Tuesday, 13 February 2007
Ceisteanna — Questions
Question 7: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the implementation of the social partnership agreement Towards 2016; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43870/06]
Question 9: 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. [43874/06]
Question 10: To ask the Taoiseach the proposed work of the National Economic and Social Council during 2007; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43887/06]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 17, inclusive, together.
I am delighted that Towards 2016, the ten-year framework social partnership agreement 2006-15, received such overwhelming support from within all four social partner pillars and that we are now progressing its implementation. The mechanisms for implementation of the new agreement are broadly the same as applied under the previous agreement and are set out in detail in chapter 4, part 1, of the new agreement.
The steering group representing Government and each of the social partner pillars has been reconvened and is, as before, assuming overall responsibility for the management of the implementation of the agreement as it applies to the wider non-pay issues. Each social partner pillar has representatives on the steering group, while the Government is represented by the Secretary General and an assistant secretary of my Department and senior officials from the Departments of Finance and Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the office for social inclusion.
As heretofore, there will be quarterly plenary meetings of the social partner pillars and an annual meeting of the parties with me, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance. The inaugural plenary meeting under Towards 2016 takes place this Thursday in Dublin Castle. The agenda for the meeting will include updates on the recently launched National Development Plan 2007-2013 and the life cycle approach to delivery of social services envisaged under Towards 2016. The first quarterly progress report under Towards 2016 will also be circulated at the meeting.
In addition to the ongoing monitoring and reporting mechanisms which I have described, it has also been agreed that a formal review of the agreement will be undertaken during 2008. As with all previous agreements, the Government and the social partners will keep implementation of Towards 2016 under ongoing review. There are no plans for renegotiation.
In addition to the quarterly review meetings, the national implementation body continues to meet as required to oversee delivery of the industrial peace and stability provisions in Towards 2016. It has met on a number of occasions over recent months to assist in the resolution of industrial relations disputes. Meetings of the body also provide opportunities for informal discussions on some of the broader issues relating to the social partnership process and the industrial relations climate generally.
Under the recently enacted NESDO legislation, the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, the National Economic and Social Forum, NESF, and the National Centre for Partnership and Performance, NCPP, are being established on a statutory basis. Part of this process involves the reconstitution of both NESC and the NESF for a new three-year term of office from 2007 to 2009. Once this exercise has been completed, the priority task for these bodies will be to draw up and agree a new programme of work. As part of any new programme, NESC, the NESF and the NCPP, as constituent parts of NESDO, will participate in a learning society foresight exercise. This was recommended by the Information Society Commission and agreed by the Government and the social partners in Towards 2016.
NESC, appointed in mid-2003 for a three-year term, completed and published the following reports, as well as providing advice and information to the Government on issues of economic development and social justice: Housing in Ireland: Performance and Policy, published in December 2004; the Developmental Welfare State, published in May 2005; NESC Strategy 2006, People, Productivity and Purpose, published in December 2005; Migration Policy, published in September 2006; and Managing Migration in Ireland: A Social and Economic Analysis, commissioned by the NESC and undertaken by the International Organisation for Migration, published in September 2006. It is proposed that the reconstituted council build on this work by undertaking the preparation of Ireland's first periodic social report. This is in response to a Government request to carry out this work.
During its term of office, which began with an inaugural meeting in May 2004 and ended on 31 December last, the NESF published reports on the following policy themes: early childhood care and education, care for older people and creating a more inclusive labour market. In addition, work has been completed on a number of reports which are due to be published shortly. These include Improving the Delivery of Quality Public Services, and the Arts, Cultural Inclusion and Social Cohesion. The NESF is also progressing a report focusing on the area of mental health.
The NESF has overseen three meetings to date of the national anti-poverty strategy social inclusion forum. This forum is designed to give those who are not directly involved in the social partnership process an opportunity to input their views and experiences in implementing the anti-poverty strategy, identify barriers and constraints to progress and how best these can be overcome and provide suggestions on new developments and more effective policies in the future. The official reports on the proceedings are published and circulated to all Ministers, the Cabinet committee on social inclusion, all Oireachtas Members and local authorities.
The NESF prepares from time to time periodic reports on the influence and impact of its work on official policies, both at national and local levels. The last such report covered the period 2001-03. The NESF also hosted, in conjunction with the Geary Institute at UCD, a conference on evidence-based policy-making in February 2005. The basic purpose of this conference was to examine both the supply and gathering of evidence and to apply this in the policy-making process and the design of practical policy solutions. The ongoing monitoring and evaluation of policy outcomes was also an important focus of the conference.
I want to ask the Taoiseach two questions about this matter. Some 40,000 nurses have taken a decision to take industrial action and meetings are under way throughout the country. The Taoiseach will be aware of the very valuable work nurses do and the considerable strain the profession is now under in hospitals throughout the country. The nurses make the case, through the Irish Nurses Organisation, INO, and the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA, that when they lodged 14 amendments to the benchmarking process——
Question No. 7 concerns the implementation of the social partnership agreement, Towards 2016. The point they make is that a range of issues has been settled outside the benchmarking process but within the public service. I recognise this is a complex, sensitive and emotional issue and I am aware of the Labour Court recommendation and the various stances taken by the trades unions. Is it the Taoiseach's belief that the nurses' outstanding claims in respect of reducing the working week from 39 to 35 hours, their pay claim and a range of other issues can be dealt with within the benchmarking process as it currently stands or is it his belief that the benchmarking process should be amended or made more flexible to allow these matters to be discussed and negotiated to whatever conclusion? Is it his view that the door is still open, so to speak, in respect of the Labour Court being able to reach a conclusion regarding their claims for the working week to be reduced from 39 to 35 hours? The Taoiseach will be aware that some child care workers who report to nurses earn €3,000 more than them. This has been a deep-rooted grievance with the nurses for over 20 years. How does the Taoiseach believe this can be adjusted?
Several nights ago I met former Greencore workers in Mallow. The Labour Court made recommendations in their redundancy package case. Does the Taoiseach agree that Greencore should pay up as per the Labour Court recommendation?
I knew you, a Cheann Comhairle, would come in at some stage.
The Labour Court has called the unions and Greencore management for separate talks. Does the Taoiseach believe this will lead to a conclusion in the case? The workers see it as an issue of principle and believe they should get their due demands.
There are talks going on which I have done my utmost to assist. The workers and Greencore management are aware of this. I hope these talks will make some progress. They should because it is in the interest of both parties to resolve this issue. I hope the talks are successful and it is only right they should come to a satisfactory conclusion. I have spoken up for the workers in this case before. I acknowledge there is meaningful dialogue and I want to see it being helpfully concluded.
On the nurse's pay issue, all matters in industrial relations are complex but I will try to keep it as simple as I can. It is true that several smaller pay issues were taken into the tent, so to speak, during the social partnership process to resolve outstanding issues. It is true the nurses' organisations are aggrieved that a section of their people, because of the way it was handled, ended up at salary disadvantage to another grade. The other categories' pay claims were relatively small and could be included. In the nurses' pay claim, the category numbers 40,000 nurses and to take that inside would stretch the elastic too far. It is not a serious way of dealing with the claim. It was okay to address the smaller categories in the process. It is not possible, however, to claim that 40,000 nurses is a small category. I know the representations that have been made but I believe this is understood.
The Labour Court judgment and recommendation stated the claim should be taken within the benchmarking process. The INO and the Psychiatric Nurses Association tried to take this matter before the benchmarking body but could not get in their amendments. I believe they have a case for that. If they put that case to the benchmarking body, it will have to be addressed, whatever the outcome.
There is the issue of the reduction of the working week from 39 hours to 35 hours. As I stated on Leaders' Questions last week, this issue must be addressed in the context of health service reforms. The Labour Court and other trade unions have also stated this. Health service reforms allow the possibility to raise working-time flexibility, productivity, changes of hours, manning levels and other issues. If the process was used to deal with the reduction in the 39 hour working week for nurses and their pay claim, it would then have to include the other 350,000 public servants. Neither can the full cost of the nurses' pay claim be put on the Exchequer. That would be the worst basis for any negotiations. I made it clear to the nurses' unions that this is just not possible. No Government could ever do that and this is understood. There are ways of dealing with it and, hopefully, some sanity will prevail around these issues.
I welcome the Taoiseach's remarks that he has been involved in and helpful on the Greencore issue. When I met the workers concerned ten days ago, however, they told me they had met the Taoiseach but were completely unaware of anything he had done for them. What has the Taoiseach done and does he believe there will be an early settlement of this matter?
The Labour Court recommendation has been interpreted, reinterpreted and interpreted again and, on each occasion, has come down on the side of the workers concerned. Yet Greencore will not deal with the matter. The Taoiseach obviously has new information. It was only last Friday week that I met the workers and they did not know anything about him having caused any progress to be made.
What are the Taoiseach's concerns for social partnership in the wider sense in the context of the price rises we have seen in recent times, including this very week and month? Under the new partnership agreement, workers throughout the country will receive a 10% pay increase over 27 months. Inflation is running at 4.9%, however, and is likely at least to exceed 5.5% this month. There has been a spate of price increases relating to gas, electricity and foodstuffs, including, as promulgated by IBEC yesterday, various products in the inflation shopping basket. Notwithstanding the abolition of the groceries order, prices are still rising rapidly in the economy. Is the Taoiseach concerned about the impact this will have on the modest pay provisions of the new agreement?
I met the Greencore workers' representatives two weeks ago last Friday. They asked me to take two actions, namely, to make direct contact with both the Labour Court and the company. I am surprised and disappointed that the workers' representatives told Deputy Rabbitte that they were unaware of any such progress last Friday week. I got back to them within four days to tell them precisely that we had made those direct engagements.
I accept what the Deputy says. Within four or five days of our meeting, I told the representatives that I had urged the company's senior executive to engage with them on the terms of the Labour Court recommendation. I have no guarantee that such engagement will resolve the matter but I made my views clear to the company management. There is not a huge amount of money involved and the company has an obligation to negotiate. It has agreed to re-enter those negotiations and I hope a resolution can be found. It is unreasonable that the workers should be expected to wait until it is discovered whether moneys might be available from the EU in the future. One of my officials has dealt directly with the workers' representatives. If there is a communications issue, I will ask him to convey that message to the company.
Oil prices and interest rates were the primary drivers of inflation in the past year. If they are excluded from the latest figures, the increase last year was 2.1%. In other words, inflation is not accounted for across an entire basket of products and services. Rather, these two elements are accounting for half the inflation rise and both are outside domestic control.
There are other areas where we have influence. The figures being discussed yesterday and last week show the inflation rate for consumer services running at 8% in December compared to a rate of 1.2% for consumer goods. There is unquestionably an issue about competition in the services sector and I am sure IBEC will examine that as well because it is very clear.
From a positive perspective, the anti-inflation group, which has worked under social partnership and which worked very well in 2003, has been reactivated and has started a range of meetings with numerous organisations. It will meet the Commission on Energy Regulation next month and it has met the CSO, the Competition Authority and the National Consumer Agency. The group has been reactivated and, obviously, the Government is driving that to see where we can make changes. Our analysis shows that consumer services are a prime example of where there have been huge price increases of over 8% as against consumer goods which have increased by 1%. It is not the case, as some groups have said, that the increases have been in consumer goods. The increases have been in consumer services. The goods in the shops have risen only by 1.2%. IBEC and others should look very carefully at consumer services and at some of the competition issues surrounding that.