Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

As we ran badly over time yesterday, I appeal to Deputies to adhere to the time set by the House.

I raise again the crisis within our Defence Forces. The low level of morale within the rank and file, the shabby manner in which they are treated, the gaps in middle management, and the failure to retain and nurture specialist expertise within the forces all point to a failed policy of the Government and a Minister of State who, with the Government, is completely out of touch with the reality on the ground. In the Army, the Air Corps and the Naval Service, a consistent message emerges. Members are exiting the Defence Forces at all ranks at a rate of between 40 and 50 per month. We learned last October that ships could not set sail because there were not enough crew members to manage them. The Air Corps operates at 70% capacity. On the rank and file within the Army, Sarah Walsh of the Wives & Partners of the Defence Forces put it eloquently when she said:

Our families live in poverty. We suffer from food, income, fuel, and child poverty. Many of us can only dream of owning our home, and some this month are facing uncertainty about their homes, while others are facing homelessness. I personally know these people.

The current strength is approximately 8,800, which does not take into account 670 members overseas or 450 in full-time training. There has been a blind reliance by the Government on recruitment over retention and on recruiting its way out of the crisis. Recruitment on its own, however, has had no impact on the strength of the Defence Forces in recent years, and the cost benefit of retention over recruitment is indisputable. There has been a removal of initiatives to enhance retention, such as the fixed-period promotion for specialist service officers, which illustrates the lack of creative thinking to support our Defence Forces. It restricted members' career progress and left them with nowhere to go, resulting in people buying themselves out of the Defence Forces and leaving in unacceptable numbers. We have lost much specialist expertise from our Defence Forces. The Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Mellett, has stated:

You are always going to have a churn and a churn is healthy, but I would rather it be down about 5 per cent rather than the 8.1 per cent it is at present. It is that extra per cent that is crippling us at present.

The ongoing exit from the ranks of the Defence Forces is just too great and it speaks to a failed policy. Does the Taoiseach accept that there is a crisis within our Defence Forces? Does he further accept, as has been suggested, that the Government, through the Department of Defence, is undermining the case being made by our Defence Forces through the initiatives of their leadership to turn the situation around? They meet obstacles in every direction.

Before I answer the Deputy's question, I beg the indulgence of the House to take this opportunity to extend my condolences to the family of Laura Brennan, whose service of remembrance is taking place in Ennis today. As Deputies will know, she died from cervical cancer but worked closely with the health service to become a powerful advocate for HPV vaccination and, because of her, we were able to increase its uptake again. While she has lost her life, sadly, I believe her actions will save the lives of many people. As Deputies will be aware, she was not connected with the approximately 221 women who were affected by the cervical cancer audit.

I also extend my condolences to the family of the former Deputy, John Browne, who passed away this morning. People will know him as a colleague in the House and his son who served in the Seanad.

To respond to the Deputy's question, the Government and everyone in the House are proud of the contribution that our Defence Forces make, whether through peacekeeping, as an aid to the civil power, intelligence or other operations. We are investing in our Defence Forces and increasing the budget this year, with more than €50 million being invested in barracks, equipment, pensions and pay. While I acknowledge there is a problem with retention in the Defence Forces, recruitment is going well. There are record numbers in the classes being attested and graduating, although many people are leaving because there are now many opportunities in the private sector, as the Deputy will know is the case in his constituency in County Cork, where engineers are leaving the Naval Service to work in the private sector. The Chief of Staff has stated he would prefer to see a turnover rate of approximately 5%, which would be normal, as opposed to the current rate of approximately 8%, and I concur.

I accept that we need to act but we are taking action. Pay restoration is well under way throughout the public service, including the Defence Forces, and almost everyone earning under €80,000 will have full pay restoration by the end of the year. There will be continuous recruitment rather than recruitment in bullets or phases, as happened in the past. We are allowing for the re-entry of people to the Defence Forces, given that, sometimes after people leave, they want to come back and now we will allow them to do so if they so wish. The fourth and perhaps most significant step is that we have asked the Public Service Pay Commission to examine the issues. After holding hearings and listening to the Defence Forces, the Chief of Staff and the Department, the commission will bring forward proposals which it believes could improve the terms and conditions of the Defence Forces without having an impact across the public sector. I asked the head of the commission, Kevin Duffy, in recent days whether the report could be expedited, and he informed me he believes that the commission can publish its report by the middle of May.

I get a sense of the Government and the Taoiseach being detached from the reality of the crisis on the ground. The Taoiseach said recruitment is going well, but the fact of the matter is that the Government cannot recruit its way out of the crisis. It must address the retention issues. Between 1 January and 31 December 2017, for example, the significant recruitment drive by the Department of Defence and the associated burden on operational units and structures yielded a net increase of three personnel to the Defence Forces. We have been telling the Government about the issue for between two and three years. It is not something that has just arrived today. Morale is low at all levels. A recent Amarach Research survey, commissioned by RACO, found that 79% of post-2013 officers are strongly considering leaving well in advance of their retirement age due to the issue of supplementary pension before qualification for the State contributory pension.

At all levels, from pension to pay to allowances, there are no initiatives to retain people. In fact, it is in the opposite direction. All the inbuilt structures and so on are designed to incentivise people to leave the Army, the Air Corps and the navy. Even the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment recruits people from the Army and pays higher rates than the Army can. The loss of expertise, from bomb disposal to the Naval Service, has been enormous over recent years, but all we have heard in reply is a studied indifference from the Government and a lack of urgency to deal with the crisis. Does the Taoiseach accept that?

Recruitment is going well. The biggest classes ever are coming through and being attested. For the first time, we have people moving from the non-commissioned ranks to become officers. There are promotional opportunities that were not available in the past. There is a particular focus on recruiting more women into the Defence Forces and we are seeing some good results in that regard. However, there is a high turnover rate of approximately 8% a year, whereas 5% would be more normal. We are doing four things to address the matter. They include pay restoration which is happening across the public service, with the next tranche to kick in in the next few weeks. We are moving from periodic to continuous recruitment. We are also moving towards a model of re-entry, whereby people who leave can rejoin. That was not allowed in the past and it is a significant change such that people who have left the Defence Forces to move elsewhere in the public sector or the private sector can come back in, which is very positive. I do not know why we did not do it before. Perhaps most significantly, we have commissioned the Public Service Pay Commission to examine the terms, conditions and allowances of members of the Defence Forces. I spoke to the head of the commission in the last couple of days to ask if the report could be expedited. He told me that it could be and that the commission expected to report by the middle of May.

I join the Taoiseach in extending our sympathy to and expressing our solidarity with Laura's family and friends as they remember her today. I am also sorry to hear of the passing of John Browne. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

Yesterday the United Nations' special rapporteur for adequate housing lists, Leilani Farha, issued a damning condemnation of the Government's record on housing for allowing vulture funds to buy up large numbers of properties across the State, only to let them at scandalous prices. She said the Government was facilitating the financialisation of housing through providing preferential tax breaks for corporate landlords and standing over weak tenant protections. We know from last month's homelessness figures that there are now more homeless persons in the State than at any time in our history. The figure is almost 10,000. There are tens of thousands of people on council housing waiting lists, while social and affordable homes are being constructed at a snail's pace. People in the private rental sector are being hit time and again, with rent increases continuing to spiral, and all the while house prices continue to rise. For many, owning a home is now nothing but a pipedream.

The response from the Taoiseach and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has been to stick with the plan and let the market do its thing. It may not have occurred to the Taoiseach yet but his plan is not working. It is failing spectacularly and the housing system in the State is broken. This is not just my assessment or that of Sinn Féin but the verdict of the United Nations that corporate interests are trumping the needs of ordinary people and families in the housing market. In the midst of an unprecedented housing crisis, we have the likes of Ires Reit and Blackstone making massive profits, paying minimal taxes and fleecing tenants. It is ridiculous, unacceptable and must stop.

We need a radical rethink and action to benefit those who are struggling and in need of a much-needed break. Will the Taoiseach accept that there is an urgent need to rein in corporate interests in the private rental market? It is not that solutions have not been offered because there are solutions. The Taoiseach and the Minister have refused to act and listen. True to form, their partners in Fianna Fáil bury their heads in the sand, too. The Government could do the right and necessary things. It could introduce with immediate effect a three-year rent freeze and temporary tax relief for renters. It could support the legislation that will be brought before the Dáil by Deputy Eoin Ó Broin tomorrow to prevent buy-to-let landlords from seeking vacant possession. The Government could avail of and implement these alternatives. We need bold and meaningful action because the UN assessment of the Government's failures needs to be a wake-up call. Does the Taoiseach accept the assessment of the UN special rapporteur?

As I have not had an opportunity to hear about or read it in full, I would prefer not to comment on it until I have done so. I cannot argue with the fact that approximately 10,000 people live in emergency accommodation in Ireland. While there will always be a certain number who will need emergency accommodation for different reasons, 10,000 is far too high which I do not deny for one second. It concerns all of us in government greatly. We lift thousands of people out of homelessness every year; we take them out of emergency accommodation and provide them with secure tenancies, but as quickly as we are able to house people, roughly the same number become homeless. That is why we have not been able to get the number down from 10,000 for the past year. The solution is more supply. We need more homes and apartments. Last year 18,000 new homes were built. They are new houses and apartments that did not exist this time last year. There were more new houses built than in any of the past ten years, which is very significant, but we need to do better again. We need approximately 25,000 new homes this year and 30,000 in the year after. I do not see it as ideological, as Deputy McDonald does. I do not see it as social housing versus private housing, people on the housing list versus those who want to buy and the private sector versus the public sector. I do not see it in that way. We need more housing, including more social housing, and are getting it, with 9,000 units added to the social housing stock last year and 10,000 or more this year. We need more private housing that people will be able to buy. That means working with the private sector and the construction sector to deliver them because most people want to own their own home. They do not want the Government to own it for them. It also means having a much better, more regulated rental sector, which is why we introduced things like rent caps and are bringing forward more tenancy rights.

The Taoiseach's position could not be more ideological. He is blinded by his own ideology and prevented from doing the very obvious, common-sense, pragmatic and necessary things by a fierce ideology that insists on the market sorting it out and that the State and the Government sitting on the sidelines as observers, crossing their fingers and hoping for the best in trying to talk the issue away. The Government is failing. The United Nations, not Sinn Féin, states the Government is allowing faceless corporations to wreak havoc on the rights of tenants. That is its finding and a damning indictment of the Government which has its ideological position. That is where it sits. I am not here to enter into an ideological debate but to say directly to the Government that it needs to do the necessary things to protect tenants. Its so-called rent control measures have failed. We have made propositions about having a rent freeze and providing tax relief for renters. Critically, a measure will be brought to the floor of the House tomorrow-----

I am afraid the Deputy is over time.

-----by my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, to prevent landlords from seeking vacant possession. To translate it into real English, it means preventing landlords from casting families into homelessness in order that they can sell on properties.

I appeal to the Deputy to conclude.

I am appealing to the Government to support that measure.

Deputy McDonald is making political charges and trying to enter into an ideological debate, but the charge does not stand. If it was the case that the Government believed only the market could produce solutions, we would not have funded the construction and purchase of 9,000 new social houses last year.

The Government is not building houses.

We would not have brought forward rent controls and a vacant site levy. All of these things are interventionist, including the building of thousands of units of social housing every year-----

Most of them are leased.

-----expanding the social housing stock, introducing rent caps and a derelict site levy. They all accept that the market does not provide all of the solutions. We would not do these things if we thought the market could provide all of the solutions.

We do not agree with the rent tax credit which Sinn Féin proposes. We wanted to reduce income taxes for all workers, which is what we did. Sinn Féin was against that. We did it because other people are struggling too, to put together a deposit or a mortgage and we do not agree with the Sinn Féin approach, which is to give tax cuts to people who are paying the rent but nothing to anyone else. We think that is wrong and that is why we did not follow its policy in that regard. We will bring forward additional proposals to enhance tenants' rights. The Minister for Housing Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, will do that in the next couple of weeks.

Finally, we cannot support Deputy Ó Broin's Bill because while it might make for a good press release and maybe some good interviews-----

And prevent homelessness.

-----it is not workable and it is also unconstitutional. It is not workable because the advice from the Attorney General is that it cannot apply retrospectively so it will not apply to any existing tenancies.

It works in other countries.

It is no good to anyone who is already renting, therefore it is absolutely useless to anyone who is renting but it might discourage landlords from letting their houses in the future so it may even be counterproductive.

Ah, look after the landlords.

Second, it is unconstitutional in that it could or probably would result in infringements on property rights.

Here we go, this is where the mask really slips.

The Sinn Féin Deputies should give up their own homes.

Property rights do not belong to properties; they belong to people.

Toss them out to homelessness.

If we remove from somebody the right to sell a house they own-----

Hand up your own homes, lads.

They are conditional on the common good and social justice.

Hand up your own homes for the cause, then lads.

They are conditional on-----

There is not much point asking the Taoiseach a question if the Deputies will not allow him to answer.

The facts drive them crazy, always.

A Deputy

They will not get an answer anyway.

Give up your homes for the cause, lads.

He did not even answer the original question.

It is classic Sinn Féin, populist solutions that help nobody.

Today in the Visitors Gallery there are several climate conscious students who travelled from Donegal this morning to attend the launch of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Action's long-awaited report, which may or may not be launched this week, as originally planned. These young men and women organised a climate strike in Lifford, County Donegal, just over a week ago to coincide with the global climate strike carried out by students around the world, initiated by Greta Thunberg. Sadly, I was the only Deputy to show up at the climate strike in Donegal despite the scale of protest, which saw more than 1.4 million young people march in over 100 countries.

These students will hand a petition, which has almost 300 signatures from students and staff across Donegal, to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, today. I thank the Minister for agreeing to meet them to accept the petition. The petition contains demands from students who say the Government's inaction is killing their future. They demand that the Government ensure that all fossil fuels are left in the ground and call for a ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure. They also want a climate emergency to be declared and for the State to communicate the severity of the ecological crisis to the public, including a reform of the educational system to address the need for ecological literacy. The rapid implementation of the entire Citizens' Assembly suite of recommendations on climate change is also demanded by the students, as well as policy changes to ensure a reduction in emissions from agriculture.

I am hopeful that the committee's report will go some way to addressing these demands but its main tenets can only be addressed where there is political will within the Government. I urge the Minister and the Taoiseach to seriously consider the list of demands in the petition and show they will take seriously the needs of this and future generations before it is too late. It is clear that this generation of young people will not be quiet on the issue. They refuse to be the generation that will remain "the voiceless future of humanity", as one student activist says. As Governments like the Taoiseach's continue to fail to respond adequately to climate change threats, climate activism is increasingly being harnessed by the young. Many of today's climate strikers will not even be 30 by the time the 1.5o deadline comes around in 2030. That is the significance of this. Will the Taoiseach commit to acting on student demands for urgent action on climate change?

Like a lot of people in this House I was inspired by the climate protests that students engaged in, not just here in Ireland but all over the world, and I was encouraged to see that there is political support behind us in Government and in this House to do the right things when it comes to climate change because we all know everybody wants climate action taken but when it comes to voting for and supporting some of the measures that might be unpopular or inconvenient some politicians run a mile-----

Free public transport.

Like banning fossil fuel exploration.

-----and will only support things that are popular or ineffectual and we will come back to that a little bit later-----

Free public transport.

Does that include the Taoiseach?

It is impossible to answer questions, a Cheann Comhairle.

A Deputy

They do not want to hear the answer.

I am not precious about these things but I listen-----

Is the Taoiseach sure?

I listen quietly to everyone's question, I write it down and I try to answer it but I am constantly interrupted.

The Irish public is looking in and it does expect its parliamentarians to behave in a more adult and reasonable fashion.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. Out of respect to the students and young people who came here to hear my answer, I am going to give them an answer.

As I said earlier, all of us in this House were very inspired and encouraged by the protests that students engaged in all around the world. They put it up to us, the adults, the politicians, to get more done, not just to talk about climate change or to put forward the measures that are popular but also to get behind measures that may be unpopular or may be difficult and unpalatable for some sectors in society. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, and Deputy Heydon attended those protests and spoke with many of the young people involved, as did Deputies around the country and I am glad they did that.

The all-party climate action committee is meeting at present. I hope we can get a consensus on the actions that need to be taken when it comes to climate change. We need a consensus on carbon tax, regulation and the type of investments we need to make. It will be much more easy to do if we have a political and all-party consensus behind those important measures so that it does not become a matter of point-scoring but a collective effort across politics. In addition, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, is working on our all-of-government approach and response to climate change, which will be very much informed by what parameters are set by the all-party committee.

Things happening this year that will make a big difference include, for example, that we are starting to decarbonise our bus fleet, and from the middle of this year all buses operated by Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus will be low-emission vehicles. The first of those is being tested in Cork at the moment, operating off compressed natural gas. We have committed to taking coal off the grid, so Moneypoint will no longer burn coal by the middle of this decade. We will need a transitional fuel such as natural gas to replace it. I think everyone accepts that is necessary. We are also investing much more in renewable energy and pushing that forward too. They are just three small examples.

Horses and carts.

I thank the Taoiseach for his response. I hope this Government will not let the young people down and that we will not look back on the Taoiseach's contribution today and ask where was the inspiration and encouragement. We need to get beyond that now. It is one thing for the Taoiseach to say he is inspired and encouraged by what the young people are saying but when will we actually do things? We saw here yesterday the Government's opposition to the fossil fuel drilling Bill going forward. We need to leave those fuels in the ground. The Taoiseach needs to listen to what the students are saying. That is how the Government can inspire people and make sure we can go forward together, hoping that we will see change. The problem is that we are not getting that consensus or a sense from the Government that it wants to go forward with everybody else on climate change. We owe it to those young people to stop the fancy words now and actually get on with the action and make sure the measures are delivered. I hope that in coming years, the Government will deliver rather than give us the fine talk.

The Deputy referred to legislation. The Government has already accepted during the term of this Dáil three Private Members' Bills to improve our environment: Deputy McLoughlin's Bill to ban fracking, which has now been banned in Ireland; Deputy Pringle's legislation to prevent the State investing in fossil fuels, that has been passed and we worked with the Deputy on that, and legislation proposed by the Green Party, which we have taken on board, to ban microplastics. Those are three practical examples of Bills that the Government has adopted and accepted to make our environment better.

We have a difficulty with the legislation being put forward on fossil fuels - the keep them in the ground Bill - because we are unconvinced on four points: the evidence is that this Bill will not reduce emissions at all, in fact one person taking the bus once rather than driving would reduce emissions more than that Bill, so it is largely ineffectual.

We do know that we will continue to need to use natural gas as a transitional fuel. Renewable energy at the moment cannot provide 100% of our energy needs. We will continue to need natural gas for the foreseeable future, certainly the next few decades.

We have gas for the next few decades.

If we have to use natural gas surely it is better to use our own natural gas than to import dirty natural gas from North America-----

“Dirty” natural gas.

-----or natural gas or oil from the Middle East or Venezuela because that means helping to fund regimes that have a very bad human rights record-----

Such as Russia and China which the Government is already partnered with.

-----and Russia and China and it also means we would have to import fuel, which is a loss to the Exchequer. That is our principled objection on that. We supported three Bills that make our environment a better place for good reasons. We have a difficulty with this particular Bill because it will not reduce emissions at all. It will have zero impact on emissions.

That is nonsense.

Second, it may be worse in the longer term-----

Stop telling people lies. That is nonsense.

-----because we would have to import gas from other parts of the world. Third, it is bad in terms of energy security because we would have to rely on Russia, China-----

The Government is already partnered with them.

-----the Middle East and Venezuela. Finally, it is a bad idea economically. It is bad for Cork, Killybegs, Foynes and all of the places where there are jobs to come from exploration, particularly when it comes to Bord Gáis-----

There are no jobs to be got from it.

-----but because I am speaking facts I am being shouted down again so I will sit down.

I welcome the men and women from the National Ambulance Service who are here in such large numbers that they could not all fit into the Public Gallery and who are interested in hearing the Taoiseach's answer to my question.

Late last year, the HSE commissioned a polling company to conduct a nationwide survey of HSE staff. One of the questions was as follows: "My organisation clearly demonstrates its interest in staff health and wellbeing." For the HSE as a whole, the percentage who agreed with that statement was 42%, which is not great. The figure for the National Ambulance Service staff was 11%. Some 37% of HSE staff were satisfied with their pay levels. The figure for National Ambulance Service personnel was 6%. That is the legacy of the Government's austerity pay cuts. Some 69% of National Ambulance Service personnel had experienced bullying, harassment or both in the previous two years.

These are key workers, they do a stressful job and they work long hours. Many people call them ambulance drivers but they are a lot more than that. They are paramedics, advanced paramedics and emergency medical technicians. They are lifesavers and they deserve to be treated with respect, but they are not being treated with respect by the HSE and the National Ambulance Service. The HSE refused to negotiate with the union chosen by more than 500 of these workers to represent them. The National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA, is part of the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA. The PNA has thousands of members in the health service and a full negotiating licence, but so stubborn are the HSE and the National Ambulance Service in their stance, that they refuse even to sit down with the NASRA representatives to negotiate contingency plans for public safety on the days the workers' strike. The National Ambulance Service phoned its solicitors, those solicitors phoned the union's solicitors, the union's solicitors phoned the union and the union phoned the picket line and then the whole matter was put into reverse. It would be laughable if it was not for the fact that this ignorant management approach to industrial relations is compromising the health and safety of the public.

The first national ambulance strike in the history of the State is taking place on the Taoiseach's watch. On 12 March, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, told the Dáil he was confident the dispute could be resolved, but has his Department even sat down with the HSE to discuss resolving it since then? The Taoiseach might tell the Dáil. The men and women in the Gallery will be joined by colleagues outside the gates of the Dáil at 2.30 p.m. to demand their democratic right to be represented by the union of their choice. On 2 April, next Tuesday, they are due to strike again and on 10 April, they will strike again if the matter is not resolved. The Taoiseach should resolve it before 2 April. Is the Taoiseach prepared to take the necessary measures? Is he prepared to instruct the Department to sit down with the HSE before 2 April, instructing it to recognise this union and to resolve this dispute?

The Government is very committed to continuing to improve, expand and develop our National Ambulance Service. We have increased the budget for the National Ambulance Service every year for four years running. That money goes towards several objectives. It goes towards pay restoration, pay increases, extra staff, new ambulances, improving our existing ambulance bases and introducing new technology ranging from Eircodes to onboard equipment. We have seen a big improvement in our ambulance services over recent years, particularly as staff have been upskilled and as we have more paramedics and advanced paramedics providing emergency healthcare the moment they arrive at the scene, thus providing emergency interventions immediately, long before the patient gets to the hospital and that is the way to go. There will be many more improvements in that regard into the future.

What the Deputy refers to is of course an industrial relations dispute. It is principally an inter-union dispute. There are a number of unions which represent the majority of ambulance staff, paramedics and others which are already recognised. SIPTU is certainly the main union, Fórsa is the other union and there may be a third union and this is an inter-union dispute. We know from so many other workplaces that it is much better to have staff represented by one union or maybe two, rather than having six, seven or eight unions competing with each other as much as trying to negotiate better terms and conditions for their staff. We have seen that in so many other fields where disputes would have been resolved much quicker to the benefit of everyone had there been only one union or two, rather than six or seven competing with each other and taking members off each other rather than engaging in the work that they should be doing, which is advancing the interests of their members.

This is an industrial relations dispute. It will be resolved in the normal way and as is always the case with industrial relations disputes, there will not be interference from Ministers.

It is up to the workers to decide which union they choose to represent them. It is not up to the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health or the HSE. This is not an inter-union dispute. There are plenty of sections of the public sector where the State recognises four trade unions, not the six, seven or eight that the Taoiseach attempted to distort the facts with. There are plenty of places where four unions are recognised. I am sure the Taoiseach is aware of the fact that two of the three unions involved, namely Fórsa and Unite the Union, have less membership combined than NASRA and the PNA. In fact, their combined membership does not even come close to the combined membership of NASRA and the PNA. The rank and file members of the biggest union, SIPTU, support the right of this union to be recognised, as shown by the fact that they have stood on the picket lines.

It is an excuse. The real reason is that the Government does not want the HSE to recognise a union which would not accept and which would challenge and fight the Government's understaffing and underpaying of ambulance personnel and the overstretched and overworked workforce. The trade union movement must not allow these workers to stand alone. The PNA has 6,000 members in the health service and there must be active solidarity with these workers if they continue to be denied their democratic right to have a union recognised.

Is the Taoiseach prepared to try to stop the strike on 2 April by doing a simple thing, namely asking the HSE to sit down and talk to the representatives of the union chosen by more than 500 of these workers?

Any worker, employee or member of staff is free to join any union they wish to join. There is no argument or dispute about that matter. I understand that part of this dispute relates to the fact that the HSE is not willing to deduct union dues at source from the salaries of staff-----

They used to, they just stopped.

-----and that is a different matter entirely. Any employer, whether it is a public sector employer or private sector employer, should not be forced by law or required to deduct union dues from people's pay-----

It is up to people if they want to pay those dues-----

Why did it do it before?

It does it for other unions.

-----and that should be a matter for them. As I say, this is an industrial relations dispute-----

It does it for all unions.

-----and will be resolved in the normal way. It will not involve an intervention from the Minister.

That is a shameful response.