Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

As Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, I hope Deputy Humphreys saw the story in this morning's Irish Independent regarding Fort Lucan, an adventure centre in Lucan that has had to reduce its offering to customers and clients. The business has been there for 25 years, it has grown, it has given great service to families and communities and it employs people. Owing to a massive €25,000 per annum hike in its insurance premium it now has to reduce its offering. This centre is one of 61 play centres across the country that has been threatened with closure this year because of insurance premiums. It is one of countless numbers of small businesses across this country faced with closure, redundancies and reduced services because of increasing insurance premiums, all aligned with a complete lack of action from Government in terms of address of the issue. What we get from Government in regard to insurance premiums is nice words, pats on the back, group hugs and promises, but no action. There is zero action. Meanwhile, businesses are closing, services are being reduced and premiums are increasing.

One example of the lack of action is the Civil Liability and Courts (Amendment) Bill 2018, which was introduced by Deputy Kelleher earlier this year and passed by the Dáil, but is awaiting a money message from the Government. It provides that where a case is dismissed under section 26 claimants would have to pay legal costs.

There was also a verbal commitment by Government to establish a specific fraud unit within An Garda Síochána. That was reversed by the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, last week in the run-in to the elections. He said that it was not a matter for him but for the Garda. He would not deal with it even though these two issues have been pointed out by several experts as being a key driver of the costs of claims increasing in this country.

Deputy Humphreys is the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation. She has a good team. Who in Cabinet will stand up for small and medium enterprises, SMEs, against the cabal of lawyers who are refusing to do anything about insurance costs? Who in Cabinet will stand up against the might of the insurance industry versus small business which is forced to pay for that might? Who in Cabinet will stand up for community festivals which have to curtail their offerings or stop the festival because of insurance premiums? This is being raised month after month and year after year. My colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath, was the first to start highlighting this issue during this Dáil, in 2016, yet we have had no action. Will the Minister stand up for small business?

As Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, I am aware of the impact that insurance costs have on SMEs throughout the country. It is an issue which is raised with me regularly. For that reason, this Government is committed to making sure that we continue to proceed with measures that will reduce insurance costs for businesses. In my Department, legislation was enacted in April to ensure greater compliance with the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, process in personal injury cases. We have strengthened its powers so that more people will have to comply with its process. I thank Deputies on all sides of the House for their support for that legislation. The PIAB process delivers compensation more quickly and with lower costs than litigation, encouraging more claimants to finalise their cases through the PIAB process, which will lead to cost savings in the claims environment.

Two other Bills were enacted in the last year, the Insurance (Amendment) Act 2018 and the Central Bank (National Claims Information Database) Act 2018. These are further important steps in insurance reform. The fourth Bill is the Judicial Council Bill. Last week, the Government approved the Minister, Deputy Flanagan's, proposal to amend the Judicial Council Bill to establish a new personal injuries guidelines committee within the framework of the judicial council. This gives effect to a key recommendation of the Personal Injuries Commission. The personal injuries guidelines committee will comprise judges, replicating the models in place in neighbouring jurisdictions. This new committee will draw up guidelines on the level of damages which should be awarded in personal injuries actions. This will help to promote consistency in the level of personal injuries damages awarded by the courts. With the co-operation of both Houses of the Oireachtas, we want to see that Bill passed as soon as possible.

We have published guidelines for reporting fraudulent insurance claims to An Garda Síochána. These guidelines make it clear what insurance companies should do in the event that they suspect fraud in a personal injuries claim. The guidelines were also circulated to the Chief Justice and the Judiciary. A new insurance claim fraud category on the Garda PULSE system went live last November. The Garda National Economic Crime Bureau and Insurance Ireland's anti-fraud forum also meet regularly to discuss and act on current and ongoing issues which arise in the area of insurance fraud. There is no silver bullet here but when taken together, all these measures will make a difference in bringing insurance premiums down for businesses and consumers.

There is no silver bullet but there is no urgency either. There is zero understanding of the pressure and stress that businesses are under. In the Irish Independent story this morning, there is a quote from Gillian Martin-Smith, the manager of Fort Lucan. She said that "if the Government doesn't move to address insurance costs they are "going to close down the entire country"."

The PIAB legislation the Minister referred to was a Fianna Fáil Bill which was on Government desks for years and was not acted on.

If the Government does not move to address insurance costs, those costs will close down the country. The legislation relating to PIAB is a Fianna Fáil Bill that was lying on Government desks for years and was not acted upon. In the meantime, lawyers are driving things through the PIAB process. The Civil Liability and Courts (Amendment) Bill could be enacted now to deal with fraudulent cases. We are awaiting a money message from the Department of Finance in order to progress the Bill. The Minister has spoken of what will happen in the future. Fort Lucan is scaling down services and a total of 61 play centres are threatened with closure. There was no sense of urgency or awareness on this matter from Fine Gael in the past week until the party's brand was affected and then, suddenly, there was an interest in it. The Minister should stand up for business interests and the employers who are creating employment. She should stand up for parents who are using the services and forget about the reputation of her party. I urge her to stand up for business.

I assure the Deputy that we are standing up for businesses. I am very aware of insurance costs and the impact they are having-----

The Government is destroying them.

-----on particular sectors, including the recreational and hospitality sectors.

Swings and roundabouts.

I have met representatives from those sectors and I am aware of the problems. The Government-----

I apologise for interrupting. I must chastise Deputy Mattie McGrath for his-----

-----interruption.

The Government is taking action. I know how frustrating it is for businesses. I am aware of that, especially when exaggerated or repeat claims are made. Supermarket owners have spoken to me about the matter and I wish to make clear that we are dealing with it. They do not constitute a silver bullet to fix everything but a number of measures have been taken and I am satisfied that they will lead to a reduction in the cost of insurance premiums. We have been working on this issue for some time. The PIAB Bill originated in my Department on foot of a recommendation from the commission-----

Swings and roundabouts.

-----chaired by a former Chief Justice.

Before we proceed, this is Leaders' Questions. It is for leaders and we should all listen to the leaders and to the replies given. Members should stop interjecting.

They are swinging everywhere.

Members should stop interjecting.

Speaking on "Morning Ireland" earlier, the former head of the Army Ranger Wing, Commandant Cathal Berry, stated that the Defence Forces are being dismantled and demoralised as a result of Government policy. The facts bear that out. There is, in the Defence Forces, as in other areas of the public service, a recruitment and retention crisis. The number of serving personnel has dropped below 8,500 despite a commitment to maintain numbers at 9,500. Morale is on the floor. We are in a situation where members see a long-term career in the Defence Forces as unsustainable and unviable if they are to provide for their families. As a result, they are choosing to leave. This is down to the simple fact that Defence Forces personnel are the worst-paid members of the public service. Many Defence Forces families are reliant on the working family payment. The fact that many families cannot make ends meet has been highlighted here and elsewhere on countless occasions. Some, as the Minister is aware, resort to sleeping in their cars as a way to save on petrol. Others rely on the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The Taoiseach stated in January that joining the Defence Forces is about more than just money. I agree with him in that regard because being a member of the Defence Forces is not a cushy number. The work involved is hard and can be dangerous. Those joining the Army, the Navy and the Air Corps are motivated primarily by a desire to serve. All of us appreciate that. However, people do not join the Defence Forces to be disrespected or marginalised. Pride does not put bread on the table. This situation has been allowed to run on without any resolution. The reasons for this are obvious. Members of the Defence Forces have been consistently sidelined in public service pay negotiations.

They are excluded from trade union membership or affiliation with ICTU, and they are legally prevented from protesting their terms and conditions of employment. No other worker in the State gets as raw a deal. It is time for the Minister to listen to their concerns and the concerns of their families, as well as to the concerns of former personnel.

Will the Minister recognise that serious damage has been done to the reputation of the Defence Forces as a career option? Will she listen to what Commandant Berry has said, and what hundreds of other former personnel have to say? Will she listen to soldiers and their families, who have said that enough is enough?

The Government is fully committed to ensuring the Defence Forces have the necessary resources to deliver on all of their assigned roles, as evidenced by an allocation of more than €1 billion to the defence sector, to include Army pensions, in 2019. This allocation includes full funding for the pay and allowances of the target strength of 9,500 Permanent Defence Force personnel, as set out in the White Paper on Defence.

The Government is extremely conscious about issues surrounding recruitment and retention within the Defence Forces, which is why these matters have been referred to the Public Service Pay Commission for consideration. This is the right body to examine conditions in the Defence Forces. It is independent and has received submissions from management, both military and civil, and from the representative associations. The Defence Forces have been able to feed into this process; it was part of the consultation. The report is due to be published shortly, and we look forward to its outcomes.

Similar to other sectors within the public service, the pay of Permanent Defence Force personnel was reduced as one of the measures to assist in stabilising national finances during the financial crisis. The recovery in the economy has provided the fiscal resources to provide for a fair and sustainable recovery in public service pay scales. Like other areas of the public sector, members of the Defence Forces are benefitting from pay increases in accordance with national public service pay agreements. The focus of these increases is weighted in favour of those on lower pay. The Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 provides for increases in pay ranging from 6.2% to 7.4% over the lifetime of the agreement and will see restoration of public sector pay scales to levels that obtained before the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, for all those earning under €70,000.

Cathal Berry was quite damning; he said that there is a sense of absolute betrayal and that it is palpable and visceral. He added that he has not seen anything even remotely like this in his 23 years of service. The Minister has described a process of pay restoration. She seems to take the view that the Defence Forces personnel are getting a fair and sustainable deal, when all of the evidence is to the contrary. I am sure the Minister has met Defence Forces personnel and their families, because they have been extremely vocal. They feel they have no option but to speak out. They are not getting by.

When will the Public Service Pay Commission report be published? Can the Minister give us an assurance that when it is published, there will be substantial progress and substantial benefit for members of the Defence Forces and their families? Anything short of that or any approach by Government that is merely concerned with going through the motions will mean that personnel will continue to leave and that these families will continue to struggle.

Sinn Féin has tabled an amendment to the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Bill 2018, which is due to be discussed tomorrow. It recognises that members of the Defence Forces are employees and are entitled to the same protections as every other worker in the State. Will the Minister support that amendment?

The commission has completed its report which will be considered by the Taoiseach and the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and for Finance. It will then be brought to Cabinet. That will happen in the coming weeks.

All Members agree the Defence Forces do wonderful work. We are proud of the work they do, particularly in the peacekeeping duties they carry out abroad and how well they represent us overseas. In terms of the emergency situations which arise in the country, they are always there to lend a helping hand. We are conscious of this but we will have to allow the process to be completed. The commission has completed its report at which we have to look. We will be considering its findings at that stage.