Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I return today to the national broadband plan and yesterday's submission by Carolan Lennon, the chief executive officer, CEO, of Eir, to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment. This is against the background of the documents released under a freedom of information request to TheJournal.ie, which reveal an almost cavalier approach to the ballooning costs of the project on a monthly basis. The Eir submission points out that in April 2017, for example, €787 million was the KPMG estimate of the subsidy that would be required, and that is after 300,000 customers had been taken out of the intervention area.

The Eir submission raises a number of important issues and deserves analysis. Fundamentally, it is no secret that Eir says it could complete the national broadband plan project based on its approach, and with a roll-out to the extra 300,000 customers, for less than €1 billion. The Government is committed to €3 billion. This is in the context of documents that were revealed about a meeting held on 27 September last year. The Taoiseach was too dismissive of Eir's submission yesterday and he made comments that Eir has rejected, in that Eir would not pass houses and would cover the maintenance use, which is the opposite of what the Taoiseach said yesterday.

On 27 September last year, it was revealed that the cost went up by €300 million in one month. The Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said at that meeting that there was cause to pause and review the project. That was dismissed by the Minister, Deputy Naughten. We subsequently learned of the meetings between the Minister and David McCourt of Granahan McCourt, which led to Deputy Naughten's resignation. The trajectory of the project did not change after the Minister's resignation, despite what we were told. I think the Minister got too close to the Granahan McCourt consortium; the political and electoral imperative took over and the issue of cost in the Government's requirements went out the window.

Given that the costs have ballooned even from the estimates of 2017, never mind the original estimate of €500-odd million, the Taoiseach has been too dismissive of those who have raised legitimate questions about this and of yesterday's Eir submission, which deserves further analysis. Alternatives should be considered.

The Taoiseach might have felt the need to make a big political announcement before the local elections but I return to the words of the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Mr. Robert Watt, who said there was cause to pause and review. I ask the Government to do that now.

We should always recall that the objective is to provide high-speed broadband to more than half a million homes, farms and businesses in rural Ireland at the same speed and cost as for people in urban Ireland. That is an objective that all of us in this House share.

We should not forget that Eir took part in the process and made an initial bid for €2.7 billion, which was higher than the initial bid from Granahan McCourt, and then pulled out of the process, citing the fact that the risks were too high and the level of oversight too onerous, and refusing to make any commitment around the equity investment it would make. While the Deputy has been critical that the equity investment made by Granahan McCourt is too low, Eir was unwilling to commit to any equity investment whatsoever.

It is, therefore, a big turnaround that the company is now saying that it can do the project for €1 billion. If that is the case then I am all ears and we must listen to it. This morning, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment issued a letter to Eir, seeking further details and clarification about what it has said. We need to know whether this offer is real and stacks up, and what kind of delay would be imposed on people in rural Ireland waiting for broadband if we went back to a new procurement process. Everyone understands that neither a private nor a State company can just be given a contract; there would have to be a new procurement process. We also need to know that anything done would be within state aid rules and EU procurement law. A letter was issued today by the Department to Eir seeking that information.

Having listened to the contributions at yesterday's committee meeting, I think that as many questions were raised as answers were given. One thing we want to find out is how there can be such a difference between the €2.7 billion bid from Eir and this new offer of €1 billion. My concern, and that of the Department, is that rather than Eir making up the difference, a big part of it would be met by imposing higher connection charges and fees on those 500,000 homes, farms and businesses in rural areas than are imposed on those in urban Ireland. That would be a serious problem for us and would go against the original objectives I mentioned at the start of my reply.

I welcome the fact that the Government is at least going to look again at this. As the local elections are over, there might be a calmer climate in which to do that properly. The health service is at a standstill and while I suggest that €3 million or €4 million could have prevented today's strike, €3 billion was cavalierly announced for this project, which was much more than any of the estimates.

I am struck by the minutes of those meetings. It was casually reported at the meeting in September that the cost had gone up by €300 million from the previous month. No one batted an eyelid, including the Taoiseach, who was at the meeting. The then Minister, Deputy Naughten, said that we should plough ahead. He, of course, had had all sorts of dinners with Granahan McCourt, which I worry about. I am not casting any aspersions, good, bad or indifferent; that might have been a political and electoral imperative. However, the former Minister got too close to the remaining bidder. That does not look good in respect of public procurement and so on, and the taxpayer is now caught for €3 billion. Minutes of a meeting on 2 May 2018 show that other alternatives were looked at and no definitive conclusion was reached. That is also revealing and contrary to what we were originally told.

If what the Taoiseach is saying is the case, I welcome the fact that the Government is prepared to look at this to try to deliver the same objective but in a much more cost-effective way for the taxpayer.

I welcome the Deputy's welcome to my earlier response. I think, as is often the case, he accuses me of things that he does himself. It was interesting to hear the Deputy say that the cost of resolving the health sector dispute today would be only €3 million or €4 million but, of course, that is not true.

I said averting the dispute.

That would be the cost in year one, rising to €15 million or €16 million in year two. That is only phases one, two and three. There would then be phases four and five-----

The Taoiseach committed to that.

-----and then there would be knock-on claims. We can all see-----

The Taoiseach was Minister of Health at the time.

There is a constant pattern of the truth hurting.

(Interruptions).

The truth really hurts. One of the accusations made by the Leader of the Opposition was that the Government is too willing to allow costs to escalate. I am demonstrating exactly how he would behave in the same way or worse. It is €3 million in year one, €15 million in year two, then phases three and four and all the knock-ons. One needs to take into account the full cost when making a decision about something, not just the initial cost of one part of one year.

The Taoiseach committed to it.

The Taoiseach should read what he said yesterday.

The truth does hurt. The truth and hurt this afternoon are that 10,000 support staff in the health service are on strike at 38 hospitals and facilities across the State. They are engaged in industrial action because of the failures of the Government. This is a mess entirely of its making and that truth, I hope, rings home at some level with the Taoiseach.

I took the opportunity this morning to speak with workers at Beaumont, the Mater and the Rotunda hospitals. I spoke with them to extend the solidarity of Sinn Féin and the considerable public support they enjoy for their just cause. I hope this is the only morning I will have to do the rounds of hospitals, and that staff are forced onto the picket line.

The strike has been a long time coming. The Taoiseach has known since 2015, when the job evaluation scheme was resumed and agreed, that there was a need to pay workers fairly and that this liability was going to arise at some stage, yet he made precisely no effort and no plan was put in place to pay the staff involved what they are due. The Taoiseach should know that none of the workers wants to be out on strike. The people to whom I spoke are healthcare assistants, maternity care assistants, porters, catering staff and chefs. They want to do what they do best; they want to be at work, caring for and supporting patients. They are upset and offended because they believe their work is being disrespected and that somehow the Government regards them as menial staff, carrying out menial and unimportant roles. It is important to say that the health service simply cannot function without these workers, and patients cannot be cared for in the way they must be.

They feel they have been let down and believe that their work is undervalued. They are correct in that analysis. The job evaluation scheme also chimes with their analysis because it found that workers are being underpaid for the skills level they bring to their jobs and for the duties they carry out. Dr. Paud O'Regan, a consultant at South Tipperary General Hospital, said this morning that the industrial action is having a major and almost catastrophic effect on services. I can only imagine what the consequences will be for workers and patients if the Government drives this dispute to further industrial action next week. Despite the Taoiseach's effort to portray workers and their union as unreasonable, that is not the case. It should be borne in mind that the HSE accepted the finding of the job evaluation and requested the money necessary to pay these workers what they deserve but the Government has refused to live up to its side of the bargain. The Taoiseach has broken his word and now we have a messy and unnecessary strike.

The workers trusted in the process but the Taoiseach has done nothing. He made a derisory, non-offer to the workers last week which was, of course, rejected and here we are. I ask the Taoiseach to act now, keep his word and end this messy and unnecessary industrial action by simply sticking to those things that he has agreed.

I fully understand, appreciate and know the important role that support staff in our health service play in allowing it function. I do not know that because I visited the pickets for a photo opportunity; I know that because I worked in our public health service for four or five years and witnessed that every single day.

The Taoiseach should pay the staff.

The Taoiseach will be going back to work in the health service if he is not careful.

Those who are hurting the most are the patients, service users and their families, not anyone here. The Government wants the strike resolved and it can be resolved. All strikes ultimately are resolved. It is our view that this strike did not have to happen. The option of going to the Labour Court still stands.

The option of paying them still stands.

The Government is willing to accept a binding determination by the Labour Court. The nursing dispute was resolved there, as was the Garda dispute and any number of transport disputes. I again respectfully ask the union to accept a binding determination from the Labour Court and not to refuse to go there.

The workers who are out on strike today do not believe that the Taoiseach fully appreciates or even acknowledges the important work they carry out. It might do him no harm to visit a picket line; it might not to him any harm at all to talk to people and hear what they have to say. If he did, they would tell him that they feel very let down. These are low-paid workers and caterers and porters can be contrasted with members of the Judiciary and the lot of judges in Irish society and the regard in which they are held. These workers are wounded by this and believe the Taoiseach has let them down.

They have made clear that patients are still being cared for in our hospitals, as I am sure the Taoiseach knows, and that catering workers, healthcare assistants and others are making sure that is the case. Of course, this unnecessary dispute is having an effect on patients. If he really cares about patients and values the workers, the Taoiseach will move to resolve the dispute.

I thank the Deputy. Her time is up now.

There is no need for the Labour Court. This is a ball of smoke - an absolute diversion by the Taoiseach. It is utterly disingenuous. There is no matter of dispute here, save that the Government will not keep its word.

The Deputy is way over time.

The Government will not pay what is due to these workers on the back of a job evaluation scheme that was agreed between the parties.

The time limits are agreed here.

Let us not play games. The only thing the Taoiseach is doing by offering up the diversion of the Labour Court is prolonging the strike.

Deputy McDonald is one minute over time.

The Taoiseach is prolonging a messy strike that is of his making because he has broken his word. For as long as he refuses to honour his agreements-----

Will the Deputy please resume her seat?

-----we will have industrial action. I appeal to the Taoiseach to be reasonable.

Will the Deputy be reasonable and resume her seat?

I ask the Taoiseach to be responsible and act now to keep his word and end this dispute.

Sometimes I wonder if those on my benches are too respectful and polite. I am usually shouted down within 20 seconds of getting on my feet.

It is the norm for the leaders of Opposition parties to go minutes over time and nobody interrupts them or even asks them to respect Standing Orders or to respect other Members of this House.

Perhaps the Taoiseach will answer the question now.

It is disappointing.

Regarding the Deputy's question, to the extent that there was one, I have no doubt that those on strike appreciate the Deputy's support and solidarity. She supports every cause, every week, and then moves onto the next one.

We do not support the cause of judges' pay.

They might not appreciate her attempt to appoint herself as their spokesperson. Their union, not the Sinn Féin Party, speaks for them. We should all be very clear about this.

The Government's policy on pay restoration across the public service is very fair. It is to start restoring pay for the lowest paid and then to move on to those on middle incomes and then the highest paid. Pay restoration is now complete for those on the lowest pay and will be complete for those earning up to €70,000 by the end of next year. It will not be complete for high paid individuals like judges until 2022 or 2023. The Deputy's comparison is not fair.

The Taoiseach speaks about respect in the Dáil in order to divert attention from the blatant lack of respect shown by the Government for low paid and overworked health service workers. He speaks about photo opportunities in order to divert attention from the real experiences of those who were on the picket line this morning. I spoke to some of them and witnessed their righteous anger and frustration at the Government's approach to their dispute. On the picket line in Tallaght this morning Michelle told me about the job she did as a healthcare assistant and how different it was from the job she had started in 18 years ago. She said they now had so many responsibilities and that they did practically everything apart from giving medication. Why is that? It did not just happen by accident. It is because they are the fillers for the cracks in a health service that has suffered from chronic under-investment for decades under Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Ian is a porter at Tallaght hospital where he has been from the very day it opened. He has been a porter since 1996. He told me that his dad was a porter and able to afford to raise a family and buy a house on the wage a porter then earned. In contrast, he is on the top tier of porter wages, gross pay of €33,000. He survives only by working 12-hour overtime shifts at the weekend. He is facing eviction from his apartment in Exchange Hall.

The story of being underpaid and overworked is very common across the health service. These are the workers who many people do not think of first when they think of those on the front line in the health service, but clearly they are essential to anything that happens. They include chefs, catering assistants, porters, healthcare assistants, technicians, laboratory assistants and so on. They are being treated disgracefully by the Government because it refuses to pay them what they are owed. The restarting of the job evaluation scheme was included in the Public Service Stability Agreement in order to get the agreement passed. The fact that the Government is trying to shirk its responsibilities under the agreement underlines how partnership was and is a process designed to bind the hands of workers and keep improvements in wages and conditions to a minimum.

All of the talk about going to the Labour Court is an absolute diversion, as the workers are well aware. The Government accepts the finding of the 2017 evaluation and that the workers are not being paid what they deserve, yet it refuses to pay them. The cost of paying them is approximately €16 million and the workers are not slow in pointing out that the Government has overseen the cost of the national children's hospital more than double to €1.7 billion and the national broadband plan treble from €1 billion to €3 billion. As there is no problem in paying any of them, what is the difference? Is it because the workers are seeking millions of euro rather than billions of euro? Should they slap on an extra zero at the end in order that the Government could find the money? Is it more likely that the reason is private companies will make a killing from those projects and that those who are on strike today are mere workers. They are low paid workers, not like the high paid judges, to whom the Government can agree to pay an increase. The workers in question get up very early in the morning and work to ensure the hospitals the Government has underfunded work as well as possible. The Government must commit to paying them today and stop trying to delay and draw out matters.

I thank the Deputy. Again, in the absence of a question, all I can do really is restate what I said, that the Government wants the strike to be resolved. It was not necessary and the offer made was appropriate. If it was considered that it was not appropriate and that the right place to resolve the dispute was the Labour Court. We are willing to accept a binding determination from the Labour Court which is independent and the place where many other disputes have been resolved. I suspect this dispute will be resolved there also.

The dispute is about the timing and phasing in of a third pay increase for the support staff concerned. Pay restoration is under way and complete for the vast majority of these staff. Annual increments are being paid, after they had been stopped for a period. There have also been special pay increases for recent entrants to allow them to catch up with the salary scales of persons recruited before the financial crisis. As part of the public sector pay agreement, there is a 2.75% pay rise to be paid to all staff, the next part of which will be paid in September. The Government has offered to begin implementing the further pay rise on top of the other pay rises from November. That is an appropriate offer. If it cannot be accepted, the matter could be resolved in the Labour Court where we are willing to accept a binding determination.

I will pose some very clear questions to the Taoiseach in order that there will be no mistaking them. I will set out the logic of the workers, which is foolproof. Does the Taoiseach accept the outcome of the job evaluation? If he does, I presume he also accepts that the workers are being underpaid for the work they do. If he accepts that the workers are being underpaid for the work they do, why does the Government not simply agree to pay them? Why insist on delaying things by going to the Labour Court, or at least talking about going to the Labour Court? Why not simply pay the workers? How can the Government find the money to pay judges but not these low paid workers? How can it find the money to pay for the national broadband plan but not these hard-working low paid workers? How can it find the money to fund the national children's hospital hospital?

I congratulate the workers on taking strike action because it is clear that without it, the Government would just continue to delay and drag its feet. The strike action can force the Government to pay the workers what they are owed. The nurses would have won more concessions if they had not cancelled their three-day strike action. There is a lesson for the support workers looking to next week. Unless there is a clear commitment from the Government to pay what is owed, they should go ahead with their action next week, demonstrate their power once more and force the Government to pay up.

The answer to the Deputy's first question is "Yes". The answer to the other questions is that the dispute is about timing and the implementation of the additional pay rises. It must be done broadly within budget and we must bear in mind the consequent costs. The Deputy has drawn equivalence with judges, for example, but that is a red herring. I have already explained that public sector pay is being restored for the lowest paid first and that has been done. The restoration will be extended to those on middle incomes earning up to €70,000 by the end of next year. For those who are high paid, like judges, the process is only starting and will not be completed until 2022 or 2023.

The Deputy's attempt to create equivalence with the national children's hospital and the national broadband plan is also deeply misleading. As the public sector pay bill is €19 billion per year, we can think of how many children's hospitals or broadband plans could be paid for with that money. We are spending multiples of the amounts set for the national broadband plan and the national children's hospital every year on public sector pay. The increase in public sector pay this year alone amounts to €400 million, which is multiples of the additional money we may need to find for the national children's hospital or the national broadband plan. The creating of equivalence is bogus and misleading.

The amount in question is €16 million.

Every country has had its dark moments in history. Most of Ireland's dark moments stemmed from 800 years of colonialism. Nevertheless, there were some dark moments that we created and sustained after independence. I specifically refer to the darkness of institutionalisation, mother and baby homes, the industrial schools and Magdalen laundries. I will not get into the commission on mother and baby homes, except to say those who are formally recognised to have been in the homes were invited, with their representatives, to participate in a consultation process in 2017. From that consultation process came the collaborative forum which was set up to support people in developing solutions to deal with issues of concern. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, secured Government approval for a charter to mandate the work of the forum and review and bring forward recommendations in three areas. One was information, identity and terminology, while another was health and well-being supports. The third was memorialisation and personal narratives.

The language of the charter regarding how the forum would conduct its work was it would be "participant-centred", there would be "consensus" and "consistent communication and meaningful engagement", and it would "ensure the specific and separate needs of different groups are identified". That was positive and promising language. It was built around the premise of nothing about us without us and it seemed to indicate a new approach to looking at this area of institutionalisation.

There was a selection process. Nineteen members and a chairperson began meeting in July 2018. There were five plenary meetings and 18 meetings of the sub-committees.

I know some of the members of the forum and, therefore, I know how difficult parts of the work was for them and how heartbreaking it was for them to relive that darkness in their lives but they gave 100% to the process. One of them stated: "We worked our socks off and we delivered a thoughtful, high-quality and authentic report."

The forum was also guided by a belief that its work, and the report, would be a significant contribution to the Government addressing all these issues. They produced a 90-page report containing significant recommendations. It was submitted to the Minister in mid-December 2018 but since then, it has sat on a shelf. It has not been published, there has been no movement on it and no engagement with the forum.

I have a number of questions. First, is there a date for the next forum meeting? Second, has the Minister decided on the new chair? Third, what progress, if any, has been made on implementing the recommendations? If those questions are not answered satisfactorily, the forum's work will have been in vain and it will have been only a talking shop with nothing meaningful coming from it.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue, which is very much a priority for Government as we seek to respond to the many wrongs of the past, including the institutionalisation of so many of our citizens.

As the House will be aware, on 16 April, Government published the recommendations of the collaborative forum for former residents of the mother and baby homes. Government also approved a series of measures and a comprehensive analysis of the recommendations by relevant Departments, with individuals Departments to revert by the end of June. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs will co-ordinate responses and revert to Government.

The Government agreed that a working group would be established by the Minister for Health to develop proposals for a package of practical help and well-being supports for former residents of these institutions. That working group has been established and is due to report back to Government by September in advance of the Estimates process.

Following the receipt of the collaborative forum's first report, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, signalled the opportunity to take some time to reflect upon the learning to date. The forum also suggested revisiting these matters. The Minister is currently examining how to best conduct a focused interim evaluation that involves the forum members. Delivering its first report within six months was a significant achievement by the members and reflected a strong commitment and dedication to the task. The Minister and Government very much values their contribution.

The Minister is actively considering suitable appointments to the current vacancies of which there are many, including the chair. She hopes to appoint a new chair very soon and to establish a board meeting shortly thereafter.

It would have been useful if the forum had known the exact information the Taoiseach has just given me, as I would not have had to raise this issue. I cannot stress enough the extent of the engagement and how much the members of the forum brought to the entire process in a very able way. One member described the feeling now that there was a deep sense of betrayal among the members because they were first told that the forum was independent of the mother and baby homes commission of investigation and that their report would be published regardless of the timing of the mother and baby homes final report. When they asked for a legal adviser at the beginning of the process, they were told there was no need for one because they were the experts. However, they are hearing now that the Attorney General has some problems with it but they are not being told in what areas.

On another point, the Department of Education and Skills reacted by saying that the institutional history is too sensitive for primary schools but that was never recommended. The members recommended it for second level schools.

There is something to be gained from what the Taoiseach's reply but we want the report published because that would be a tribute to the work the members have done. These people have been hurt enough and the hurt continues when they are not listened to.

I thank the Deputy. From my part and that of the Minister, Deputy Zappone, we feel that the establishment of the forum has added to this process. The term the Deputy used is very apt - "nothing about us without us". However, we need to bear in mind that Government committed to consider the recommendations but not to automatically implement all of them. We are currently considering some and implementing others.

On the publication of the report, much of that related to legal advice, which indicated that the report should not be published ahead of the commission's report, principally because there may be references in it that could cause the forum to be sued by other people. We do not want to expose the members to that. The legal advice in that space is that it has to be borne in mind that the report can prejudice the outcome of the commission's report. We do not want to see people who joined a forum and wrote a report in good faith finding themselves being brought before the courts by people who believe they have been defamed or institutions saying that they were defamed by the report. We would never ask somebody to be exposed to that again.