Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Ceisteanna (1)

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Ceist:

1. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education if she will address the significant inequalities in pay, conditions and pension and other entitlements facing many school secretaries. [30312/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Education)

Tá ról ríthábhachtach ag rúnaithe scoile i gcomhthéacs feidhmiú na scoileanna. School secretaries are the backbone of a school. They keep them going, doing a number of jobs. They do not want to be in this situation where they are looking at industrial action, but that is the situation they are in, and one which has dragged on for too long. We heard from the Tánaiste last week, and some school secretaries took some encouragement from that, but we want to hear from the Minister, Deputy Foley, on how she intends to resolve this issue.

Aontaím leis an Teachta. I am keenly aware of the vital contribution by school secretaries to the school life of our communities, and I recognise the very important work they do, and indeed the work of the other support staff, in the running of our schools. I have met with Fórsa, which represents many of the secretaries working in our schools.

In recognition of their role, I have put special arrangements in place for the coming school year, whereby schools will be funded to employ a replacement secretary or caretaker in the event that staff, who are at very high risk of contracting serious illness from Covid-19, cannot work on the school premises. I have also extended the employee assistance service to all school staff, including secretaries.

On foot of a chairman’s note to the Lansdowne Road agreement, my Department implemented the 2015 recommendations of an independent arbitrator. The arbitrator recommended a cumulative pay increase of 10% between 2016 and 2019, and that a minimum hourly pay rate of €13 be phased in over that period.

The Fórsa trade union has tabled a follow-on claim from the 2015 agreement. Officials from my Department, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and school management bodies met with Fórsa on 1 October under the auspices of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC.

I am very keen that all parties resume meaningful discussion in the WRC with a view to reaching a mutually acceptable solution. In that respect, I have asked my officials to examine closely pay issues for secretaries and caretakers, as well as very important wider matters relating to their conditions of work, in consultation with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

The WRC process remains ongoing, and I support the continued engagement between all parties in an effort to reach a mutually acceptable solution.

The work school secretaries did was crucial in getting schools open, and they are playing an enormous role in keeping schools open. We all know from our school communities about the diverse work they do - for example, they take care of a child who is hurt, they deal with queries from parents, they organise the menu choices of a child for school lunches and so on - but, to be honest, they feel taken for granted. Some of the things mentioned have been necessary in the context of Covid-19, but this is not just a Covid issue. It is a long-standing issue that has been going on for some time. The reason it has progressed to the stage of potential industrial action, which school secretaries are reluctant to undertake, is that it was felt that the Government position was moving backwards. At least, under the previous Government, there was a desire to tackle the issues of pay equality, and not just the narrow issue of a modest increase in pay, to which the Minister referred. We need to deal with pay equality and pension entitlements to ensure the job of a school secretary is a decent job with proper pay equality. It is clear from the Minister's reply that she is not committing to that. Will she deal with all the issues and will they be included in the negotiations?

Deputy Ó Laoghaire should be under no illusion here. I absolutely acknowledge the invaluable contribution made by school secretaries to school communities. I am personally aware of it, having observed it over many years. Without fault, the work of school secretaries is invaluable. I want to reiterate that school secretaries deserve the best pay and conditions possible, given the vital role they play within our schools. However, this can be best achieved by utilising the industrial relations mechanism of the State, and that is why I would welcome all parties returning to the WRC.

The school secretaries have had plenty of acknowledgement. However, it is not acknowledgement that they are looking for - it is pay equality, decent pay, pension entitlements and improved conditions. They want to return to the WRC, and I believe that they are willing to do so. However, that must be on the basis of addressing the real issues they face. It is not enough to go into the WRC with the Department taking a very closed attitude that it is just going to deal and engage on the basis of the proposed modest pay increase for some that does not achieve pay equality or deal with the pension issues. It was a commitment of Fianna Fáil in opposition, and it was a commitment of the Green Party in its manifesto, to deliver pay equality and pension entitlements. I ask the Minister a simple, direct question. Is it the policy of this Government to deliver pay equality and pension entitlements for school secretaries?

I reiterate that the best possible pay and conditions for school secretaries is a priority, and I am very keen to advance that process. Therefore, I am keen for all parties to resume meaningful discussion in the WRC, with a view to reaching a mutual acceptable solution. In that respect, I have asked officials from my Department to examine closely pay issues for secretaries and caretakers, as well as the very important wider issues referenced by the Deputy in relation to the conditions of work. That is to be done in consultation with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. As I outlined, the WRC process remains ongoing and I support the continued engagement between all parties, in an effort to reach a mutually acceptable solution. I believe that is possible, with the engagement and commitment of all concerned to become involved in the process, which is a well recognised one, and the traditional process used to advance issues and concerns on all sides.