Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 16 Dec 2015

Vol. 244 No. 10

Commencement Matters

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan. The first motion is in the name of Senator Paschal Mooney. As he is not present, is the Minister of State taking any other Commencement matter?

Yes, the second one.

Rural Social Scheme Administration

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Tá na saoistí ar na scéimeanna sóisialta tuaithe ag obair an-mhaith ar fud na tíre. Dar leo, tá easpa cothromaíochta idir na coinníollacha oibre ata acu féin agus na coinníollacha atá ag saoistí ar na scéimeanna eile.

I am sure the Minister of State will be well aware of the considerable work that is done on the rural social schemes throughout the country. It is a very important scheme that has provided significant supports in local rural communities for those on meagre enough incomes and subsistence to try to keep people in their communities. There have been a lot of questions in the past year or so on the pay and conditions of the supervisors on these schemes that fall within the remit of the Department of Social Protection. Senator Lorraine Higgins organised a good presentation from the supervisors of the rural social schemes where they highlighted quite a number of these issues.

Much of the work done on roads, piers, graveyards, community halls and across the community is done in conjunction with some of the other schemes such as Tús and the community employment schemes, particularly in recent times when there was bad weather. It is felt that a lot of the work being done is on a par with the work being done under those other schemes but that the working conditions of the supervisors are not comparable. This has been subject to an application to the Workplace Relations Commission to try to have these issues resolved. What dumbfounds me is how the Department of Social Protection, with two Labour Party Ministers, has not even engaged with the Workplace Relations Commission to try to resolve these issues. That is unacceptable.

I asked a number of months ago and the Minister of State at the Department of Social Protection, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, came to the House to address this issue. I do not see that there has been any real progress made on it.

It is important that we try to resolve this issue before year's end, if possible. The schemes' supervisors deserve parity of esteem with other supervisors doing similar work. It is incumbent on the Department of Social Protection to treat them fairly. They do not feel as if they are being treated fairly. The Labour Party Minister and Minister of State in the Department should uphold workers' rights, respect the wishes of the unions that are involved, treat this as a matter of urgency and try to resolve it before the Christmas break. It has gone on for too long. I hope the Minister of State will, on behalf of his ministerial colleagues in the Department, have some light at the end of the tunnel for us.

I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys.

Senators will be aware of the many communities in rural areas that benefit from the services supported by the rural social scheme, RSS, and the positive impact that the scheme has had on the livelihoods of farming families and the social fabric of communities along the western seaboard.

The Department of Social Protection operates a number of programmes and initiatives in support of jobseekers and those in receipt of long-term social protection payments. Senators will be familiar with initiatives such as Tús, the community work placement initiative, the RSS, Gateway and the community employment programme. These are funded by the Department and delivered and administered at community level by local development companies, Údarás na Gaeltachta, county and city councils and local not-for-profit sponsor groups.

The primary objective of these interventions is to offer those in receipt of social protection payments the opportunity to engage in work-related training, work experience and-or income support. The rural social scheme, to which the Senator referred, provides income support for those involved in the farming and fishery sectors where the level of income from their primary economic activities is insufficient to provide an adequate income. The scheme is delivered by 35 local development companies and Údarás na Gaeltachta. These companies are funded to employ 130 supervisor staff in full-time positions to support the delivery of the scheme. Each company is individually responsible for setting the terms and conditions of employment. The Department of Social Protection has no role in such matters but requires that each company meet at least the minimum requirements of employment contracts set out by the various employment statutes. The Department also meets the cost of employment and related operational costs for these supervisors through the provision of funding and fees to the companies.

The Senator referred to disparities in the terms of employment of supervisors on the RSS and supervisors on similar job activation schemes that the Department funds. The only scheme that could be considered comparable to the RSS is Tús, the community work placement initiative. Tús is delivered by the same local development companies and Údarás na Gaeltachta. That initiative has many similarities to the RSS in terms of the structure of delivery, funding and fees paid to the companies, placement of workers with community organisations and undertaking work in support of community initiatives. I understand that, when considered broadly, the terms and conditions of employment are similar across both programmes within individual companies and the rate of payment on each is similar.

The terms applying to other programmes such as community employment and Gateway differ significantly and reflect a number of other factors. For instance, the Department of Social Protection provides funding for sponsor organisations under the community employment programme to support the management of each organisation's services and provide dedicated training and activation services for participants. Managers of community employment sponsor organisations have responsibility relating to the management of the community employment payroll, training grant, associated service provision and the organisation itself. Many of the elements of work outlined in respect of community employment do not arise in the case of the RSS or Tús. The Department does not fund the provision of supervision on Gateway, as that is a matter for each county and city council.

I know at first hand the benefits that have been achieved for individuals and communities that have participated in these schemes or have had services supported. I am also aware that the work of supervisors and participants is greatly valued. Their work has played a critical role in the maintenance of services during the past few difficult years. The House should note that, despite difficult funding conditions, the budget for the RSS has been protected each year since 2011, with participant levels holding constant at 2,600 and full-time work being maintained for 130 supervisory staff. This underlines the Government's commitment to the scheme and rural communities.

I thank the Minister of State for his response, but it was splitting hairs. The communities on the ground do not see a major difference between the schemes. The Department and various agencies do not see a difference when they ask people to work with the other organisations that have been mentioned.

According to the Minister of State, he is "aware that the work of supervisors and participants is greatly valued." If so, would he mind asking his relevant ministerial colleagues why they have not engaged with the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, on the issues that have been raised by the supervisors? One would assume that, if they were so valued, the Department would at least sit down at the WRC. If everything in the Department's response is correct, surely the WRC would find in its favour and it should have no fear in that regard. At least the supervisors would have closure on these issues. Will the Minister of State convey to his colleagues that they should engage with the WRC as a matter of urgency to bring about that closure?

I will do that for the Senator.

Departmental Funding

I thank the Cathaoirleach for including this matter in the Commencement matters list and the Minister of State for taking this debate. I was informed by the Department of Social Protection that neither the Tánaiste nor the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, was available this morning; I am particularly grateful, therefore, that the Minister of State, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, is present instead.

The matter is self-explanatory. Community support groups are doing invaluable work, but a decision seemingly taken in recent weeks has been causing them some consternation. I have been in contact with groups in my county of Leitrim. I know of an example in County Mayo that my colleague, Deputy Dara Calleary, mentioned in the Lower House, that being, Killala. The Department's decision not to incorporate the increase in the minimum wage, which becomes effective on 1 January, in the annual allocations will have an adverse financial impact on community support groups, which struggle for money normally and rely to a large extent on fund-raising to pursue their valuable activities.

Childhood Days is a special needs group in Drumshanbo. It does extraordinarily good work with severely handicapped children. It provides a wonderful service in our home town and is open to everyone in the country and the wider catchment area. Like other support groups, it raises funds and receives State allocations. It was the first to raise the red flag with me regarding this issue. When it attended a meeting in County Mayo of similar support groups a few weeks ago, word came through from Pobal that the imminent increase in the minimum wage to €9.15 would not be absorbed.

I appreciate that a significant number of people employed in community support services are paid more than the minimum wage, but there are those who are not because of the nature of their work. I was disappointed to learn through Deputy Dara Calleary's raising of the issue in the Lower House that the Department's response was that this had never been the case. I queried that with the support groups, which assured me that increases had been incorporated in their allocations since 2006. Obviously, there is some distance between what the Department and the support groups are saying. I hope the Minister of State will clarify it, as I have raised this issue with the Department in the past 24 hours.

Overall, this is an opportunity to raise an important matter and express our solidarity with the support groups. I hope that the Department will not leave them swinging in the wind and that, if the support groups find themselves in financial difficulty after the implementation of the increase, there will be a positive response from the Department, under the aegis of which they fall.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Social Protection, Deputy Kevin Humphreys.

Senators will be aware of the many community companies that provide services across the country. The Department of Social Protection supports service provision through a number of programmes and schemes. The community services programme, CSP, only supports community companies that operate on a community business or social enterprise model. Companies supported by the CSP generate and use income from the services they provide to pay staff, meet overhead costs and to contribute to future development. The CSP provides a contribution to the wage cost on the basis that the services are not fully self-financing or the cost of provision would be prohibitive on users.

Today there are 398 active contracts in place with community companies, representing commitments from the Department of Social Protection of €42 million per annum. The programme directly supports 2,110 full-time positions. Of these positions, a financial contribution of €32,000 per annum is made to support the employment of managers - 312 at last count. Funds are also provided as a contribution to employing people in some 1,800 full-time equivalent positions. The Department estimates that some 2,800 people are employed across these companies with direct CSP support. Another 1,100 people are employed in these companies without public funding support. Additionally, the companies provide some 1,500 work placements under the CE scheme, the rural social scheme and Tús. These companies are valuable to the social fabric of the country and provide very good quality services, particularly in poorer urban areas and rural villages where services are few and far between.

In recent days, a number of service providers on contract to the community services programme raised queries about the value of grants in 2016. Since the CSP became operational in 2006, it has helped companies to move from a situation where the minimum wage was paid to a position today where 60% of employees are paid above this level. The Department of Social Protection is committed to working with the remaining companies to work towards paying a reasonable wage. The resurgent economy will support this move. A core requirement of the programme is that service providers generate non-public revenue from their operations by the sale of goods, charging fees for services delivered or fundraising. Companies in contract with CSP must be a not-for-profit, social enterprise or community business in nature. That does not mean that they should not aspire to make reasonable returns from their activities that allow for a good wage to be paid. I recognise that this is a challenge, but there is a commitment to work towards achieving it. CSP funding is expressed as a fixed annual contribution towards the costs of employing a specified number of full-time equivalent positions and, in the case of 312 contracts, a manager position. The current value of contribution is €19,033 per full-time equivalent and €32,000 per management position annually. The CSP operates very clearly on the basis that it provides "a contribution only” to offset the wage costs of service provision. It is entirely a matter for each service provider to set its own wage levels.

An analysis of the June 2015 returns from the companies indicated that 45% of full-time equivalents were paid the minimum wage, contrary to the requirements of the programme to pay the local pay rate; 10% were paid above the proposed living wage of €11.50 per hour; and the remaining 45% were paid between these ranges. The development of the programme and the companies in recent years has ensured that the majority of companies do not continue to operate with a low-pay model. I commend that commitment and achievement. The Department of Social Protection is working with Pobal to put in place arrangements that will allow companies to apply in a structured manner to access short-term financial support if that is needed to deal with the issues identified in recent days. Companies will be advised of the arrangements which are being prepared early in the new year.

I am grateful to the Minister of State. Like me, he will be aware from his long experience that when it comes to Commencement motions, it is not so much about the devil being in the detail, but it is usually the last two paragraphs that give the real meat and drink of any of these replies. I am particularly grateful that the Minister of State has addressed the core of the issue, in that the Department is now working with Pobal to put arrangements in place for anybody who needs financial support in the context of the increase in the minimum wage, which is to be welcomed. I should have stated on the record that I unequivocally welcome the increase in the minimum wage and I am sure that, like me, the Minister of State would wish it were more and that it would come closer to the living wage of €11.50. Can I take it that in the context of the remarks contained in the last line of the second last paragraph, "short-term financial support if that is needed to deal with the issues identified in recent days" really means the issues we are talking about, that a concern has been expressed that they may not be able to meet their financial requirements?

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. As a number of companies were in contact with me about it in recent days, I am delighted to be here just to clarify the position. That is my understanding of the response I have given to the Senator's motion. That is my interpretation, namely, that companies that have a need will be able to work with the Department in resolving issues if they have them.

In-service Training

I presume the Minister of State is taking this motion on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan. I brought this Commencement matter to the House to ask the Minister to clarify the position on teaching practice hours for teachers who are pursuing a master's degree in education and who already have contract hours in school. I have been contacted by several people who are in this predicament, who already have contract hours within a school and who are now required during the second year of the PME course to teach for a minimum of one and a half to two hours in an alternative school. As it stands, the Teaching Council requires all PME students, regardless of their university, to undertake teaching practice in two school settings. The alternative arrangement made for the students who are employed by a school one year before commencing the PME course allows for them to teach in a block of ten weeks for one and a half to two hours a week.

I have been contacted by principals and school management who say this will cause serious problems for them in that these teachers who are already contracted, some of them for 15 to 17 hours, will have to move to a second school, while maintaining their place in the first school, to teach for one and a half to two hours per week for a ten-week block. It also occurs during January and Easter, which is the time for every school when pre-examinations or mock examinations and oral examinations are going on. For example, if a teacher who is teaching Irish and is contracted for 15 hours in one school has to leave the school to go and teach in a second school for one and a half to two hours a week, principals have informed me that they are now going to have to get substitute cover to cover the teacher for the hours for which they have to move to a second school. The whole thing is going to be very disruptive and unsettling for everybody involved: for the students who are pursuing the postgraduate degree in education; for the teaching staff; and especially for the pupils, some of whom might have these teachers for junior or leaving certificate Irish and who now find their teacher is going to be absent for a block of ten weeks to fulfil these criteria.

Will the Minister go back and have a look at this? There needs to be consultation between the Teaching Council and the Department again, to get something concrete, satisfactory and clear for the students who are pursuing this course.

Many students remain unclear, as do some of the universities, as to exactly where this is going. They have ironed it out for students who have one school for one year, which is fine where they have gone in and had to do the minimum of four hours. However, a huge problem is being opened up for people who have already been employed with contract hours and everybody involved.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter. I respond on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan.

I will first set out for the House the role of the Teaching Council in programmes of initial teacher education, or ITE. The council has statutory responsibility for the review and accreditation of ITE programmes and all programmes that lead to registration must have professional accreditation from it. Changes to initial teacher education were proposed in the National Strategy to Improve Literacy and Numeracy among Children and Young People 2011 to 2020 and the Teaching Council published criteria and guidelines for providers of ITE programmes in order to ensure that their programmes meet the council's accreditation requirements. Improvements to ITE courses include the reconfiguration of their content and an increase in their duration. Programmes now include substantial periods of school placement as central to student teacher development. In this regard, the Teaching Council has determined that 25% of student time over the four years of undergraduate programmes and 40% of student time over the two years of postgraduate programmes should be allocated to school placement.

The Teaching Council has prepared school placement guidelines in partnership with stakeholders. The guidelines contain information on the duration, structure and timing of placements, the settings and activities which are appropriate and the roles of all the key stakeholders. Specifically, the guidelines state that in accredited ITE programmes, there must be a school placement component, which must take place in at least two settings while the second half of the programme should include one block placement for a minimum of ten weeks. In relation to the specific issue referred to by the Senator, the Teaching Council has advised that, earlier this year, one higher education institution with an accredited ITE programme proposed that an arrangement regarding school placement be made available to the small number of its students who were in employment as teachers. The Minister is informed that the arrangement is consistent with the council's school placement guidelines. The council has approved the proposal in respect of students from the 2014 and 2015 entry cohorts who meet the specified criteria. The arrangement will be reviewed by the institution concerned and a report will be submitted to the council in line with normal arrangements. The overall student placement arrangements are, of course, subject to the normal quality assurance procedures of the council.

The Minister reminds the House that the Teaching Council is the statutory body responsible for the regulation of the teaching profession and the maintenance of standards in the profession. As stated, the council has statutory responsibility for the review and accreditation of ITE programmes and has published criteria and guidelines for providers in order to ensure their programmes meet the council’s accreditation requirements. The Minister is satisfied that the arrangements agreed by the council in this case are in accordance with best practice, as set out in the school placement guidelines.

As Senator Paschal Mooney said, one always gets the nub of the answer in the last paragraph of a reply. I am very disappointed because the reply does not reflect the question I asked on what arrangements are in place and how they will deal with the fact that a teacher who is employed in a school for a certain number of hours will now have to have substitute teaching hours. It is students who will lose out if a substitute teacher comes in to take the hours for somebody to allow them to move to another school for a minimum number of weeks. Something could be done to address this. While I appreciate and agree that it is the Teaching Council that needs to look at it, the Minister should be aware that there is a huge problem. It is going to be a much bigger problem as this course unfolds and more and more people come on stream every year who have hours. I will write to the Minister herself to take up this issue. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State would also pass this on to her.

I will certainly convey the Senator's concerns about the matter to the Minister, whom I hope to meet later today.

Early Childhood Care Education

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Gerald Nash.

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. It is the first time I have had the opportunity to address my former director of elections in the Chamber. How different things were this time last year.

I ask the Minister of State if there have been any moves by his Department to introduce a salary scale for workers in the child care industry to ensure their qualifications are reflected in their salaries in the interests of quality. The Minister of State will be aware that staff in the child care sector work an average of 39 hours per week. In return, they receive only two paid sick days per year and 20 days holidays. I am aware of a case in my home county, Galway, where four staff with full degrees working in a community child care facility are earning between €22,000 and €25,000, at the maximum, per year, while their manager earns just €27,000. In addition, there is no in-work pension entitlement accrued by these workers. The resultant frustration from talking to these staff on their burn-out is only compounded by the fact that they are subject to regular HSE and Pobal inspections, as well as having the responsibility of introducing a new curriculum to be overseen by Tusla.

While it is only right that standards should be so high within the child care sector, when these pressures and expectations are not reflected in the wages paid to employees, it does a huge disservice to them. One of the greatest issues facing the sector is retention of staff. It has been brought up with me by a number of people working in the child care sector. I worry that there will be a considerable drain of talent from the industry. In fact, it is already happening as a result of the stressful working conditions and the low pay involved. As a result, many child care workers are choosing instead to go into teaching as an alternative where they will have training times and will not have to comply with the expectation of weekend and long evening work.

My worry really is that at a time of greater than ever need of child care places we are driving graduates out of the industry and making the discourse surrounding work in the child care sector a net negative. A wage structure such as those in place for the construction and house hospitality sectors is needed. I appreciate fully that the Minister of State cannot introduce wage structures in every industry, but it is very important in the child care sector in particular. It would be a welcome move for the thousands who work in the sector and would advance the dignity at work agenda which has been at the heart of Government policy. Will such a salary scale be considered by the Department in the light of the qualifications achieved by workers and in recognition of the great service they provide in fostering the future of the nation?

I thank the Minister of State for attending and look forward to his response.

I thank the Senator for tabling this matter for discussion and her kind remarks. I look forward very much to continuing to work with her next year.

And a wonderful director of elections he was.

I thank the Senator. That is appreciated.

The amount of pay an employee receives is a matter for negotiation and agreement between the individual and the employer subject only to the provisions of the National Minimum Wage Act 2000. There is nothing to prevent employees reaching individual or collective agreements with employers on higher rates based on qualifications or other agreed criteria. As the Senator will be aware, I have created a legislative framework to allow that to happen. The Low Pay Commission which I established earlier this year will, on an annual basis, examine and make recommendations to the Minister of the day on the national minimum wage with a view to ensuring the national minimum wage, where adjusted, is adjusted incrementally having had regard to changes in earnings, productivity, overall competitiveness and the likely impact any adjustment would have on employment and unemployment levels. The commission submitted its first report to me last July and recommended an increase of 50 cent per hour for an experienced adult worker. I will introduce that positive change on 1 January 2016, which will benefit approximately 124,000 of the lowest paid workers in society.

The Government has moved on a number of fronts to facilitate other forms of wage setting, in contrast with the view taken by other western European democracies in a post-recession scenario. We have enhanced wage-setting mechanisms and our collective bargaining legislation to support low-paid workers. The Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2012 provides a framework within which employers and employee representatives, through the joint labour committee, JLC, system, can come together voluntarily and negotiate terms and conditions of workers in their sector. When it reaches agreement on terms and conditions, the JLC publishes details and invites submissions. If, after consideration of any submissions received, the committee adopts the proposals, it will submit them to the Labour Court for consideration. The Labour Court will then make a decision on the adoption of the proposals. If the court decides they should be adopted, it will forward a copy of the proposals to the Minister. If it is considered appropriate, an order giving effect to such proposals will be made by the Minister. Such orders will be known as employment regulation orders. I signed two such orders on 1 October last for the security and contract cleaning sectors. These two orders will benefit, on a net basis, approximately 50,000 workers. Pay rates negotiated in the JLC fora have tended to be above the national minimum wage.

The Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2015, which came into effect on 1 August, provides for a revised legislative framework to replace the registered employment agreement, REA, framework that was deemed invalid by the Supreme Court in 2013. The legislation sets out a replacement framework for REAs in individual enterprises and a new mechanism whereby pay, pension and sick pay provisions in a particular sector can be established, agreed and enforced by order.

I have outlined the legislative frameworks available to various sectors across the economy in terms of wage-setting mechanisms. There are opportunities for individual sectors to have their pay and terms and conditions examined in a structured way, for example, through the JLC system. While they are voluntary systems, where a JLC system is active, the legislation insists that a trade union that is representative of workers in the sector be active on the JLC and that it include representative bodies that represent the employer bodies. Thus the organisations can come forward and agree on improvements in the sector and the improvements can be approved by the Labour Court and, subsequently, adopted by the Minister of the day by way of employment regulation order. There are opportunities available under legislation to every sector to engage wage-setting mechanisms to improve their pay and terms and conditions and the position of the industry in general.

Sitting suspended at 11.15 a.m. and resumed at 11.40 a.m.