Tuesday, 3 October 2006
Ceisteanna — Questions
Social Partnership Agreements.
Question 8: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the implementation of the new partnership agreement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28182/06]
Question 10: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent activities of the national implementation body; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28185/06]
Question 11: To ask the Taoiseach if it is intended to hold quarterly meetings with the social partners to review progress in implementing the ten year programme for social partnership, as was the practice with previous agreements; if so, when the first meeting is likely to be held; the likely agenda for such a meeting; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28240/06]
Question 12: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the situation in the social partnership process in the wake of union balloting; his role in the implementation of the agreement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28315/06]
Question 20: To ask the Taoiseach the number of studies currently being undertaken by the National Economic and Social Council; the topics currently under study by the NESC; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30783/06]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 20, inclusive, together.
Together with my colleagues, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, I met the social partners on Wednesday, 14 June last at the conclusion of the negotiations on a new social partnership agreement. The negotiations on this occasion were particularly protracted, which was perhaps a reflection of the breadth and complexity of the issues involved, and I would like again to put on record my appreciation of the considerable time and effort given by all the parties to the negotiations, and of their continued commitment, both to the immediate goal of securing a new agreement and to social partnership itself.
I acknowledge at this stage that some issues remain to be settled in the discussions with the farm organisations, which are continuing. Over the summer, the other social partner pillars have been engaged in the ratification process on Towards 2016, Ten-Year Framework Social Partnership Agreement 2006-2015, and I am very pleased it has received such overwhelming support in that process. We are now focusing on the implementation of the agreement.
The mechanisms for implementation are broadly the same as applied under Sustaining Progress. The steering group representing Government and each of the social partner pillars will be reconvened to take overall responsibility for the management of the implementation of the ten-year framework agreement as it applies to the wider non-pay issues. As heretofore, there will be quarterly meetings of the social partner pillars and an annual meeting of the parties with myself, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance. It has also been agreed that a formal review will be undertaken during 2008. My Department will contact the social partners shortly to arrange the initial steering group and plenary meetings.
Work has already begun in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment on the preparation of the necessary legislation to give effect to the comprehensive package of measures contained in the agreement on employment standards. Initial meetings of the group on labour market trends and employment standards, the pensions review group and the anti-inflation group, all of which will be chaired by my Department, are currently being arranged. The national implementation body, which has been in existence since 2001, is continuing to meet as required to oversee delivery of the industrial peace and stability provisions in Towards 2016.
The Government looks forward to working closely with employer and trade union interests in progressing the wide-ranging reform programme set out in the new agreement regarding pay, the workplace and employment rights and compliance. I believe it will prove to be of real benefit to employers, employees and the economy more generally in the period ahead.
A number of studies have been completed recently by the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, which will help to inform future debate and implementation of policy. These include Housing in Ireland: Performance and Policy, published in December 2004; The Developmental Welfare State, published in May 2005; the NESC Strategy 2006, People, Productivity and Purpose, published in December 2005, which was the key input to the negotiation of the new social partnership programme, Towards 2016; Migration Policy, published on 22 September 2006; and Managing Migration in Ireland: a Social and Economic Analysis, a study prepared for the NESC by the International Organisation for Migration, based in Geneva, which was also published on 22 September 2006. Further studies nearing completion include a study on child poverty and child income supports which examines the possibility of merging child dependent allowance and family income supplement. The NESC, along with the other bodies in the NESDO, is now embarking on the learning society exercise outlined in Towards 2016.
In the coming months, the council will consider its future work programme. The Government has also requested that the council prepare a periodic social report. The NESC plans to undertake a study on environmental policy in its next work programme that will reflect on the appropriate mix of policy approaches for achieving specific environmental goals.
Since its reconstitution in May 2004, the NESF has published reports on early childhood care and education, care for older people and creating a more inclusive labour market. In addition, the NESF holds an annual national anti-poverty strategy social inclusion forum. The third such forum was held on 15 February 2006. The social inclusion forum gives those who are not directly involved in the social partnership process an opportunity to contribute their views and experiences to the implementation of the national anti-poverty strategy. Work is at an advanced stage on projects in respect of cultural citizenship, delivery of quality public services and mental health.
In respect of the social partnership discussions, was any analysis of the impact on the economy of the immigrant labour force carried out? What consideration has been given to a decision the Taoiseach must make in respect of opening Ireland's labour market to people from Romania and Bulgaria when they become members of the EU on 1 January 2007? Is there any view on this?
What consideration was given to the establishment of a consumer pillar, which was advocated by this and other parties, and an environmental pillar within the social partnership process, given that the Government has published its own Green Paper on energy, the fact that the issue of the environment has moved to a central position, the importance of this area, the impending increase in gas and electricity prices and the pressure on consumers' quality of life? Does the Taoiseach agree that establishing a consumer pillar in the social partnership is a practical suggestion?
What analysis has been carried out on the constant and ever-increasing stream of requests and remarks from businesses telling of the pressures they face due to rising costs and inflation and the lowering of competitiveness and exports and the pressures they face in keeping their businesses above water?
In respect of Deputy Kenny's first question, the NESC has carried out such an analysis and has produced a recent report on migration policy. This report provides the Government with a comprehensive review of a recent experience of substantial immigration and assesses its impact on the Irish economy and society. It makes several strategic recommendations about the policies that must be adopted if migration is to be successfully managed. NESC's analysis found that the effects of migration to date have been largely positive. While significant challenges remain to protect migrants from exploitation — I am sure they enjoy mobility in the Irish labour market — it concludes that migration, to date, has increased our economic growth rate and standard of living, and has widened the range of services that are available. The report endorses the Government's policy on sourcing low-skilled workers from within the EU 25, while a limited level of low-skilled migration from outside the EU takes place through high quality programmes. The analysis, which is based on extensive research, consultation and an analysis of the Council, comes to a number of high level policy recommendations of which I will mention a few.
The first is the need to clarify our approach to migration, focusing on three broad goals: economic and social development, the rule of law and the integration of migrants into economic, social, cultural and civic life.
Second, the report proposes that the definition of migration policy should be extended beyond the traditional focus on channels of entry and eligibility for social services. It should encompass a range of equally important issues, including labour market practices, social policies and policies for integration of migrants.
Third, a whole Government approach to migration policy is required, supported by appropriate institutional arrangements. This would reflect the reality that, like many other policy issues, migration cuts across a range of Departments and agencies. The Government is already addressing some of these issues through the Employment Permits Bill and the Immigration (Residence and Protection) Bill, which is being examined. There are a number of other proposals. To answer the Deputy's question, this is an in-depth analysis of the whole issue. It is useful in moving towards implementing anything that is not already there, including issues of education, integration and others.
A decision will have to be made on Romania and Bulgaria following the Foreign Affairs Council next week or the week after. It is likely that they will announce the date for Bulgaria and Romania and countries will finally have to make up their minds and state their positions. We will have to do so too. On numerous occasions, I have said that this is a decision we will take in conjunction with the social partners and we will check with them. I am disappointed that, to date, many countries have not opened up to the extent we have and continue to do. Many Bulgarians and Romanians are already coming into this country as a result of the implementation of our permits legislation. Whether we open up completely is an issue about which we need to be very careful. We have been and continue to be good Europeans. We can examine our approach as per the work permits if we need to open up, but we will have to discuss the matter and come to a final decision. I am watching what other countries are doing also, although we have to make our own decisions.
The debate on consumer issues concerns the social partners who took part in the discussions to a greater extent than others this time. Some consumer bodies and environmental groups have applied for membership, an issue which is currently up for discussion. Those issues are being taken into account. The issue of competitiveness is the work of the Competitiveness Council. That work is proposed by the employer bodies themselves as well as the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. There is plenty of focus on the issue of competitiveness and maintaining our position but in relative terms the business climate is still enormously positive. While inflation is up, by and large due to energy issues, our productivity, growth and unit labour costs are still extremely attractive compared with any other country.
Is it not the case that Towards 2016 was a poor deal for workers, particularly as the increases they will receive under the agreement will be quickly frittered away by inflation? Does the Taoiseach not accept that this has already been demonstrated in the inflation figures for August that have increased to 4.5% from 4.2% in July and given that Towards 2016 offered workers 10% over 27 months which was working out at annualised increases of just 4.4%? Will the Taoiseach accept that already the August figures demonstrate that has been surpassed? Does he not recognise that Irish workers are already overstretched by excessive mortgages and the ever increasing cost of fuel and energy and that he has failed to do anything over the course of his tenure or to provide in Towards 2016 any measure that will seriously grapple with the ever-spiralling cost of houses, homes, for ordinary people? Does he not accept that workers will find themselves in ever more straitened circumstances as a result of the increasing cost of housing and of energy costs, to which I have already referred? Can he confirm that there is no mechanism in Towards 2016 to counter the effect of prolonged and increased inflation? Why is that the case, given that previous agreements contained such a review clause and, given that if I remember correctly in 2000, the millennium year, that particular clause was invoked in response to unexpected high inflationary figures? Will the Taoiseach agree there is no provision in Towards 2016 for an ability to pay clause in order to counter the inability to pay clause that is clearly there in the interest and protection of employers? What is the situation applying to those employees within companies and services that are bounding ahead on the labour of those employed? What will the Government do to protect workers in this position? Will this be addressed by the social partners and will the agreement be reopened to address these very serious issues?
On the point I made about rampant inflation, particularly in the area of housing, will the Taoiseach outline how he proposes to deliver the unfulfilled promise of the last agreement, which was to provide desperately needed homes and the introduction of Part V of the Planning and Development Act? Does he recognise that the 2002 amendment of the 2000 Act allowed property developers to get off the hook regarding their responsibility to provide 20% social and affordable housing? What does he now propose to do? Will he restore Part V of the Act to its original intent and thereby seriously address this issue?
Having listed to the Taoiseach's reply I did not hear much reference to the answer I expected to Question No. 16. I will focus on that question given that time is limited. The Taoiseach mentioned that he was disappointed with other countries that have not opened up their borders to the extent that Ireland has done. Likewise, does he recognise the disappointment in other countries that Ireland is not taking as seriously as it should its responsibilities in terms of social partnership for the spiralling cost of energy? Will he ensure that item is dealt with centrally in the partnership talks even to the extent that Sweden, which has a commission against oil dependency, has set 2020 as a deadline for cancelling its oil dependency? Will the Taoiseach ensure that workers in social partnership are part of the changes, for example those at Eirgrid which the Green Paper or Deloitte & Touche want to separate from the ESB? Those issues need to be dealt with at partnership level if we are to put ourselves in a position to be able to deal with the energy challenges facing us. The cost of not dealing with them, the estimated €1 billion for carbon trading would pay for 400 buses and a metro line. These are real cost savings that need to be factored in if we are to get full consensus on how to get through the challenges that face us and should be as central to social partnership as, for example, in Sweden, where it is very much cross-party, cross-sectional and involves every person.
I will try to deal with the questions quickly. The inflation group was set up under Sustaining Progress to examine ways to bring down domestically generated inflation. It comprised officials from my Department and the Departments of Finance and Enterprise, Trade and Employment as well as representatives from ICTU and IBEC. Under the Towards 2016 agreement, we reconstituted the group with the same membership and mandate as before. It is further agreed that adherence by employers and trade unionists to the pay terms of the new agreement is important from a counter-inflationary perspective. In all of the previous agreements the pay increases worked out as beneficial to workers and that is the reason workers have overwhelmingly supported the partnership again.
On housing issues, much time was given in the previous programme and this one to housing initiatives. We have increased substantially investment in social and affordable housing and spending in this area in 2006 is four times what it was just a few years ago. The social partnership agreement sets out an ambitious programme to deliver for the next three years, increasing the number of expected starts and acquisitions of social housing by 4,000 units to 27,000 units. The State system of providing land sites continues. Deputy Ó Caoláin raised the issue of the number of houses. If he looks at the figures for houses sold at below market level, he will see that under the Government's 1999 affordable housing scheme of 1999, 94% of all the 2005 sales under that scheme were for homes priced at €185,000 or less. The additional investments and commitments outlined in Towards 2016 testify to the importance we attach to housing affordability. We continue to prioritise effective action to maintain high levels of supply over the period of the programme.
While changes were made to the Part V initiatives, the initiatives are back with the local authorities and the Part V contribution does not constitute a way to buy out their obligation. They must fulfil their obligations under the Act and local authorities are obliged to ensure that each agreement delivers the best possible result in terms of overall housing supply and social integration for their area.
That is a matter for each local authority. I know the Minister talks about it from time to time, but it should be done by the local authority. It is their role and responsibility to do it and that is clearly set out.
On issues of energy, Deputy Sargent knows this issue has moved from being an issue that was not much of an issue at European Council meetings or elsewhere to being a central issue. Working with the social partners, across Departments and in a broad national way we published our Green Paper to try to fulfil our obligations on sustainability and renewable energies for the years ahead. It is a big issue and will be a central part of the programme for all the reasons mentioned by the Deputy.
On Deputy Quinn's questions, we started some months ago on the implementation arrangements and particularly on the legislative changes and measures that are required in the area set out by the Deputy. A number of broad changes are required. The Government has put together a unit rather than just taking the usual legislative route which would take years. A very good unit has been established within the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and it commenced work earlier this year, even before the discussions.
I am unsure whether some of the issues to do with employment rights can be dealt with on an interim basis rather than on a statutory basis but it is intended to make quick progress in this area because it is an important issue for the trade unions and is one where I would like to see us making as much progress as quickly as possible.