Ceisteanna — Questions.

Social Partnership.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin


1 Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Taoiseach the role of his Department in recent contacts between the Government, ICTU and IBEC regarding current economic trends under the relevant provisions of Towards 2016, as outlined in the Taoiseach’s statement of 7 June 2006; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16484/07]

Enda Kenny


2 Deputy Enda Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the implementation of the social partnership agreement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16791/07]

Enda Kenny


3 Deputy Enda Kenny asked the Taoiseach when he will next meet the social partners; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16792/07]

Enda Kenny


4 Deputy Enda Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent activities of the national implementation body; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16794/07]

Pat Rabbitte


5 Deputy Pat Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach when the last meeting with the social partners under the auspices of Towards 2016 was held; when the next meeting is planned; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16872/07]

Pat Rabbitte


6 Deputy Pat Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach if his attention has been drawn to the serious concerns expressed by trade union leaders regarding the implications of the continuing high level of inflation and the view expressed that negotiations for a new national pay agreement may have to be brought forward; his response to these calls; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16873/07]

Pat Rabbitte


7 Deputy Pat Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach if, in regard to his statement of 7 June 2007, the meeting he was seeking with IBEC and ICTU to discuss measures to tackle inflationary pressures has been held; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16874/07]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.

Together with the Tánaiste and Minister for Finance and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, I met the leaderships of IBEC and ICTU on Wednesday last. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss implementation of the Towards 2016 agreement, against the background of ongoing concerns about inflation.

For our part, I outlined the Government's commitment to engaging fully with the social partners to secure full implementation of the agreement in order that its objective of building a strong economy and society is achieved on a sustainable basis. In that context, we reviewed, among other issues, recent trends in inflation. We discussed, in particular, the special impact of higher interest rates and fuel prices on the headline inflation rate. While noting that the combination of pay increases under Towards 2016 and the changes in budget 2007 have ensured real increases for workers, the meeting acknowledged the extent to which inflationary pressures threatened the achievement of the objectives of the pay agreement. We on the Government side reaffirmed our commitment to framing public policy in the period ahead with a view, to the greatest extent possible, to minimising inflationary impacts and keeping costs for enterprise under control.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions' representatives highlighted the particular problem of workers exposed to significantly higher housing expenditure as a result of higher mortgage interest rates. It was agreed that the potential for addressing that issue would be considered further, especially having regard to the announcement by the Tánaiste and Minister for Finance about further increases in tax relief for mortgage interest. It was also agreed that the Government and IBEC and ICTU would engage in intensified co-operation in responding to the inflationary pressures within the framework of the pay agreement and especially through the work of the anti-inflation group and the high level group on manufacturing. We agreed that a further similar meeting would be arranged to review the progress made in addressing these issues.

Regarding social partnership more generally, the inaugural plenary meeting with the social partners under Towards 2016 took place on 15 February in Dublin Castle. The meeting received and discussed the first progress report on implementation of the agreement. The report was laid before the Oireachtas and is available on my Department's website.

Since the inaugural plenary meeting a number of meetings have been held with the social partners in relation to implementation of Towards 2016. On 2 April my Department hosted a seminar for the social partners focusing on implementation of the life cycle framework under the agreement. The steering group held its second meeting on 30 April. The meeting focused on the people of working age life cycle stage and also received and discussed updates on Transport 21, the Government White Paper, Delivering a Sustainable Energy Future for Ireland, and the national climate change strategy 2007-12. We are currently meeting the social partners on a bilateral basis to discuss issues arising from the steering group meeting, in particular monitoring groups and mechanisms. The next meeting is scheduled for Thursday, 12 July. The steering group will receive the second progress report on implementation of the agreement. The report will also be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. In addition, the relevant monitoring committees and groups continuing from Sustaining Progress, together with the new groups established under Towards 2016, are continuing to progress their particular areas of work under the agreement.

Regarding the national implementation body, it continues to meet as required to oversee delivery of the industrial peace and stability provisions of Towards 2016. It has met on a number of occasions in recent months to assist in the resolution of industrial disputes. As the House will be aware, the body played a key role in resolving the nurses' dispute. Meetings of the body also provide opportunities for informal discussions on some of the broader issues relating to the social partnership process and the industrial relations climate generally.

Will talks on a new pay agreement be brought forward, as called for by the trade union movement due to the ever-spiralling inflation we are witnessing currently? Has the Taoiseach noted the comments of the SIPTU president, Jack O'Connor, who has pointed out that many factors leading to inflation are well within the control of Government? On house price inflation, for example, Mr. O'Connor pointed out that four decades after the Kenny report no Government has ever confronted the need to deal effectively with the price of building land or invest sufficiently in the provision of social and affordable housing to maintain house prices at some rational level. What will the new Government do to address this most pressing of issues? Does the Taoiseach agree that the entire debate on housing needs to focus on need, on affordability and on accessibility, and less on price and profit which have very much been the focus of so much commentary and attention over many years? Does he accept this is a key issue in social partnership? What new measures will the new coalition Government introduce? When will the new pay talks begin?

On a matter related to my last question, the social partners include the Government, employers and trade unions, but there is a fourth very powerful influence in Irish society, namely our friends from the fourth estate. In terms of talks regarding social partnership, I am referring to media magnates and Independent News and Media and its supremo, Tony O'Reilly. Can the Taoiseach tell us if any members of the Government attended the pre-election meeting with Mr. O'Reilly? Who attended such a meeting, which the Tánaiste has acknowledged took place? Did the Taoiseach attend such a meeting in the lead up to the general election, and what was its purpose?

Nobody here could disagree that the newspapers in the Independent Group clearly swung in behind the Government in the latter days of the campaign. Was that a by-product of any such engagement? Would the Taoiseach like to tell us where that fitted in to the area of social partnership?

Deputy Ó Caoláin is stretching it.

As he clearly is accountable here, I ask that he outline the purpose and the issues addressed and who attended.

On inflation, I stated in my reply that the Tánaiste and Minister for Finance and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and I met the leaderships of IBEC and ICTU and discussed all of these issues. As I stated, the purpose was to discuss Towards 2016, and particularly the aspects of mortgage interest rate increases — there were eight 0.25% increases over the past 18 months — and oil prices. They represent over half of the rise in inflation over the same period. These are factors mainly outside our domestic control but we have examined and discussed all the issues in our control. Bilateral meetings with various agencies, including the Central Statistics Office, the Competition Authority, the National Consumer Agency and the Commission on Energy Regulation, were held with a view to establishing the scope of remedial action on inflation. We discussed the position of the energy regulator and other local authority charges that are outside the determination of central Government. We discussed the fact that inflation in consumer services is running at 9.1% per annum in the year to date, while consumer goods inflation is at 0.3%. We spent considerable time examining the factors behind this because it is alarming. While mortgage interest is a large component of service inflation, it seems clear that competition in the services sector is an issue as well. Otherwise, we would not have figures such as this.

The anti-inflation group was established to examine ways to reduce domestically generated inflation. The group is composed of representatives of the Government, IBEC and ICTU and has considered detailed assessment provided by the CSO and contributions from the consumer price index. We will continue to examine these areas and see what action we can fulfil.

Regarding Deputy Ó Caoláin's second question, I agree that issues go up and down on the factors affecting housing and the price of housing. The arguments change and the defences one puts in at one time are turned around in another period. For years I have defended our actions to increase supply so that it meets demand. This is the reason for the increases but as soon as one reaches that position it comes as a factor that we see a downturn in the market. In fact, we are still building houses and the figure is a multiple of what the EU, or any component part, and the US is building. I do not understand the argument but it is probably a lack of knowledge on the part of people who talk about these matters. They do not consider the underlying figures but that is of no great interest.

We have substantially increased the investment in social and affordable spending, now four times the figure from one decade ago. We are building on the progress and the social partnership agreement, Towards 2016, sets out an ambitious programme of delivery for the next three years. We are increasing the number of expected starts and acquisitions of social housing for the period 2007-09 by 4,000 to 27,000 units, a mix of local authority housing, voluntary housing, co-operative housing and long-term contracts under the rental accommodation scheme. Some 17,000 households will benefit from affordable housing measures in that period and 60,000 will benefit from social and affordable measures.

The National Development Plan 2007-2013 provides resources of €18 billion for social and affordable housing. We should and are putting efforts into this end of the market. Our commitments go beyond simple social and affordable housing. Some 140,000 households are planned and finance has been made available over the period, building on the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, report on housing. The Exchequer provision for this year is almost €1.5 billion, an increase of 10% on last year. That is what we are doing now. The new Government is supporting these major resources, allowing for the commencement of 6,500 local authority houses. There will be some 2,000 starts in the voluntary and co-operative sector.

In regard to the Deputy's third question on social partnership, as I did not see any of the leaders of the newspaper world at the meeting last week, we had no particular discussions. Of those, the Independent Group——

It is the meeting before the election in which we are interested.

The Independent Group was not represented; neither was An Phoblacht. I did not get into a discussion on these issues. From time to time I meet members of——

——the media, except An Phoblacht.

Does the Taoiseach call him Sir Anthony?

An Phoblacht has not sought a meeting but the other press vehicle influenced by Deputy Ó Caoláin has sought a few meetings.

I thought for one moment that the Ceann Comhairle was smiling in unison with the Taoiseach at that remark but, obviously, that was not the case.

I always smile unilaterally.

Right. I note the Taoiseach met the Irish Congress of Trade Unions last week and had a lengthy discussion with it. He is due also to address it tomorrow. This is the last occasion on which he will be in the House until 26 September and if the ICTU wants him to attend its conference which continues until Friday he could certainly go on Thursday or Friday. It is a slight to the House to have him bail out again on Wednesday morning but I cannot do anything about this.

What is the Taoiseach's view of the reasons the Government has failed to keep down inflation? The rate is now 5%, more than twice the European average and the highest in the euro zone. This is a cause of considerable concern among a broad range of people working in the economy. Government spending in the past seven years has been increasing way above the growth in nominal income. This is causing inflationary pressures in its own way. What pro-consumer measures has the Government introduced in the area of sheltered services that will protect the consumer from an inflation rate that is doggedly at 5% or above?

Following a meeting with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and in consideration of what the Taoiseach will say to it tomorrow, unions have been warning that they will seek further pay increases if the inflation rate is not controlled and Government policies continue to fuel inflation directly. What is the Taoiseach's answer to this? Trade unions state they will be forced to seek pay increases because of the reduction in real incomes because of the inflation rate as a consequence of policies proposed by the Government. What is the Government's response to this? In view of the fact that it has been joined by two members of the Green Party as Ministers, will the Taoiseach change the social partnership agreement in order that it will include a third sustainability pillar with energy targets as a central issue?

I am sure the Taoiseach will have seen the report from Credit Suisse which indicates a growth rate of 3% this year. Does he have any belief in this or does he disregard it? If he gives it credence, does he believe the Towards 2016 agreement can be implemented?

Has the Taoiseach had discussions within the Cabinet about the consequences of the Government's failure to reduce the inflation rate which is causing serious concern? Given that a representative of the Progressive Democrats is involved — I am aware the mother of the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, is deceased — with members of the Green Party, what is the approach the Government intends to take in the coming months to attempt to reduce the inflation rate?

There are a number of questions and I will try to go through them all. It is the Government's view that a wage inflationary spiral is in no one's interest. It takes the view that wage increases to chase the inflation figure never work and never have. This happened two or three times in the past decade. It always has been better for us to devote all our efforts to trying to deal with the inflation issue and we managed to so do a number of times. I refer, in particular, to dealing with those factors that we can bring under control to effect a reduction, rather than trying to change it with pay rounds. I have made this argument strongly and will do so again tomorrow. If one simply spirals pay increases after rising inflation, everyone loses out. The low paid and vulnerable workers, in particular, will definitely lose out. As all Members are aware, wage moderation is a powerful counter-inflationary tool, while excessive wage growth can be a strong driver of rising prices. I made that case last week and the Government has provided facts and statistics to demonstrate this. Above all, we must bed inflation more deeply and avoid pricing ourselves out of jobs and growth with an unworkable formula of wage increases. The Deputy has stated correctly we should not go down this road and I have no intention of so doing.

We must consider the areas in which there are problems. As the Deputy is aware, practically every other country uses the HICP and omits interest increases from their inflation rate calculation. More than half of our inflation rate — 56% — arises from energy price and interest rate increases. While I do not suggest leaving them out, this must be taken into account when comparing our figures with European ones. Were other countries to include interest rate increases, it would increase the HICP in such countries also.

When one considers the comments issued by the European Central Bank, another one or two increases are likely. Certainly the market is not discounting another 0.25% increase in the autumn. While I am always trying to read between the lines of what is said by central bankers, Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, seemed to indicate there would be another increase in the spring also. Consequently, there is a figure of at least another 0.5% in this regard, which means that we must consider issues arising in the energy sector. According to the Central Statistics Office, CSO, energy prices in respect of electricity, natural gas, bottled gas, liquid fuels and solid fuels all registered zero or almost zero movements in price in the last few months. In the case of natural gas, the average price has fallen by 10% since the spring. I hope these are areas in which we can look forward to some reductions.

I refer to those areas in which we have a problem. As I said, with the CSO's help and that of the all the aforementioned agencies, the Government is engaged in identifying how it can deal with such sectors. It is clear there is a problem with services inflation, on which everyone is focusing. It is running at 9.1%, as opposed to 0.3% in goods inflation. Therein lies the problem about which it is most within our power to do something. We have introduced all the aforementioned groups to try to focus on what can be done and find out precisely where are the problems.

There are levels of competition. The Deputy asked whether there were competition issues in this regard. There are because while many such areas are very profitable and doing very well, they are fuelling inflation at a very high rate, which is running at more than 9% in the year to date. Clearly, we must do more in this respect. Already there have been meetings involving the Competition Authority, the National Consumer Agency, the Commission for Energy Regulation and similar agencies to try to focus our efforts on these issues.

Have I covered all the Deputy's queries?

I also referred to the third sustainability pillar in respect of energy targets.

As the Deputy has argued previously, it is very important to take into account consumer issues in such talks, as well as sustainability in respect of energy and other areas. We will have to go back into talks on the second half of this round immediately after Christmas or before Christmas. We must look at issues of sustainability and we are committed to addressing them and looking at some consumer issues.

I had scheduled to attend the ICTU conference tomorrow because we were to hold the North-South Ministerial Body and the British-Irish Council meetings on Friday, but they have been put back to next week. It was not ICTU's fault, I had agreed with the Northern Ireland authorities and the British Government to hold them, but Gordon Brown has asked me to switch those meetings to next week and I have agreed to do so.

The greatest benefit of the past 15 years of economic expansion has been that we have greatly increased the number of people at work, but I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that a surprisingly large number of people are on modest incomes. They are confronted with a situation where the entire value of the pay terms provided for in Towards 2016 is being eaten up by inflation.

Will the Taoiseach address the two specific issues raised by congress? The average mortgage has increased by €320 in less than two years, which is a significant burden on many people. How does the Taoiseach intend to respond to the congress recommendation that the tax relief on mortgages be examined in that light? What is his response to the second proposition from congress relating to the VAT rate of 21%? I presume the Green Party Ministers will join congress in supporting that proposition which was a cornerstone of their party's policy platform in the general election.

In the Taoiseach's press release issued after his meeting with IBEC and ICTU, he stated: "the Government and IBEC and ICTU would engage in the intensified co-operation in responding to the inflationary pressures within the framework of the Pay Agreement, and especially through the work of the Anti-Inflation Group". I have heard what the Taoiseach said generally, but what will the intensified co-operation focus on? The anti-inflation group has been in existence since the previous agreement, but will the Taoiseach tell the House two or three practical measures recommended by that group and what action has been taken on those recommendations?

In respect of a little matter of unfinished business between the Taoiseach and me before the last general election, he will remember that he inadvertently told me that 90 labour inspectors were in place. It was an error as he was reading his notes upside down and he never intended to say that. We found out that there are 34 labour inspectors. How has that matter been proceeding since then and when will the figure of 90 referred to before the general election be reached?

I was wrong on that occasion, as I admitted afterwards. I was told at last week's meeting that all the inspectors will be in place by Christmas.

Which Christmas?

This Christmas.

One can look back on the intensive work done. The anti-inflation group did some good work in 2003 in identifying, through the CSO data, indicators for the precise areas where there were inflationary pressures, and in using the agencies I mentioned earlier to tackle those issues. It tackled them directly by examining the issue of profit-taking in the relevant sectors and also through the Competition Authority, in terms of going after some of the sectors and making regulatory changes to improve competition. This proved quite effective in the given timeframe.

One of the issues on which the Competition Authority particularly focused at that stage was insurance, which was identified as a huge problem in the reports of 1999 and 2003. The authority likes to quote this as its greatest success because we are now paying premia at 1997 levels, which has been hugely beneficial for inflation, particularly for large employers which must pay public liability insurance, workers' liability insurance and general insurance. There are concerns about numerous other professions and while the Competition Authority has not finished all its work, it has produced fairly detailed reports on most sectors. I have not reviewed its progress in the last two or three months but it has done significant work on the pharmacy, medical and legal professions and in consultancy in terms of architects and engineers. It is has looked into all those sectors in great detail.

It has also done much work on the services sector, although that was in 2003. Services inflation was identified last week by the CSO as an area of particular concern, with inflation growing at 9.1% in the year to May. The authority intends to intensify its work in this area. It is clear there are a number of elements in that, identified by the CSO, where companies have had large hikes in terms of price increases in every quarter for the past year, protecting themselves at a time when inflation — excluding interest rates and energy which the companies cannot include in their figures — was 2.5%, while inflation in their sector is 9.1%. Therefore, they are taking profit of four times the rate of inflation. Those sectors are being analysed. It is not always easy to drive down prices there. The anti-inflation group and the high level group on manufacturing believe this area should be of prime concern.

What was Deputy Rabbitte's other question?

I asked about mortgage interest relief and VAT.

The Tánaiste and Minister for Finance had already agreed and stated what he intends to do on mortgage interest relief in the next budget. The ICTU has put forward its case that this increase in assistance from the next budget, on top of what was done last year, will not fully mitigate the eight interest rate increases that have already been imposed and those likely in the next 12 months. I am of the view there will be at least two further increases, reading between Jean-Claude Trichet's lines. The Tánaiste said he could not make any changes at this stage but would look at the ICTU's submission in his preparatory rounds for the next budget.

There was no debate on the VAT issue. Deputy Rabbitte is aware of my view on this in that I have not been a supporter of VAT reductions. VAT is a broad tax and a good means of ensuring everybody pays. It is not my priority in trying to alleviate these issues to implement VAT reductions. Deputy Rabbitte referred to the plight of those individuals who suffer most from rising inflation. There are ways of more directly targeting resources to assist such persons through tax credits or other means, rather than through a reduction in the VAT rate.

I have a specific supplementary question. The Taoiseach spoke about the Competition Authority. He quite properly pointed to excessive profit taking in certain areas of the economy and, indeed, excessive profits from fee increases imposed by various professionals. There is no doubt such practices have existed for the past dozen years but, other than the Taoiseach's assurance that the sectors have been analysed, what has actually been done to address the issue? Reports have been published and exhortatory work done by the Competition Authority but am I correct in saying, for example, that the only two cases prosecuted in the High Court by the Competition Authority concerned pet food for prize Chihuahuas and the League of Credit Unions? If the Taoiseach were to take on collusive activities, abuse of dominant position and cartels in this economy, would he start with pet food for prize dogs and if he were dealing with abuses in the financial services sector, would he start with the League of Credit Unions?

I think I am correct in saying that the Supreme Court has since reversed the extraordinary decision taken in the High Court. The proposition that there ought to be more than one League of Credit Unions is like saying there should be two GAAs or FAIs. I never heard anything so ridiculous in my life. Is it not time that the Competition Authority took on some of the real forces and vested interests which are contributing to the inflationary pressures that threaten this country's economic situation?

Perhaps they have not had litigation taken against them. I am not here to defend the Competition Authority, which acts in its own role. It has completed major studies and has been involved in serious dialogue on restrictive practices, unfair competition and limited access to professions with all the major sectors. It is going through what I accept is a very long process involving various stages but what it has done in the insurance sector and is endeavouring to do in the legal and pharmacy sectors is increase competition.

On the Deputy's question as to whether more action is needed, yes it is and perhaps the authority can start bringing cases because it seems reluctant to commence legal action rather than use its powers of persuasion to conduct analyses of these industries and drive down prices through the strength of the case it makes. That is the attitude it has adopted and it is not for me to criticise or defend it. In the past few years, it has produced major studies on how these professions work, how they use their cost bases and the areas which can drive down prices by allowing for more access and competition. It has proved it is possible to do that in the professions, particularly in respect of the insurance sector where we have seen dramatic changes.

Does the Taoiseach share the concern of many trade unionists and wider interests in Irish society at the refusal by Babcock and Brown, the current owners of the privatised Eircom, to pay their workers the 2% increase due under Towards 2016 unless and until the workforce of some 5,000 sign a memorandum of understanding on work practices? How does he view this stance and what in his opinion are the implications for the terms of Towards 2016? Has he intervened in the matter and, if not, what steps does he intend to take given the serious implications for Towards 2016 and for workers in such situations?

An enormous number of cases under the provisions of Towards 2016 involve workers and management engaging in negotiations around changes in work practices, productivity and the ability to pay. They all have to abide by the terms of the provisions in Towards 2016. I do not get involved in those negotiations, either directly or indirectly. As I noted in my earlier reply, some of these issues come before the implementation group for assistance. Most of these cases are worked on and dealt with every week by employers and trade unions and it is a matter for them to work through.

Is the Taoiseach saying the terms of Towards 2016 have another hurdle to cross and that management may lay down impossible demands on the work force before it can benefit? Surely that cannot be the case. Towards 2016 laid down quite specific pay increases for the duration of its term. How can the Taoiseach say that management has the opportunity to lay down new conditions and new hurdles for workers to cross? I ask the Taoiseach to clarify the position.

The Deputy should know that one of the great strengths of our system of collective bargaining, which is voluntary in nature, is that management and unions can discuss issues within the provisions of Towards 2016 every week, seeking improvements for workers and changes for employers. That happens in most of our State and private companies all of the time. Each Friday a list is published of cases which are at various stages of negotiation. There could be 50 or 60 companies on that list. That is just part of the normal process.

I wish to ask the Taoiseach about two matters which arise in the context of his discussions with the social partners. During the last Dáil I asked him a question about the Competition Authority's action against that section of SIPTU which organised Actors' Equity. The Competition Authority pursued unemployed actors on the basis that they were liable to self-assessment, given that they had various employers. SIPTU had to sign an agreement on the steps of the High Court that it would not organise such workers. I produced a Private Members' Bill on the issue and the Taoiseach said he would consider introducing legislation. The issue was to have been put on the top of the agenda of the social partnership talks some time ago. Does the Taoiseach intend to revisit the issue, given it has also arisen with regard to the Competition Authority's action against pharmacists? The authority has argued that pharmacists cannot be collectively represented, even though they have a negotiating licence. I argued that in both cases the Competition Authority was striking down trade union rights.

As the new talks open tomorrow with the social partners, is it not a fact that the targets for social and affordable housing in every one of the agreements so far have not been met? What new initiatives does the Taoiseach expect to reach agreement on with the social partners which will ensure an outcome as projected in terms of the numbers of social and affordable houses delivered?

I recall Deputy Michael D. Higgins raising the question of the actors and actresses and the specific case. The issue was discussed, as I recall——

It was not discussed.

My understanding is that there was an agreement reached.

There was no agreement.

I thought the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, on behalf of SIPTU, came to an agreement with the authority.

They came back to me and asked me to present my legislation again but the Taoiseach had already said he would not support it.

I will check my information but I thought an agreement had been reached to assist those people, most of whom were unemployed or only partially employed. I thought an agreement had been worked out, but I will return to the matter. My recollection was that in February we came to an understanding but I will check the matter again.

The authority was also in breach of an ILO regulation.

That is correct. I recall that.

On the second issue raised by the Deputy regarding the Competition Authority, we are trying to press the authority to take action to drive down prices and encourage greater competition. In the case of pharmacists, the Government has legislated for them. The pharmacy union has a negotiating right and represents its workers and no change is needed. I cannot see what is wrong with the actions of the Competition Authority in that regard.

The issue is that the Competition Authority, in dealing with pharmacists, no more than with dentists, was trying to strike down the principles of the negotiating licence. My question aims to be helpful. How does the Taoiseach propose to retain the rights of trade unions while at the same time defend the Competition Authority's penchant for going after soft targets?

I do not think we are talking about dentists and pharmacists in terms of soft targets. As we know, they are some of the toughest bodies with which the State has to negotiate.

We are all against monopolies, or most of us are anyway.

They have very strong negotiating rights which they use against the State and across social welfare recipients to great effect. They have been doing so for years.

It is time to move to other questions.

What about social and affordable housing?

I do not want to eat into the Deputies' time for questions on Foreign Affairs.

We have set far higher and more ambitious targets on social and affordable housing. Some €18 billion has been provided for it in the national development plan. We have followed the affordable initiative which is making far more progress than the local authority system. It has come up with some good initiatives that have been strongly supported by the Department of Finance. Some 92% of all affordable housing initiatives for this year will come in at under €185,000. It may be small in number but it is very successful. We need more such initiatives.

That is great but it does not amount to a hill of beans in volume.

We need more volume but we also need local authorities to work more closely with the affordable housing schemes and to allow them to get on with their job. Most of their difficulties are not with central Government or Departments, but with local authorities. In fairness, we have provided resources and are prepared to assist them. As the construction industry finds the heat going out of the market at ends that were perhaps more profitable to it, we have been emphasising that it would be more attractive and successful for the industry to move to social and affordable housing. I hope the construction industry will do so.

It is good to see the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Kitt, in the front row. He worked long and hard for that. He will be able to answer fully now.

I will answer the Deputy anytime.