I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 11, inclusive, together.
The plenary meeting of the social partners held on 17 October focused on three key themes – the current economic outlook, the strategic review of FÁS and the national drugs strategy. The key conclusion on the economic outlook was that, while we undoubtedly face serious challenges arising from the global slowdown and the 11 September attacks, we should face them with confidence, based on our achievements in building up our economy, our record of creating new jobs and our continuing commitment to social partnership as the best way of moving forward.
There were, of course, different emphases within this broad consensus and social partners raised a number of particular priorities, ranging from the need to maintain competitiveness to the need to ensure the burden of adjustment to current circumstances does not fall disproportionately on the disadvantaged. The social partners have, of course, made these concerns known separately to the Minister for Finance in the context of preparations for the forthcoming budget.
There was a useful discussion of the proposed statement of strategy for FÁS based on a presentation by its director general. The new strategy will be focused on increasing the employability and mobility of job seekers and employees in meeting labour market needs, thereby promoting competitiveness and social inclusion. It will play a key role in responding to the current economic climate and preparing for the recovery which will follow. There was general support for the broad thrust of the strategy and agreement that particular issues and suggestions could be pursued bilaterally with FÁS.
There was a useful discussion of the national drugs strategy, 2001-08. The new strategy, which follows on from a comprehensive review of the overall national drugs strategy, brings together, for the first time, all elements of drugs policy into a single framework, with responsibilities clearly assigned across the four pillars of supply reduction, prevention, treatment and research.
The National Economic and Social Council, NESC, since 1986, has produced a series of reports that have identified interrelated policy issues and put forward strategic approaches to economic and social development in a medium term perspective. These strategy reports have provided the necessary intellectual and policy framework to underpin negotiations between the Government and the social partners, leading to successive social partnership agreements. It is widely agreed, both among the social partners and among commentators at home and abroad, that this type of medium term strategic analysis, undertaken by the social partners working through the NESC, has been an essential ingredient in the success of the Irish social partnership model.
Before the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness expires, and in anticipation of a further round of negotiations between the Government and the social partners in the autumn of 2002, the NESC has begun the work of preparing a new strategy document. A detailed schedule of work to be undertaken on it has been prepared and was discussed by the council at its November meeting. Further preparatory work has also been undertaken by the council's secretariat. Although the council has an extensive work programme, the strategy process is being treated as a key priority.
I had the pleasure of formally launching the new National Centre for Partnership and Performance on 22 October, following the inaugural meeting of its council. As I indicated in my remarks on that important occasion, its role is to provide a strategic focus on the deepening of partnership and the improvement of performance in the workplace, both in the public and private sectors. The centre has been established on foot of a commitment contained in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness and will be located within the new National Economic and Social Development Office, alongside the NESC and NESF.
Given the scope of its mandate, the centre will work in close co-operation with relevant organisations and agencies that have an interest in industrial relations and workplace development. Its core activities will include deliberation, consensus building, research and analysis, dissemination of best practice and training and facilitation.
The council has commenced work on developing a strategic plan for the centre and it is envisaged the plan will be formally launched early next year. Total costs accruing to my Department to date, in respect of the new centre, amount to £181,336 or 230,249.
The centre will bring added momentum to the drive for change at organisational level, leading to improvements in productivity and the delivery of public services, as well as improving the quality of working life and the work-life balance. In pro moting enterprise level partnership, the centre has an important contribution to make in developing increased flexibility and competitiveness within companies and, ultimately, securing the long-term viability of the jobs they provide.
Copies of my remarks at the launch are available in the Oireachtas Library for further reference.
I meet representatives of individual social partner organisations on a regular basis. Most recently, I met ICTU and IBEC on 21 November in the context of their pre-budget submissions. I have no plans to meet the social partners collectively in the near future. I met them collectively at the PPF plenary meeting in July.