minister for Justice and come back to the Deputy.

Deputy Barry raised the Aer Lingus issue. I have met with Aer Lingus representatives. The Government's objective was to maintain the viability of airlines and airports and support their workers through the pandemic. We provided the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, which has been a huge support. The Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, independently provided a loan facility to Aer Lingus. It has been challenging. It is a private company. We pressed with them the need to look after their workers. They would say the collapse in air travel has been a huge factor in the losses of over €1 billion the company has endured during the pandemic. It is probably more at this stage.

They would have been very opposed to zero Covid policies, which they felt would have killed off the airline and the industry. The Deputy put forward that proposal at the time. People in the House come forward at different times saying the Government must do this and that for aviation, and the next month they say the Government should do X and Y to support the industry. It does not always square and the Deputy's position on aviation does not square. The realities of the pandemic are real. We have done everything we can to support workers through unprecedented interventions. I am conscious that people and cabin crews have suffered. Everyone working in the airline-----

Answer the question.

I am giving the Deputy the answer. The Deputy is not giving the answer. He is suggesting-----

The answer is to put a condition on the payment.

Exactly. You want all the supports pulled.

You kind of do. You want nirvana. The world does not work the way you prescribe it to work.

You should tell Aer Lingus that in order to continue to get the money, it has to stop kicking the hell out of its workforce.

We have done all that.

On Deputy Boyd Barrett's question, I am open to consultation on special recognition. I thought he was going to give me a tiered response but in the end he said everybody should be supported, basically. I take the point in respect of healthcare workers on the front line.

On sustainable issues, there will be lessons learned from Covid in terms of how we organise and structure society into the future. That will inform Government policy in terms of well-being, income supports, creating employment and getting employment back to pre-2019 levels.

On local employment services, I assure Deputy Paul Murphy that it is not JobPath that is envisaged. The Comptroller and Auditor General and others say we are in breach of EU law and the Committee of Public Accounts will probably say that as another arm of the House.

It is a matter of trying to balance that issue with making sure we develop a quality service. We are talking about a regional employment service. To compare it to JobPath is completely inaccurate. That is not what is envisaged.

We must conclude, a Thaoisigh. We are out of time.

I apologise. I was just trying to respond to everybody. I do not know whether I have done so.

You are trying to do the impossible, I am afraid, because we are completely out of time.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.