Thursday, 18 April 2013

Ceisteanna (3)

Mick Wallace

Ceist:

3. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his views on whether the changes in working conditions proposed in Croke Park II could serve as a push factor for people with caring responsibilities to leave the public sector workforce; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17832/13]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (9 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Public)

I reiterate my disappointment at the decision of the executive committee of the ICTU not to accept the LRC proposals. However, it is still worth addressing some of the misconceptions that arose in respect of the proposals on work-life balance arrangements in the public service and I thank the Deputy for tabling this question.

Work-life balance arrangements in the public service are among the best available options provided by Irish employers, particularly when considered in tandem with annual leave and other provisions. Flexible working arrangements, including flexible starting and finishing times, generous leave entitlements, the capacity to take career breaks and so on, are available across the public service and we are proud of that. Had the LRC's proposals been accepted and implemented, this would have continued to be the case.

The most popular and widely availed of work sharing arrangements would not have been affected by the proposals. Flexi-time would still have been available with most employees able to use additional hours worked in one period to facilitate leave in the next. The proposals would have reduced flexi-leave from a potential 19.5 days flexi-leave a year to 13. This would still have been a generous provision by any comparison.

In recognition of the valuable contribution made by those with caring responsibilities to our society, those in receipt of carer’s allowance were not being asked to increase their hours above the 15 hour a week limit for payment of their allowance. Furthermore, in support of our commitment to achieving the public service target of a 3% employment rate for those with disabilities, such employees who had reached a reasonable accommodation with their employer to work less than 50% of full-time hours would have been able to continue to avail of these arrangements for as long as they were required.

Some of the LRC proposals in respect of flexi-time and work sharing simply reiterated management prerogatives that are currently in place in line with previously agreed arrangements. The LRC proposals to revise flexi-time and work sharing were timely in the context of falling numbers and changing demands for public services. The flexibility facilitated by these arrangements is valuable to both staff and management but they must support the business of the organisation and the provision of services to the public, which is the core objective. The proposals sought to streamline existing arrangements in order that a satisfactory balance could be struck between the delivery of the business needs of the employer – in this case the consistent delivery of high level public services to the people of Ireland – and the need for working parents and carers to have flexibility to meet their personal commitments.

In light of this, I do not believe that the proposals would have acted as a push factor for those with caring responsibilities to leave the public sector.

Life-work balance was good in the public service but the arrangements proposed under the Croke Park II agreement would have undermined it in a big way. The Minister is probably familiar with the equity audit carried out by equality expert, Niall Crowley, who is the former head of the Equality Authority. The audit focused on the changes to working conditions proposed, something which has not received as much media attention as the pay elements. The proposals included pay cuts, increment freezes and changes to working conditions such as longer working weeks with no additional pay. The equality audit focused on the impact of the proposed changes on women and men with caring responsibilities. The key results showed that the provision for additional working hours would have a higher impact on them. That could force women and carers out of the workforce. Second, the provision regarding work sharing, which was to be reduced under the agreement, would have a similar impact. Women and carers would be disproportionately hit. Third, the proposed reduction in flextime arrangements would impact more negatively on women and carers.

One of the principal guiding lights of the agreement was supposed to be an increase in productivity but the proposed cuts could lead to a loss of productivity. Does the Minister not think, given everything that has happened following the implementation of austerity measures, which has undermined the social contract that has been built up since the Second World War, that these proposals will further erode the conditions of those who have suffered most through the austerity campaign, particularly women and children?

The Deputy has raised two distinct and separate issues. I strongly agree regarding the social contract for the past 30 years, which my party has consistently focused on to develop. The input of people from Brendan Corish to Frank Cluskey to Michael O'Leary and others in the employment area is testament to the contribution my party has made to advancing the terms and conditions of workers, particularly women, in this society.

It is an inescapable fact that we are in unprecedented times and need to save money. This can be done in a variety of ways. The Deputies opposite oppose virtually everything we suggest, as is their prerogative.

That is untrue.

I propose to address the specifics of this issue because it is important. I have noted and read the equality audit report commissioned by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, which was launched in the middle of the ballot. The work-life balance arrangements in the public sector would have remained among the best available to any worker in the State if the Labour Relations Commission proposals had been implemented. That should be acknowledged.

Deputy Mick Wallace referred to work-sharing and asked how many work sharers would have been affected if the proposals had been implemented. Does he have any idea of the figure involved? In the region of 2% of those currently work-sharing in the Civil Service have a work-share pattern of less than 50% and almost 90% of work-sharers avail of the most popular and widely available patterns. Therefore, the vast majority of those engaged in work-sharing would not have been affected by the proposals.

The Minister is well aware that the conditions of women and carers have been seriously undermined, not only this year and last year but also during the previous three years. The Croke Park II agreement was the straw that broke the camel's back and it is fitting that it was rejected in the same week that Mrs. Thatcher was buried, given that the former British Prime Minister broadly shared the Government's philosophy. Mrs. Thatcher wanted to cut the public sector and privatise state assets and it is frightening that the Labour Party is taking part in a similar process. There is a strong correlation between what is being done now and what Maggie Thatcher was up to in her time in power.

Is this a question or a speech?

During our previous engagement the Minister and I had a little spat about teachers. As it transpired, teachers were not impressed with how they were represented at the talks. Does the Minister agree?

Generalisations such as the statement the proposals would have completely upset the work-life balance are great. The Deputy referred to work-sharing and I responded. He should give me an example of all the other issues he raises and I will give him a detailed response to show his statements are not correct. As for his claims that the Government or my party is somehow Thatcherite, we are doing what we need to do to recover the economy. We could pretend, as some of those opposite do, that we can continue to borrow more than €1 billion per annum to provide for the current level of expenditure on public services. There are two simple inescapable facts. First, nobody will continue to give us €1 billion if we do not balance our books and, second, we cannot continue to pile debt on the shoulders of the next generation. The national debt will peak this year at a figure in excess of 120% of GDP, which is dangerously high. We are determined that when this occurs, it will mark the start of the reduction of the national debt to give a chance to the next generation to live, work and thrive in this country.