Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Conor Gallagher reports today in The Irish Times on yesterday's Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, conference on the future of air ambulance services. The air ambulance service, currently based in Athlone, provides immediate access for people who become suddenly or acutely ill to a central hospital and life-saving treatment. It was introduced to supplement the traditional road-based ambulance service and allows people who live in remote areas, who have been involved in a road traffic accidents in urban areas or who suffer from heart, brain or other acute illnesses rapid access to a major hospital.

In 2018, the service dealt with 159 road traffic accidents and 146 medical emergencies. That gives a sense of the difference made by the service to lives, families and communities across the country on a daily basis. Every Deputy in the House knows that the ambulance service is under inordinate pressure and ambulance response times are far longer than they should be. The latest figures provided in response to parliamentary questions for the north west, west, midlands, south east and south west show that, on average, only half of the calls reached a patient in less than the recommended time of 19 minutes and many calls are in excess of the hour necessary. The air ambulance service is important and has worked and provided certainty for medical professionals, families and those involved in acute situations.

At the RACO conference yesterday, it was revealed that the Defence Forces are no longer in a position to staff the service comprehensively as it currently exists. Lieutenant colonels and senior management are being forced to fly the service because those who have traditionally flown have left the Defence Forces. It is another sign of the flight from our Defence Forces, a flight which has occurred despite an underspend on salaries within the Defence Forces. Deputies Chambers and O'Loughlin and many others have consistently brought this to the attention of the Government, but it has ignored the issue. As a consequence of that, the air ambulance service is now under threat. People in communities around the country have read the report and are worried.

Can the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, accept that there are problems in the air ambulance service and give a guarantee on behalf of the Government that it will continue to provide the current level of service and response times? When will the Government finally cop on and wake up to what it is doing to our Defence Forces? It is standing by while people are leaving the Defence Forces in droves and services such as this are being affected. Can the Minister confirm he has read the report and that there will be a Government response?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue because we all depend on the ambulance service. Many of us have cause to be very appreciative of the commitment and service those working in it provide.

I can give the Deputy an absolute assurance that we are committed to the air ambulance service. Not only that, new ambulance bases were recently opened in Mulranny and Tuam. We are also committed to improving and expanding the number of paramedic training places and numbers to support the growing demand on the ambulance service.

I am aware of the report to which the Deputy referred. There is no doubt that there has been a difficulty in retaining staff in the Air Corps. As the Deputy knows, the recent pay commission established by the Government recommended a pilot retention scheme which, I understand, has been accepted by RACO. We now have the basis for moving forward to tackle the issue of retention in the Air Corps.

I am conscious that this is an area where the private sector has boomed in recent years. There is significant international pressure in respect of the demand for pilots, which has undoubtedly been a challenge. The introduction of this scheme will be a very useful tool in the hands of the Defence Forces to ensure we can maintain the staffing levels required to meet all needs.

I am pleased to be in a position to confirm the commitment of the Government to the air services and to work with the Defence Forces to meet the challenges they face. I am also conscious that we have to meet the demands of different segments of the public service in an integrated context. It is important that the Minister has used the pay commission to identify areas such as this where there are acute pressures and we can move to resolve issues such as the manning of ambulance services by having a dedicated policy instrument on the pay front to respond to those particular pressures, while maintaining the integrity of overall pay policy.

I refer to the integrity of the overall pay policy. The figures given to Deputy Chambers show a €24 million underspend in salaries in the Defence Forces to date in 2019. The Government is allowing people to leave the forces and is sending back money while the air ambulance service, which dealt with 159 car crashes and 146 medical emergencies in 2018, is in difficulty. To use the words of Mr. Conor King, the director of RACO, the service is on the brink of collapse. The Minister has given an assurance that the service will be fine, yet neither he nor the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, have followed that through by engaging in recruitment and addressing the gaps in the personnel who provide this service.

The service provided 848 hours of flying in 2016, but that fell to 581 in 2018. Will the Government allow it to fall further in 2019? Will we end up in a situation where the service will not be available to somebody who needs it urgently? When that happens, there will be an emergency response and the usual statements of regret and intent. Now is the time to act. The Department of Defence sent back €24 million this year but it is standing idly by while the Defence Forces are being hollowed out. Communities across Ireland are paying the price. The Government is putting its head in the sand again. I cannot believe the commitments provided by the Government on this matter because it has not responded to these issues to date.

The Deputy must bear in mind that pilot retention was specifically highlighted by the pay commission as an area that needed to be addressed and that has been done. A pilot retention scheme was recently accepted by the RACO. We are in a position to improve the ability of the Defence Forces to retain staff, particularly in the crucial area to which the Deputy refers. Improvements are also being made in other areas under the recommendations of the pay commission for the Army.

What about the pensions of members of the Defence Forces?

Those improvements include service, patrol duty and security duty allowances, as the Deputy will be aware. We must respond to pressures in this way. We have developed a pay policy that allows that flexibility of response where there is clear evidence of need. The pay commission has done important work and we are acting on it.

Soldiers are not able to pay their rent.

Customers and businesses are being charged rip-off premiums by the insurance industry. This is squeezing incomes and leading to the closure of businesses throughout the State. The scale of the insurance industry rip-off is paralleled only by the scale of the Government's inaction in failing to tackle the escalating costs and the malpractice within the industry, of which there is probably no better example than the practice of price discrimination that punishes loyal customers when they renew their premiums.

My insurance company, Liberty Insurance, recently quoted me a price of €856 to renew my policy. I did what we all should do and shopped around. I phoned the company and asked whether that was the best price it could offer. I was told that it could reduce the price slightly and that its best price was €814. However, when I entered the same details into the company's website, I was quoted €571, a reduction of €280 or 33% on the offers I received over the phone or in my renewal quotation.

This practice, known as dual pricing, is about punishing loyal customers when they renew their policy. It is a widespread scam in the industry and is costing consumers hundreds of euros each year without them even knowing it is happening. These companies exploit customers who do not know about dual pricing. They rely on the loyalty of customers and use behavioural data and dual pricing algorithms in their systems to charge extortionate prices and push up their profit margins. Everyone with an insurance policy will have to renew it in the next 12 months and I encourage them to shop around and check online. Price discrimination is widespread in the insurance market. It is systemic, completely unjustifiable and flies in the face of the Consumer Protection Act 2007. It harms the interests and welfare of consumers. It is carried out without transparency, penalises loyalty and disproportionately hits vulnerable and low-income customers. It is a rip-off on a vast scale, but nothing is being done here to stop it.

In spite of all the dysfunction across the water in Britain, the Financial Conduct Authority there has launched a major investigation into the practice of dual pricing in the insurance industry after it found that customers renewing their policies were charged as much as 70% more than first-time customers. That is the loyalty premium the industry levies on customers here. In contrast, however, the Government has done nothing to end this practice, penalise the industry or give workers and families a break. Yesterday, I wrote to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, and the Governor of the Central Bank to ask that they carry out an immediate investigation into the practice of price discrimination by the insurance industry. Will the Ministers for Finance and Business, Enterprise and Innovation support my call for an immediate investigation into the scam of dual pricing? Will the Government support that call and implement any recommendations?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue, which was also raised by Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin during Question Time earlier. It is undoubtedly the case that the Government has been particularly active in this area. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, has implemented a wide range of measures to seek to control this issue. Most recently, the Government brought in the Judicial Council Act which will lead to greater consistency in awards. We reformed the legislation governing the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, to make it easier to settle without expensive legal procedures. There is a greater focus by the courts and the Garda on fraud in the area. We passed legislation to improve data collection by the Central Bank. This week, the Central Bank took steps against brokers in respect of some of the ways in which they behave in the market.

I am glad to inform the Deputy that the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation has asked the CCPC to study activities in the insurance industry, including those of brokers. There is no doubt that some practices in the industry are not satisfactory. Improvement will be brought about through the greater transparency, which is being demanded, the higher level of scrutiny of industry practices, which the commission will undertake, increased data collection and more oversight by Oireachtas Members of what is happening within the sector. The Government is not content with what has been done. As discussed at a recent Cabinet committee meeting, a review is being carried out to see whether we could introduce further measures to play our role more effectively.

There is no doubt that insurance costs are a significant challenge. We need more transparency and better competition in the sector. We are also aware that some insurers have withdrawn from the market and we need to ensure the presence of diverse players in the market is maintained. I have had the opportunity to use very good websites that allow those renewing insurance to look at other offers available on the market. Insurance customers should always shop around.

Much of the Minister's reply did not address the core issue I raised. I have previously raised many issues relating to scams and rip-offs in the insurance industry, but my question pertains to dual pricing in particular. I gave the example of my policy renewal and the €280 difference in pricing depending on whether I got the quote online or a renewal quote from the company's head office. The company thinks I will pay the higher premium because it uses an algorithm involving price sensitivity and data mining to prey on customers' loyalty. I am not the only person who has experienced this practice. A 21-year-old constituent of mine got a quote from Liberty Insurance of €5,160, which is an extortionate and rip-off price. She phoned the company and asked whether that was the best it could do. The staff member confirmed that it was so. She then contacted me. When I entered her details into Liberty Insurance computer system, it returned a quote of €3,857. That is €1,300 less than the cheapest price the company told her it could offer. That is an example of dual pricing. It is wrong and anti-consumer. Companies are using an algorithm in their systems that preys on the vulnerability of people renewing their premiums.

It must be stamped out. It has been stamped out across the water. There is a major investigation. I have written to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and to the Central Bank. I am asking the Minister to state clearly his position not only broadly but about issues in the insurance industry. Will he stand up and be counted and say this rip-off must end? Will he back this investigation and implement the recommendations that flow from it?

I know the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission legislation very well and it has very strong powers to investigate practices that would be either unfair or, to go further, anti-competitive. It has the experience, well beyond that of either the Deputy or myself, to identify those practices. No doubt the Deputy is drawing its attention to dual pricing as one of the many features of pricing policies about which many consumers within the insurance sector are unhappy. This will be examined by people who are expert in examining markets like this. I assure the Deputy that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission will be rigorous and it has all the powers necessary to do that.

Increasingly, we are seeing in many of these service sectors the need to emphasise switching opportunities. I know it has been made easier to switch in insurance but, hopefully, this study will identify additional measures that can be introduced to the market. However, the Deputy will appreciate that I am not in a position to endorse any one particular change the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission might recommend but-----

The Minister is in government.

The Government has not asked the commission to investigate dual pricing.

-----I assure him that, undoubtedly, his concern will be undoubtedly among those that will be examined by the commission.

I will give the Minister some statistics which are truly shocking and a real indictment on our society. Some 760,000 people, one in six people and one in four children in the State, are living below the official poverty line. The poverty line is an income 60% below the median €27,000 a year, therefore, an income of €13,000 or less puts one below the poverty line. Some 110,000 people living below the poverty are in work. Just under a half of one-parent families suffer deprivation. One in 11 working lone parents were living below the poverty line in 2012 and, in 2017, it was one in five. Some 25% of those living below the poverty line do not have a medical card. Some 10,305 people are homeless, including 3,821 children, but everyone knows the figure is much higher. Just under 72,000 households are on the list for public housing but such housing does not exist. The figure would be much higher if account was taken of those people who transferred to the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme and were put on transfer lists: those people were taken off the official housing waiting list. One in five renters spends 40% of his or her income on rent. The Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, cited figures this morning indicating it costs €1,200 per month, nationally, to rent, which is 20% higher than it has ever been. In Dublin, the cost is up at €1,700, which is 32% higher than it has ever been. I could go on. Some 194,000 additional people are on outpatient appointment waiting lists compared to 2015, which is an increase of more 50%, in a health service that does not work. The numbers waiting more than 18 months for treatment has risen by 715%. These are record levels. The Irish Patients Association's spokesperson stated this Government should look on this as a crisis.

Is this not a shocking and shameful situation in a wealthy country with a growing economy? Even leaving aside leprechaun GDP, we are in the top ten OECD countries. What I have given the Minister are statistics but behind each of those is a person, a child, a family and communities in deprived areas. On top of that, community groups are fearing a freeze on their funding in the forthcoming budget, having faced a cut of 40% during the past number of years and a loss of staff of 31%. They are seriously concerned about their ability to continue delivering services. I put it to the Minister that we have a poverty crisis to go along with our housing crisis and health crisis but there is no discussion about them or sense of urgency to address them. The Minister's party, Fine Gael, has been in a leading role in government for eight years and it seems it is prepared to accept this poverty, low wages, a housing shortage, rack-renting and a shambles of a health service as some sort of new norm for Irish society. Are the Minister and the Government not ashamed? Will they address these serious issues, particularly with a potential recession coming around the corner with, or without, a Brexit?

I am glad the Deputy raised these issues as it gives me an opportunity to set out the Government's commitment in this area. The Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, as the Deputy will know, has set reducing child poverty as her top issue within her Department. The evidence is there that very significant progress is being made. In 2013, the number of children living in consistent poverty was 12.7% and two years ago, in 2017, that percentage had fallen to 8.8%. There has been a reduction, even in those years, of 105,000 children living in consistent poverty. I have no doubt that since 2017, with improving investments in the economy, improving employment opportunities and the policy measures the Government has put in place, those figures will improve.

It is worth recalling some of those measures that are targeting people living in poverty. We have had significant improvement in the qualified child payments in our social welfare code which go to people on the lowest level of income. We have had increased provision for school meals and for school clothing and footwear allowances, again targeting children in greatest need. We have extended GP access and improved the family income supplement now known as the working family payment. Right across the area, particularly in education, of which I am aware, we have put big investments into childcare, under both the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, and the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh. We have strengthened the early childhood provisions, particularly targeting disadvantaged areas and improved support particularly for children with special educational needs who unfortunately are found in greater frequency in many of those disadvantaged areas. We have seen very substantial expansion of both special needs assistants and resource teachers to target those children. There is no doubt that early intervention is really important in continuing the battle against child poverty. I am confident the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, will continue to target this as a top priority for Government. We need to look at innovative policies. I was very pleased to see, among the policy approaches we are taking, clusters of schools in disadvantaged areas come together, for example, with the ARC project. Often children transferring from preschool to primary school can fall through the crevices. A very interesting initiative has been introduced in the constituency of Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, who is seated next to Deputy Joan Collins, to make sure children do not fall through the crevice in that transfer. A lot of good work is going on in this area and I can assure the Deputy we will continue to be committed to delivering more.

I thank the Minister for his reply. The figures I read out are from Society of St. Vincent De Paul, representatives of which appeared before the Joint Committee on Employment and Social Protection this morning for a prebudget meeting. Those figures are stark. The Minister mentioned a few projects and initiatives that have been introduced but they are not enough. What we need over the next one, two and three budgets is to take people out of poverty. That is crucial. We will face a recession in this country without or without a Brexit. Either way we need to invest and put a buffer around people who are the ones who suffered more under the austerity policies of Fianna Fáil from 2008 and under Fine Gael up to 2013 or so.

I repeat that the number of one-parent working families living in poverty has doubled since 2012 and 110,000 workers are living in poverty. The concept is that if one gets a job it will take one out of poverty, but unless one has decent wages and decent, unionised conditions, that situation will not change. I want to see a targeted approach. I will be watching the budget very closely to make sure it is gender, equality and climate changed checked. If it is not, I will come back to the Government again in the future.

I agree with the Deputy. It is important to acknowledge that progress is being made. A Deputy having listened to the Deputy's initial question would have thought no progress was being made. However, very significant progress is being made in reducing child poverty but it must be recognised there there are continuing problems, particularly among single parents and the low-paid at work.

The initiative brought in by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, uses that targeted payment to support low-income parents sending their children to professional preschool. We are seeing an increasing improvement in the quality of professional preschool provision. Deputy Broughan will know from his experience in the Darndale area how this intervention supports parents in those early years and has a significant and successful impact on children’s ability and performance and ability in education. The emphasis the Government has put on early intervention is important. I hope we can improve supports in this area. There will be constrained resources in the forthcoming budget but I believe, as does the Deputy, that reducing child poverty should be a high priority.

One in four children live below the poverty line. That is the reality. How are we going to change that?

The public is rightly and intensely proud of our Defence Forces. Irish soldiers have given their lives in the service of peace around the world, protecting some of the world’s most vulnerable citizens. Thousands of their families at home have endured the absence of a father or a mother during the long period of overseas service. Our Air Corps fly air ambulances and save hundreds of lives annually. The Naval Service patrols the equivalent of 220 million acres of sea, over 12 times the landmass of Ireland and 15% of total European fisheries. The navy has intercepted some of the largest drugs shipments in EU waters and is a vital component in Ireland’s war on organised crime and drug gangs.

Our Defence Forces, however, are in deep crisis. In particular, there is a recruitment and retention crisis. This week the Chief of Staff, not known for his outspokenness, sent a coded message to the Government when he said, “Some great people are making the choice to leave the organisation and the level and trend in the churn is a matter of concern for me”. The Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, president made the point more clearly when he said ships are unable to go sea, aircraft are not flying and units are operating below strength across the board.

The designated strength of the Defence Forces is 9,500 personnel. Its current strength is below that number by as much as 1,000. Already this year, there have been 558 discharges. The turnover rate referred to by the Chief of Staff is at 10.3%, which is devastating for our Defence Forces. That rate of turnover means that the Defence Forces will never return to full strength and will fall to 7,500 by 2030. The situation is so bad that even recruits in training are paying to get out of the services.

The Government is presiding over a situation where our Defence Forces personnel are the lowest-paid workers in the public service with some earning less than the minimum wage and up to 85% earning less than the average industrial wage. In view of the understrength numbers, the significant turnover rate, the large number of personnel, including new recruits, leaving the service, and the number of naval protection vessels out of commission due to the lack of personnel and the underspend in the Department of Defence, will the Government improve the pay conditions and allowances of the Defence Forces, including the immediate and full restoration of all cuts in pay allowances and services? Will the Government increase immediately the basic minimum hourly rate of pay to at least the living wage? Will the Government withdraw the tender for the €200 million multi-role warship to use that money to improve the pay, conditions and allowances of our personnel?

I join with Deputy Healy in recognising the debt that we owe to all those who work in the Defence Forces. Their work, particularly abroad, has made us all proud and contributed to Ireland’s international reputation. This must be acknowledged.

The Government has recognised that there are particular problems in the Defence Forces. This is why there was a comprehensive examination undertaken by the Public Service Pay Commission of the pay conditions in the Defence Forces. That work has been done. The commission’s report has been accepted by the Government and by RACO. That provides for a whole series of improvements in pay conditions in the Defence Forces. It has been accompanied by a detailed implementation plan, setting out how that will be done.

The Deputy will be aware of some of the changes such as the 10% increase in the military service allowance, immediate restoration of allowances to the pre-Haddington Road agreement level, the reinstatement of several allowances specific to the Defence Forces such as the security duty allowance, the patrol duty allowance, the Army Ranger Wing allowance, as well as payments to bomb disposal teams. There has also been a return to premium rates for weekend duties and the re-establishment of the service commitment scheme for Air Corps pilots. Another significant development that recognises the important role of the Defence Forces is the recognition that they need to be brought within the wider industrial relations framework. The Government welcomes the decision by the executive of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to accept in principle the application by the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, for associate membership. That is an important recognition of the role of the Defence Forces and will provide an outlet to ensure the concerns raised are adequately responded to. The Minister of State is working to facilitate that.

The Deputy raised the issue of particular moneys allocated for ships or underspend being allocated to pay. Unfortunately, that is not possible. We have a unified public pay policy that is negotiated and settled. It is not at the discretion of an individual Minister to take moneys which have been voted for one purpose and then to allocate them to pay increases. There is good reason for that. There must be a consistent public pay policy. At the same time, it must be able to deal with particular challenges. The Public Service Pay Commission report did address particular issues in the Defence Forces within a coherent pay policy. That mechanism has been used and will bring improvements.

Unfortunately, the Minister’s reply is a further exercise in the Government burying its head in the sand instead of dealing with this issue. That is certainly not the way forward. Tinkering at the edges will not solve this problem. The problem is so serious that Uachtarán na hÉireann, Michael D. Higgins, has felt the need to intervene publicly on this issue.

It is not in order to bring the statements of the President into debate in the House. It is a long-standing tradition that we do not.

The President brought them into the debate.

It is important to realise the serious nature of the crisis in our Defence Forces and the necessity for the Government to deal immediately with this issue. It is open to the Government to use an exceptional measure outside of any public service pay agreement to improve pay, conditions and allowances for serving members of the Defence Forces. On the basis of the Government’s lack of action on this issue in the past and the Minister’s response, I am strongly of the view that Defence Forces personnel should pursue full trade union status and recognition to ensure their pay, conditions of service and allowances are improved.

The Government is acutely aware of the needs in the Defence Forces. That is why the general pay round made provision for a 7% increase with particular emphasis on increases for the lower-paid. Above and beyond that, the Public Service Pay Commission examination was established, recognising the particular difficulties in the Defence Forces.

While I will not repeat them, significant changes have been introduced and they have been accepted by RACO. That provides the basis for moving forward in this area. As there is a detailed implementation plan, people know where they stand in terms of the delivery in this area.

The Deputy must be aware that the Minister for Finance and for Public Expenditure and Reform, when he comes here to the House in a couple of weeks' time, must balance all of the different issues such as the demands for additional pay, the demands for additional services, the pressure on infrastructure and the uncertainties we face internationally. The challenge the Minister faces is to balance those in an equitable way. In fairness, the Minister has sought to do that. He sought to have flexibility within those mechanisms to deal with issues, such as the Defence Forces. That is the basis on which to move forward. I hope we can use this agreement to advance the interests of the Defence Forces.