Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Local Authority Members' Remuneration

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan. I request an update on councillors' remuneration, pay and conditions generally. This is an issue that has been raised many times in the House and is still very much a concern for many of the councillors to whom I speak on regularly. They believe they are not being properly supported in doing their job and that it is not worth their while doing it. As the Minister of State and everyone present know, the amount of time input by councillors daily is phenomenal. At a time when we are trying to encourage females and other individuals to enter politics, which is a difficult profession, we need to support the foundation of politics, namely, councillors and to make sure they are properly remunerated for the work they do. They do not go into politics for the money. None of us does, but they should be remunerated effectively for the job they do daily. I know that these issues have been raised many times and that the Minister of State is fully aware of them, but we must be professional in how we do our business.

From councillors to Senators, Deputies, Ministers and the Taoiseach, we need to be properly supported in the work we do. To my mind, councillors are not remunerated sufficiently for the work they do. That may be an unpopular thing to say. There is, however, a perception that they earn a lot of money and that anyone engaged in the political arena must be earning a lot of money. Councillors are poorly remunerated for the excellent work most of them do.

I look forward to the Minister of State's response and hope this issue is to the forefront of his mind in the context of his portfolio.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter which is to the forefront of my mind. Like her, I deal with councillors every day of the week and the underlying reality is that they are underpaid. The purpose in conducting the review was to examine how we should remunerate them appropriately into the future.

Following on from the feedback from local authority elected members and their representative bodies, as well as in debates in this House on councillors' current remuneration regime, I agreed with my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, to carry out a review of the role and remuneration of local authority elected members. Ms Sara Moorhead, SC, was tasked with carrying out the independent review, consulting key stakeholders, as necessary. An interim report on the review was submitted to me by Ms Moorhead in November 2018. It may be found on my Department's website. To progress towards the final report, it was necessary to survey all local authority members and seek financial information from all local authorities. The survey has been completed and the financial data collected, although in both cases deadline extensions were required. I expect to receive the final report shortly. In accordance with the agreed terms of reference, the report must be the subject of discussion between my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. This is to ensure that, in accordance with the agreed terms of reference, the review will have regard to the wider public pay and industrial relations context.

Following the necessary consultation, it is my intention that the review will be submitted to the Government and published immediately thereafter. My expectation is that the review will more comprehensively define the role of councillor and make recommendations for modernising the remuneration package in order that it will be commensurate with the role. Once the report has been published, I will be happy to return to the Seanad to discuss the matter further. In the meantime, I remind the House that in recognition that immediate action was required for councillors, since my appointment as Minister of State I have introduced a range of improvements to the supports provided for councillors, including a new allowance for them worth €1,000 per annum, backdated to 1 July 2017, in recognition of the additional workload following the 2014 reforms and a new optional vouched expenses regime up to a maximum of €5,000 per annum, of which councillors may choose to avail instead of the existing unvouched allowance of up to €2,500 per annum. The payment to councillors which is linked with a Senator's salary was increased to €17,359 per annum with effect from 1 September 2019. It will increase further in line with adjustments arising from the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018 to 2020.

I again thank the Senator for raising this matter. I take the opportunity to thank Senators for their keen interest in the role of councillor and the supports underpinning it.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. I note that work is ongoing. On use of the terms "shortly" and "once published", does it mean that the report will be published in the coming weeks, or will it be published early next year? On the Minister of State's reference to Senators' keen and ongoing interest in the role of councillors, that is logical, as they are our electorate. We have close working relationships with many of them. It is incumbent on us as Senators to seek to improve conditions for them. I note that the Minister of State is also focused on the issue and know that he is genuine in his remarks, but I hope the matter can be expedited. I would welcome clarification from the Minister of State on his definition of "shortly".

It was intended that the report would be with me before the summer recess. To this effect, we met some of the representative groups, but a number of issues arose that prevented it from being finalised before the summer recess. When I use the word "shortly", I mean that I expect to be receipt of it within the next two weeks. At that stage, there will be consultation between my officials and officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform who, I am sure, as the Senator will understand, have a keen interest in this issue. With the officials in the local government section of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, they were joint sponsors of Ms Moorhead's efforts to examine the role of councillors and the rate of remuneration.

From a cursory review of the results of the survey, councillors' remuneration is at or just below the national minimum wage in terms of the number of hours they put in versus pay. That is unacceptable. As I said, "shortly" means that I expect to receive the report within the next two weeks. After it has been brought to the Government, it will be published. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, and I, with our officials, will have to discuss the report, with a view to implementing it. It will not sit on the shelf. There are a couple of key matters which I have been pushing, including that any change introduced be backdated to the last local elections, when there was an expectation that the new regime would kick in early in the new term for local authority members. Whatever changes are made should be backdated to the end of May when councillors were elected.

On when the report will be published in the wider world, including Senators and councillors, it will be post the tick-tacking with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Government making a decision either to accept, amend or reject it. I will be pushing very hard for its acceptance and a plan of action for the introduction of the changes recommended therein. It will be a number of weeks before this happens, but I hope it will happen before the new year.

I know that the Minister of State will be aware of this, but in the context of the overall budget of many councils, councillors' remuneration is minuscule. Therefore, there must be scope for improvement. I note what the Minister of State had to say about interaction with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which is key, but that point has to be to the forefront of people's minds in the negotiations on this matter. We all accept that councillors' remuneration is not sufficient. In the context of the overall budget of councils, councillors' pay is tiny. I again thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive and genuine response.

Local Authority Members

I welcome the Minister of State. My matter relates to maternity leave for councillors. I note from the Minister of State's reply to Senator Noone that he is engaged in a great deal of work on councillors' remuneration and conditions. It is recommended that a councillor who is due to take maternity or parental leave to care for a new baby take a sabbatical for up to six months, during which time their pay and conditions will not be affected. To say this is outdated would be a fair summation. In the context of our efforts to keep the country vibrant and given the increase in population, it is particularly outdated.

This measure is overdue. I would appreciate the Minister of State's thoughts on this matter and on what might be done to include such a provision in legislation.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter, which is relevant as it is now being discussed to a much greater extent than it previously was. Councillors, similar to Members of these Houses, members of the Judiciary and others, are officeholders rather than employees. As such, they are not covered by the statutory framework for employees on issues such as maternity leave, sick leave, and annual leave. In the case of local councillors, the current position is that under section 18(4) of the Local Government Act 2001, a councillor is deemed to have automatically resigned membership of a local authority if he or she is absent from meetings for a continuous period of six consecutive months. Where the absence is due to illness or "in good faith for another reason", however, the other elected members may pass a resolution to allow the period of allowable absence to be extended to 12 months and then again to 18 months on foot of a further resolution.

A councillor who is absent for six months will continue to receive the full amount of his or her representational payment of €17,359 per annum. Thereafter, this payment is reduced by 50% for absences of six to 12 months. A councillor who is absent for more than 12 months will not receive any further payments, regardless of the reason for the absence. For comparison, a local authority employee who is absent for medical reasons will receive full salary for three months, thereafter reducing by 50% for the next three to six months. No further salary payments will be made after six months. Local authority employees are entitled to take six months of maternity leave on full pay with an option for an additional 16 weeks of unpaid leave. Of course, councillors are not entitled to have periods of absence counted towards the calculation of payment of their annual expenses allowance, which is provided to defray the actual cost of attendance at meetings. With effect from January 2017, the Social Welfare Acts were amended so that councillors gained access to the same benefits as self-employed contributors. Accordingly, councillors are now reckonable for the purposes of accessing class S benefits, including maternity benefit.

There are other solutions for councillors who need to take maternity-related leave or, indeed, paternity-related leave. These include temporary co-options, or technological or e-democracy solutions to facilitate remote attendance at council meetings, which would allow them to continue to serve their communities. Some such solutions would likely require amendments to primary legislation. For that reason, the issue of maternity leave for councillors is best considered in the broader and more general context of parental leave arrangements for all officeholders in the State.

It is critical that more women run for election as local authority members, as the Senator outlined, and that councils are more balanced. In that context, we are keeping this issue under review and I thank the Senator again for raising it and providing me with the opportunity to address the matter in the House. The Minister of State with responsibility for equality matters, Deputy Stanton, and myself are in the early stages of a full examination of the issue of maternity and paternity leave for elected representatives both local and national. At the moment we are operating with an ad hoc system, which has developed over the years. Both the local and national systems were built around men. This work is in its very early days, but we are keen to implement changes in this regard within the lifetime of this Oireachtas.

I appreciate the Minister of State's answer. I am delighted that he and the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, are going to fully examine the issue. However, I am curious. Thanks to the Minister of State, there is a large review ongoing: Sara Moorhead's report. She went to extreme lengths in having councillors report on what they do and so on. I presume that in this trawl and root-and-branch review of councillor's pay and conditions, Ms Moorhead has examined this issue. I am sure she will address it in her report.

I have not yet seen Ms Moorhead's report, so I am not sure. I do not know if she addresses the issue. However, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and myself will make use of her surveying work in examining broader issues of maternity and paternity leave. I am not sure exactly what the report will say on those matters.

Good Friday Agreement

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as a bheith linn ar maidin. Tá a fhios agam gur tréimhse thar a bheith gnóthach é don Tánaiste agus don Rialtas so táim buíoch go bhfuil seal againn chun cás Emma DeSouza a phlé. I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to be here. I understand that it is an unprecedented period for the Tánaiste and his Department, so I am glad we are able to address this case in the Seanad in any way. The wording of the Commencement Matter is very clear in its aim. I want to take this opportunity, in the time afforded to me, to commend Emma and Jake DeSouza for the stand they have taken in upholding the Good Friday Agreement and our rights and entitlements as Irish citizens. While Ms DeSouza has found herself on her own in being taken through the courts by the Home Office - an action I contest is unnecessary - she is representative of so many of us. We are her and she is us in this instance. The Good Friday Agreement, agreed 21 years ago, was very clear. To be fair to the Irish Government, it has been very clear - I noted the Taoiseach's remarks on this case in the Dáil yesterday - that we are Irish and Irish citizens. While we do not derive our Irishness from the Good Friday Agreement - it runs much deeper than that - as part of a peace accord and peace settlement, much of which rotated around issues of identity and contested allegiance, the agreement did declare to the world that we are Irish citizens. Some 21 years later, it is simply not good enough that Ms DeSouza finds herself having to go through this judicial process to uphold a basic right - the right to her citizenship.

Irish citizens in the North will have watched what the Government said in the other House yesterday, and will watch what it says in the Seanad this morning and what it says in the coming days and weeks, very carefully, particularly given the context of Brexit and the potential threats arising from it. Crucially, they will also watch what the Government will do over the next short while to ensure that our rights are defended and, by extension, what it will do, as co-guarantor, to defend the Good Friday Agreement. This is a crucial period. There is a lot of anger and deep frustration because of what has happened. Brexit has exposed this weakness and this problem. We need to see the British Government moving on from words. We were told in February of this year that there would be a review but we subsequently found out that no terms of reference or timeframe have been agreed and that no one has been appointed to conduct it. It is, therefore, little wonder that Michel Barnier wants a legally binding text from the British Government in the context of Brexit, because this is what happens when that is not secured. I hope that Irish citizens with skin in the game will hear something positive from the Minister of State this morning and will see the follow-up action that is required.

It is an important point that the Good Friday Agreement is quite unique. It conferred upon us the right to be British, Irish, or both. This does not, therefore, only impact on those of us who identify solely as Irish. Quite a substantial section of society in the North cherishes the fact that they are able to be both British and Irish. They now have to deal with the reality that one identity and one citizenship outweighs the other. That will be of great concern to them, as well as to those of us who identify as, and are, solely Irish.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. In spite of the unprecedented times in which we live, it is a remarkably important matter. The citizenship and identity provisions are central to the Good Friday Agreement and it is vital that they are upheld. The Government has consistently engaged with the British Government in support of these provisions and will continue to do so. The DeSouzas will want time to consider yesterday's decision in full but have indicated that they intend to appeal. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is keeping in regular contact with Emma and Jake DeSouza on behalf of the Government. It is important to say that Emma DeSouza is an Irish citizen and that this is provided for and protected under the Good Friday Agreement, as the Senator has outlined.

The Taoiseach raised the DeSouza case with the former UK Prime Minister, Mrs. May, and he confirmed in the Dáil yesterday that he will also raise it with current Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson. The Tánaiste raised the case with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland again at their meeting last night. This underlines the seriousness with which the Government views the DeSouza case and the wider obligation on the British Government to uphold the citizenship and identity provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, in all relevant areas in Northern Ireland.

The Tánaiste wrote to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland last year and has had a number of discussions with the Secretary of State on the case of Emma DeSouza to raise concerns over the citizenship and identity provisions of the agreement, and to seek a review of the issues.

In February, following this engagement by the Government, the then British Prime Minister, Theresa May, acknowledged that there are serious concerns in this area and pledged to review the issues relating to citizenship urgently to deliver a long-term solution consistent with the letter and spirit of the agreement. These were welcome and necessary acknowledgments and commitments by the then Prime Minister.

In this context, the decision of the tribunal in the DeSouza case yesterday does not define the extent of the British Government's obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. In the agreement, the Governments "recognise the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland."

It is clearly imperative that people in Northern Ireland have confidence in these provisions of the agreement, in letter and in spirit. To provide for that, a positive outcome to the review mandated by the British Government is now urgently needed. The Government is actively engaged to seek that review in our bilateral contacts at the highest levels and through the framework of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, where the two Governments are also discussing citizenship and identity issues under the agreement issues more broadly.

While the DeSouza case is not specifically Brexit-related, the concerns it raises over insufficient provision for people's citizenship and identity rights in Northern Ireland also arise in respect of the UK's decision to exit from the European Union.

The Good Friday Agreement was agreed at a time when both Irish and British citizenships also entailed EU citizenship. After the UK exits the EU, this will no longer be the case. In order to fully uphold the spirit of the agreement, where issues arise, the Government has been clear that they should be addressed in a way that avoids any difference in entitlements-based citizenship. In particular, people in Northern Ireland should not be required to renounce Irish or British citizenship in order to access any entitlement.

Sensitive and generous approaches by the British Government are needed to ensure that the right of people in Northern Ireland to identify as Irish or British or both is meaningfully provided for in all relevant policy areas. The British Government needs to listen and urgently respond to the genuine and legitimate concerns that have been raised by Emma DeSouza and many others in Northern Ireland. The Government will continue to strongly pursue this with the British Government, as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.

I understand the Tánaiste is in the North today and I know that this is an issue of the utmost concern to him. He will use his offices insofar as he can to ensure that the British Government act on this case and more importantly on the wider issue it has thrown up of identity and citizenship in the North.

I appreciate the Minister of State's response. I express my appreciation for the work of the Tánaiste and the departmental officials who have been working closely with the DeSouzas.

I caution the Government that in the context of Brexit negotiations and also in the context of the Good Friday Agreement we have frequently heard statements from any number of British Ministers saying they will not undermine or jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement and yet here is an example of them doing precisely that.

Since the judgment in Belfast on Monday we have heard concerns expressed from Capitol Hill about this issue. Those friends of Ireland have made very clear that in the context of any trade deal there can be no undermining of the Good Friday Agreement and our peace accord. It appears to be happening already unless it is resolved.

I am sure the pressure from Government and the pressure that will emerge from civic, community and political life not just in the North but across Ireland will also provide a positive platform to challenge this retrograde decision that flies in the face of the Good Friday Agreement. Collectively and collaboratively I believe we can bring the necessary pressure to bear to ensure that change is codified in British law. That is what is needed but it is absent currently.

The Senator has touched on what did not happen in respect of citizenship post the agreement and the referendum held both North and South. The Government will remain engaged at the highest level with the British Government about the DeSouza case and these matters in general. We have been doing so for more than a year. As the Senator acknowledged, the Government is in close and regular contact with Emma and Jake DeSouza, as they continue their case in the UK courts. This is about providing confidence to all the people in Northern Ireland about the citizenship and identity provisions of the Good Friday Agreement.

Further to the Government's engagement and the case that Emma DeSouza has had to take, the British Government has acknowledged serious concerns and has mandated a review. A positive and constructive outcome to this review by the British Government is urgently needed and we are actively seeking that.

In the context of Brexit, the Government has also worked extensively and remains engaged to ensure that Irish citizens, and therefore EU citizens, in Northern Ireland can continue to access EU opportunities and benefits under any scenario. There is an onus on the British Government to address serious concerns that are raised by the DeSouza case and Brexit, and to provide for meaningful practical solutions to uphold the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement as outlined by the Senator in his contribution. We will continue to strongly engage with the British Government to ensure that the vital citizenship and identity provisions of the Good Friday Agreement are upheld in all relevant policy areas.

National Minimum Wage

Last week we learned through the media that the Government planned to defer the planned 30 cent an hour increase to the minimum wage. The Government has not just postponed the planned increase to the national minimum wage; it has, in fact, cancelled it for at least another year. Under the National Minimum Wage (Low Pay Commission) Act 2015, the Government can either accept the recommendation made by the Low Pay Commission and make an order giving effect to the commission's recommendation within three months of receiving the report, or the Government can decline to make an order.

It turns out that the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, declined to make an order. On that basis she lodged what is known as a statement of reasons before these Houses, literally in the dark of night on 9 October, the day after the budget, when the Government was furiously spinning that the 30 cent an hour increase to the minimum wage due in January 2020 was merely being delayed. It has not been deferred, postponed or put off until another day; it has been cancelled. I appreciate this is not the brief of the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan I ask him not to insult the intelligence of Members of this House by stating otherwise. This increase has not been deferred; it has been cancelled.

The Minister's functions under the Act have now been exhausted for another year. The statement lodged on 9 October states "the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection has declined to make an order declaring the national minimum hourly rate of pay until the situation with respect to Brexit becomes clearer." In real terms this means there will be no change to the national minimum wage until at least the next Low Pay Commission report, which in law is not due to be delivered until next July. The Act does not permit the Minister to postpone an increase as she has described. By declining to make an order to effect the increase, the Government has actually binned the planned rise. There is now no opportunity in law for the rate to be increased between now and 1 January 2021, more than a year away.

As a result of the Government's actions, the lowest-paid workers will forgo an increase in their wages for 2020 and will see no change in their pay packets until at least 1 January 2021. This is dreadful sleight of hand and a massive kick in the teeth for the lowest-paid workers.

The reality is that Brexit has been used as an excuse to hammer the very people who are most exposed to high food prices, energy bills and so on as inflation climbs, regardless of the effects of a possible crash-out Brexit. These people will be at the rough end of a no-deal Brexit and the Government has not accepted, as the Government amendment to the motion on a living wage in the Dáil stated, the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission report in full. That is manifestly untrue. The Government did anything but that. The Government accepted a minority view, expressed by three business members of the commission to in effect reject any increase at all. The Government has taken the extraordinary step of dumping the official recommendations of the commission. I hope I do not need to remind the Minister of State that this is a statutory body set up to advise Government on issues to do with low pay. The Government is in very dangerous territory when it goes about its business in that way and sets the precedent of accepting minority reports rather than the expert and formal view of the full commission. Let me remind the Minister of State of something before he responds. The Government spinning about cancelling and-or deferring the commission's proposed increase is outrageous. It is not a deferral; it is a cancellation because the Minister does not have a capacity in law to defer or postpone an increase. The reality is that it will be 1 January 2021 at the earliest when the lowest-paid workers in Ireland can expect an increase in their modest pay packets.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. The national minimum wage is the legally binding, lowest average hourly rate that can be paid by an employer to an employee. This rate is set and governed by the National Minimum Wage Act 2000, which applies to all employees, including full-time, part-time, temporary and casual employees, with some exceptions.

The National Minimum Wage (Low Pay Commission) Act 2015 established the Low Pay Commission, which makes recommendations each year regarding the national minimum wage to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Since the establishment of the commission, the Government has accepted all the recommendations it has made for the national minimum wage. Since 2015, therefore, the national minimum wage has increased by 13.3%. The most recent figures published by EUROSTAT for January 2019 show that Ireland has the second highest national minimum wage of any country in the EU at €1,656.2 per month, behind only Luxembourg, whose minimum wage is €2,071 per month. Allowing for technical adjustments to reflect purchasing power standards, Ireland drops to sixth place, but still remains in the group with the highest minimum wage rates in the EU.

The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has a number of in-work supports for low-income families. The working family payment provides support for employees with families who have low earnings in relation to their family size. It is currently paid to more than 54,000 families in respect of more then 122,000 children. In the Budget Statement 2020, the thresholds for the working family payment were increased by €10 for one to three-child families. The back to work family dividend is another in-work support. This scheme aims to help families to move from social welfare into employment. This helps to increase the incomes of families on low incomes. For example, for a two-child family, the working family payment increases after-tax income by more than €137 per week, and this will increase to €147 per week under budget 2020 in January 2020. Another important in-work support for low-income families delivered by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is the income disregard on the lone parent-related payments. In budget 2020, the income disregards on one-parent family payment and jobseeker's transitional payment increased by €15 to €165 per week.

It is important to highlight that the 2019 Low Pay Commission report was considered by Government on 7 October 2019. The commission recommended an increase in the national minimum wage of 30 cent to €10.10 an hour on the assumption of an orderly Brexit. Since the commission made its recommendation, the political and economic climate surrounding Brexit has changed. The likelihood of a disorderly Brexit is present and, therefore, the economic circumstances have altered and will continue to be uncertain until we get clarity on that matter. In developing its recommendation on the national minimum wage, the commission assesses various economic indicators such as changes in earnings, exchange rates, employment, unemployment, productivity, international minimum wage comparisons, the need for job creation and the likely impact of the national minimum wage changes on levels of employment, cost of living, and national competitiveness. Various economic commentators, both in Ireland and overseas, have highlighted that any form of Brexit has the potential to impact negatively on the economy. This is the controversial line. The Government has accepted the recommendations of the commission; however, given that the terms of Brexit are yet to be finalised, the Government has decided that a decision on the date of implementation will be made when the outcome of the Brexit negotiations becomes clearer.

I am not an expert on employment law, unlike Senator Nash. I am not sure that the Low Pay Commission is specifically precluded from re-entering its proposals once there is clarity on Brexit. I know there is an annual report, but it is written into the Low Pay Commission legislation that it cannot re-enter if circumstances materially change. I understand the point the Senator is making about the report, which is drawn up annually. The Government's position in the Budget Statement was clear that there were going to be no significant tax or expenditure changes in the context of the more likely circumstances of a disorderly Brexit. I bow to the Senator's expertise in the area. I will ask the Minister to revert directly to him to see if the findings of that report can be re-entered to Government, as I am not sure that the commission is strictly prohibited from doing so.

The National Minimum Wage (Low Pay Commission) Act 2015 makes it clear that there is essentially one annual opportunity to do this. The reason that we set up the commission in the first place was to take the politics out of the setting of the national minimum wage and to make sure that work always pays. The reality is - and 150,000 of the lowest paid workers in Ireland know this from the harsh experience - that when the latest recession hit, the first victims of Fianna Fáil were those on the national minimum wage. By reducing the national minimum wage by €1 an hour, it did not create one single job or save one single business. Under the legislation, the Low Pay Commission gets one opportunity a year and the Minister gets one opportunity a year to make an order in respect of the setting of the rate of the national minimum wage. The commission report this year made no reference whatsoever to deferral; it understood and accepted that the Government may need to review. A review is different from a deferral. The Minister does not have the capacity in law to make a deferral. In essence this is a postponement of any increase to the national minimum wage during the next 13 months or so. The lowest paid workers in Ireland, who will be in the firing line should there be a crash-out Brexit, will be most adversely affected because they are on low incomes and they will be impacted by high energy prices and food prices. They will bear the brunt of a crash-out Brexit because the Minister will not allow for an increase in the national minimum wage until at least the time she receives the next annual report from the commission, which will be mid-July 2020 and, therefore, no increase can be expected until 2021. This is not mere semantics. It is very clear in law. The Minister failed to answer the questions put to her last night by my colleague, Deputy Willie Penrose, and did not use the opportunity to respond to his questions. It is disgraceful that a statement would be laid before the Houses, essentially in the dark of night, just a day after the Budget Statement, laying out the reason the Minister would, as she said, "defer" an increase in the minimum wage. In reality, this is a postponement. It is time that the Minister fronted up and was honest with low paid workers in this country. It is extraordinary that massive packages can be provided to farmers - and I can understand their difficulty in facing the potential of a no-deal Brexit - but it does not seem that the Fine Gael Party cares a jot about the lowest-paid workers in this country as evidenced by the sleight of hand relating to the national minimum wage.

I will endeavour to get the Minister to respond directly on the issue of deferral or otherwise.

Senator Nash was part of a Government of which I was a member that reversed the decision of the previous Government to reduce the national minimum wage by €1. The Low Pay Commission was established and has resulted in a 13% increase of the minimum wage in the past four years. The Senator's final comments do not stand up to any scrutiny but I agree that there is an issue and I will endeavour to get the Minister to address it directly with him.

Sitting suspended at 11.20 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.