Dáil debates

Thursday, 2 February 2017

12:00 pm

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Sligo-Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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As every Member agrees, Brexit poses the most serious challenge to this country since the foundation of the State. We have already seen the policy decision to devalue sterling cost the agrifood industry some €470 million in the last few months alone. Today, the UK Government publishes its White Paper on Brexit which might give an indication as to how it proposes to manage the Brexit negotiations when Article 50 is eventually signed next month. Despite the platitudes on all sides, it is clear that we are not prioritising Brexit to the extent we must to address the effect on our economy. Yesterday, we had to depend on listening to the debate in the House of Commons to find out what the plans and the effects on this country will be. The Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, addressed the House of Commons and agreed with the DUP's Sammy Wilson that to give Northern Ireland a special deal would be the wrong approach. It is clear that there will be a hard Border. This morning, Mr. Lux of the EU Commission went into extraordinary detail to outline blue and red channels for goods crossing the Border. This situation is totally unacceptable and comes within 48 hours of Prime Minister May talking here about the need to avoid a return to the old Border situation.

The question is what we are going to do about this. Does the commentary of Mr. Lux this morning not clearly underline the need for Ireland to build an alliance against what is a very fast emerging hard Brexit for this country with a hard Border and red and blue channels where heavy goods vehicles and others will have to be called in and checked? He said some of it will happen with the benefit of technology while it will also require Border posts and staff. This is a seriously retrograde step. Brexit has the potential to wreck the Northern Ireland peace process and the Good Friday Agreement and to impact seriously on Border communities which are already struggling in the context of damaged trade. We have had constant platitudes from the Government about an all-of-Government approach. We need a Minister for Brexit, appropriately resourced, and the Government must immediately publish a plan about how bilateral negotiations with Britain will go and, more particularly, how negotiations are going to go with the EU Commission. It is essential that Northern Ireland is granted a special deal to secure the future of this entire nation economically, socially and politically.

Does the Tánaiste accept that there is a very real and serious risk facing Ireland with the implications of the Border controls confirmed this morning by Mr. Lux? Is the Government accepting that Borders are going to be put in, which Mr. Lux suggested this morning? Can the Tánaiste outline the position to the House?

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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We are under absolutely no illusion about the nature and scale of the Brexit challenge and we have a clear and comprehensive plan. That has been evident in our approach to date. The Taoiseach has made his own views absolutely clear on the fact he is leading on this and will continue to do so.

All Ministers across Government are also involved as part of comprehensive planning and reaction to the very serious challenges we face as a country. We are absolutely clear.

To continue to talk about a lack of preparation is not the approach that the main Opposition party should take, from a reputational point of view as far as Ireland is concerned. It is very clear that the Government has done deep analysis across all areas of the Brexit network. There are 11 working groups. A significant amount of work has been done in my Department. I will meet the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, on Monday to continue the discussion. It is very clear that the top-level priorities have been identified, namely, trade, economy, Northern Ireland, the peace process, the common travel area and the future of the EU. We have examined the risks, the mitigating factors and what is needed.

The House of Commons has now passed the first stage of the Bill, allowing the Prime Minister to notify the European Union of the intention of the United Kingdom to leave. We are now in a different situation, in that the first formal step has been taken and more is to come in terms of the legislative process and the publication of the White Paper. It will be useful for us to deepen our preparations and, at EU level, detail our priorities. There are ongoing meetings with different sectors, industry and civic society. The all-island dialogue will continue. Another meeting will be held very shortly.

I do not have time to go into the enormous programme of engagement that has been undertaken by the Taoiseach and other Ministers. Let me reassure the House that it has been very intensive and detailed work has been done on all of the implications. Until Article 50 is triggered, formal negotiations will not begin.

Our plan is having an effect. Chief EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, has named four initial priorities. Deputy MacSharry referred to Northern Ireland, which is one of the priorities. I met Mr. Barnier and his team, as did the Taoiseach and a number of other Ministers, and had detailed discussions about our priorities for Brexit. We made our position on not returning to any type of a hard border very clear. His other priorities include protecting the common travel area, which is one of Prime Minister Theresa May's 12 negotiation priorities. As there is greater clarity from the British side, we will be in a position to continue to ensure that our headline priorities are centre stage in our contact with the UK and across the EU and in all the meetings we will continue to have with EU heads of state.

12:05 pm

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Sligo-Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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It is time that we were honest with the people. The Tánaiste keeps telling us how busy she is and how much work is being done. However, Mr. Lux let the cat out of the bag today and spoke of red and green channels. The Tánaiste needs to clarify this for the people. Some six weeks ago, traffic was funnelled from the M1 onto the N1 at Ravensdale in order to allow customs guards and social welfare personnel to screen traffic. Is this a dry run for what we can expect in the future? It is time the Tánaiste outlined the plan clearly to the people. Far too much is at stake. Can she confirm that additional staff and resources will be exclusively assigned to the issue of Brexit so these matters can be dealt with?

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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In response to the Deputy's dramatic statements, no decisions have been taken yet and no negotiations have begun. I do not think he should anticipate the outcome at this point. We have heard from many commentators and there are many opinions and individual comments, but we are not yet in negotiation mode, as the Deputy knows. We have had comments from many different European commentators.

This is a decision that has been taken by people in the UK and their Government. We are engaging with every member state to explain our unique issues, and that is progressing well. Of course the process will intensify in the period ahead. Every initiative that we can take is being taken at this point. In my meetings with my Northern counterpart and other meetings next week, we will discuss the applications for civil and criminal law, of which there are many. A significant amount of work needs to be done. There is very intensive engagement within and across Departments at this point, highlighting the priority of this issue for us as a Government.

12:10 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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The result of a ballot of members of the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland, ASTI, is expected to be announced today. The ballot was held because of major issues surrounding teachers' pay as well as issues surrounding supervision and substitution duties. Despite some minor concessions on the Government's part, the deal put to teachers remains largely the same as that proposed before teachers went out on strike last October. The ASTI executive has recommended that its members should reject the deal on offer. If they do, industrial action will resume and schools will close again. As any parent will tell the Tánaiste, this will be very disruptive. As any student, particularly those in exam years, will tell her, it will also be very stressful.

Teachers have legitimate concerns about their pay and conditions. Their concerns are justifiably shared across the public sector following seven years of pay cuts, but the teaching profession in particular has been affected as it is the one area in which a large number of new recruits had to be employed over the past ten years because of demographic pressures. Teachers and the rest of our public sector workers want and deserve fair pay restoration. They are not looking for a pay increase, but pay restoration, that is, to be simply given back what was taken away.

The demands of teachers are not insurmountable but they remain unresolved because the Government has its head stuck firmly in the sand. The issue of pay equality, which was a central reason for industrial action in October has not been addressed in the slightest, but it must be addressed. New entrants - those who started teaching from January 2011 - start on a pay scale that is on average 10% less than their colleagues. The Government has no plan to address that situation. Worse still, there is no commitment to equal pay for equal work.

I am of the firm view that this issue must be resolved before the scheduled ending of the Lansdowne Road agreement. The clock is ticking and kicking the can down the road will not resolve the problem. Will the Tánaiste, on behalf of Government, today commit unequivocally to the principle of pay equality for teachers? Will she agree that the issue of pay equality - equal reward for equal effort - for post-2011 teachers must be addressed and confirm that it will be addressed before the scheduled ending of the Lansdowne Road agreement?

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the fact that the central executive committee of the ASTI took a decision to put the outcome of the recent talks process to a ballot of its members. We should await the result which will be announced later today.

On the points raised, it is critical to note that three quarters of the gap for new entrants described by the Deputy has been closed in this deal. It is a good offer that was made following negotiations with all the trade unions. This was a final offer and we should respect the ballot process. A new pay process is starting under the Public Sector Pay Commission which will address the issues raised by the Deputy.

There are immediate benefits to individual ASTI members in accepting the offer. The current deal on the table would see new teachers get a 15% to 22% increase in their salaries, beginning in January; immediate backdated payments for supervision and substitution for all teachers; restoration of increments; and increased flexibility in how the Croke Park hours are used in schools. Acceptance would also mean that ASTI members can avail of a new voluntary opt-out from the supervision and substitution scheme and would provide for earlier permanency for those on fixed-term contracts as well as new arrangements for securing additional hours for part-timers. The Deputy will see why I say the deal on offer is a good one. I hope the result of the ballot later today will be positive.

It is important to note that under the package announced in the recent budget, which was also significant, there will be greater promotion opportunities on offer in schools for new teachers coming into the system.

These benefits are only available to ASTI members if they vote to accept the package. The proposals also include arrangements for addressing concerns about the junior cycle, including arrangements for ensuring that no current third year students miss out on marks in their English examination.

I accept that the ASTI has outstanding pay demands and that the deal does not travel the full distance it set out to achieve. However, it represents significant progress, as I indicated. The door is certainly not closed to the trade union movement seeking to advance the issue further in the context of our public service pay talks when they get under way.

12:15 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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The Tánaiste's response, while not unexpected, is nonetheless alarming and I am sure it will cause alarm among teachers, students and parents alike. The alarm resides in the following simple matter. Why can no Government Minister commit, as a matter of principle, to equal pay for equal work? That is what this issue boils down to. Nobody expects pay restoration to happen overnight and it is accepted, including by teachers, that no one has a magic wand. Why can the Government not make a commitment for new entrants who are currently disadvantaged, employed on a discriminatory basis and do not receive equal pay? Why can it not commit to implement equal pay for equal work over an agreed timescale? This is what needs to happen. Irrespective of the outcome of the ballot, which is a matter for the members of the ASTI to decide, this issue will remain outstanding. Why does the principle of equal pay for equal work and effort not apply for new and young teachers?

Photo of John DeasyJohn Deasy (Waterford, Fine Gael)
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Why does it not apply to Sinn Féin Deputies?

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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Unlike Fine Gael Deputies, we are not on the gravy train.

Photo of John DeasyJohn Deasy (Waterford, Fine Gael)
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Sinn Féin applies double standards.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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The Deputy needs to calm down.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Can we have silence, please? It would be helpful if Deputy Deasy did not provoke Opposition Deputies.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I put it to Deputy McDonald that the choice for ASTI members-----

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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My question concerned the Government.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I will answer the Deputy's question. The choice is whether to accept the immediate benefits on offer and participate, with the other trade unions, in the further process of engagement or forgo these immediate benefits in favour of a very unpredictable future. It is for the ASTI leadership to explain its strategy in that respect. For the Government's part, as Deputy McDonald is aware, our approach to the budget was that we have a recovering economy with significant demands and we have to balance supporting those who are dependent on social welfare and taxpayers. If we did not have tax revenue, we would not be able to invest in services or implement the type of pay restoration that is under way.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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The Tánaiste should answer the question, which was on equal pay for work of equal value.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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The answer to the question is that in terms of balancing this range of issues, the Government has taken the most prudent and careful decisions possible. We have also set up a process to engage with the trade unions and discuss future pay restoration, which will deal with those issues.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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Does the Government not believe in pay equality?

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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The publication yesterday by the Central Statistics Office of the survey on income and living conditions in Ireland for 2014 and 2015 shows some progress has been made in the fight against poverty and a welcome reduction in economic equality. Much remains to be done, however, and tax justice is clearly the means by which we will advance this agenda. This week, we learned that the National Asset Management Agency will pay an additional €158 million in tax on profits made by the agency from the sales of property held through section 110 companies.

Today, it is reported that Matheson has closed three charities that were used by vulture funds to avoid paying tax. I welcome that. However, a fortnight ago The Irish Times published a comprehensive investigation showing the intense lobbying before the budget by companies such as Kennedy Wilson, Oaktree Capital, Hammerson and CarVal. This investigation shows the depth and extent of lobbying activity by vulture funds of the Department of Finance to ensure that changes to our laws did not inconvenience their elaborate tax avoidance structures.

The statutory lobbying register shows a lot less activity. The lobbying returns for September-December 2016 show that only a small portion of those meetings were required to be declared and that much of the lobbying by these companies is carried out with junior officials so that it flies under the radar. It is clear that lobbying rules in regard to tax matters need to be strengthened so that all activity is captured. In at least one case letters from a vulture fund directly to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, have not been declared. In other cases, it may be that vulture funds avoided the necessity to declare their interactions by channelling their contact to more junior officials with whom contact does not have to be declared.

Tax policy is a particularly important part of public policy. Our tax must be just and fair. Continuing to allow vulture funds to influence tax policy under the radar is unfair to families and small business across the country who have no such access. Will the Government prescribe the higher executive officer, HEO, and assistant principal grades within the tax division of the Department of Finance as designated officials to ensure that lobbying on tax matters, particularly by vulture funds, can no longer be hidden in the shadows?

In the context of the €150 million paid by NAMA, how much does the Government expect to collect from other companies following the rule changes?

12:20 pm

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy has raised a number of issues. On the CSO data, I welcome that survey which shows that Ireland became a wealthier and more equal country in 2015 as compared with 2014. It is also shows an increase in income of 6.2%, with consistent poverty falling from 8.8% to 8.7% and a significant fall in deprivation rates. The rate of those not poor but at risk of falling into poverty is also decreasing. This data highlights the improvements that have been made in regard to those issues.

The Deputy also raised the issue of NAMA and section 110. As the Deputy will be aware, that issue has been discussed in the House previously. The Government has taken action in regard to section 110. A a decision was taken to end the eligibility of section 110 companies, not taxable in Ireland, in relation to profit-making from property-related investment under that section. That change has been made.

The Deputy's point about lobbying, vulture funds and contacts with the Department of Finance is an important point in relation to lobbying on tax policy. A lobbyists register has been put in place. If there is evidence of people who should be registering not doing so that needs to be pursued. The message must go out to people that if they are lobbying in any area of government policy they need to register. I will ask the Minister to examine the report from which Deputy Burton quoted. There are clear obligations on lobbyists, the legislation in respect of which is very recent and was introduced by the previous Government. I am sure that it will be reviewed and that any gaps identified will be examined.

The principal point is that we all expect that if we have legislation stating lobbyists ought to register, they should do so. I understand many have registered. If there are gaps, however, they need to be examined. If changes to the legislation are required in order for that to happen, that can be considered.

12:25 pm

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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I asked the Tánaiste about shadow lobbying in Ireland. In order to seek tax advantages in this jurisdiction, very clever people are engaging in shadow lobbying. It makes our tax system more unequal than it needs to be. The reason I raised the SILC statistics is that they show clearly how much further we have advanced by comparison with Northern Ireland, for instance, in making a more equal and fair society, particularly through social welfare increases in 2014 and 2015. The statistics and comparisons exist and people can read them.

If we want to make our society more equal, which is what everybody wants, we must have circumstances in which lobbying is properly accounted for. People are flying under the radar and lobbying in the shadows by lobbying people such as senior officials but also more junior officials at assistant principal and higher executive officer levels.

I asked the Tánaiste previously whether the Government will introduce a standing commission on taxation so society and the Parliament can be constantly on the watch for new tax-avoidance creations. Will it do so?

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy was at the Cabinet table when the legislation was passed by the Government. It was very important legislation. If what the Deputy is describing as a shadow system exists, it clearly needs to come out of the shadows. I have made that very clear. The legislation exists and lobbyists have a responsibility to register. If the Deputy has information about the shadow lobbying she believes is taking place, she should make it known to the Minister for Finance. It needs to be examined. We introduced the legislation because there was lobbying of various sorts occurring behind the scenes. A decision was taken by the last Government to have more transparency in this regard. If there is further work to be done on it, that can happen.

I agree with the Deputy's point on social transfers and their impact. The evidence from yesterday's CSO report and Gini analysis is very clear that social transfers continue to perform very strongly in reducing the at-risk-of-poverty rate. There was a reduction from 34.9% before social transfers to 16.9% after social transfers. That is a very significant reduction in poverty as a result of the decisions taken by the current Government and its predecessor.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independent)
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I wish to raise the very serious and escalating situation facing workers in Tesco. In recent weeks, Tesco has decided to take the extraordinary action of bypassing its workers' union, Mandate, and unilaterally imposing the terms of a contract. These terms, if accepted, would mean a pay cut of more than 15%, in addition to an attack on terms and conditions for the company's longest-serving workers. This is only the beginning. Tesco's union-busting activities are part of a broader plan known as Project Black, which was drawn up by a specialist international legal team called Eversheds. It aims to get rid of 1,200 of the most secure and well-paid jobs in the company, critically undermining the union in the process. If this plan succeeds, it will be a big step towards bringing Tesco into line with the low-hour, low-wage and insecure employment that is rampant across the retail sector. The company intends to enforce these changes by bullying its workers, trying to turn them against one another and disciplining those who speak out. This is both deeply worrying and unnecessary.

Tesco is no pauper. Research estimates suggest the company makes between €200 million and €250 million in profit per year in Ireland. Only a few years ago, Tesco was calling Ireland "Treasure Island" in its internal documents, a clear indication of the big money it made here.

In recent days in Britain, Tesco agreed to shell out £3.7 billion to buy Booker, the food wholesale company, and it plans to pay dividends to shareholders at the same time that it imposes cuts on workers. Tesco is no pauper. It is a serious player. It is the largest private sector employer in Ireland. What happens to its 11,000 retail workers in the coming days and weeks should be of high priority to every Deputy. It will also tell a story about the reality of work in modern Ireland.

Figures show that Ireland is second in the OECD in terms of low pay at 25% of the workforce. The Tánaiste referred to yesterday's Survey of Income and Living Conditions, SILC, report but it also mentioned that 105,000 people were working poor. Everyday, hundreds of thousands of people go to work in low-pay jobs on insecure terms and unpredictable hours, struggling to get by from day to day. In many cases, the public subsidises this. For example, 10% of Tesco's workforce is in receipt of family income supplement.

Will the Tánaiste condemn Tesco's latest actions? Will she defend the rights of workers to be represented in their workplaces and not to be bypassed by super-rich multinational corporations that try to impose terms unilaterally? Will she take action about the low-pay crisis, which already impacts on one quarter of our workers according to the OECD and threatens to escalate further under her Government?

12:30 pm

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I would make a number of points on the issue that the Deputy has raised about a particular firm. First of all, workers have a right to be consulted on any change in their contract. That goes without saying; it is a basic principle and we want to see that observed. The second point is that, in this country, we have the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court. Clearly, we would want to see these mechanisms being used to the full in a situation such as the Deputy describes. I will ask the Minister to liaise with her afterwards regarding any particular action that may be taken in terms of the situation that she has outlined.

The general point is that what we are seeing in Ireland at present is a huge increase in employment. We want to see well-paid jobs. We are seeing that across the country. We are seeing a huge reduction in unemployment from 15.7% down to just over 7% now. Clearly, we want to continue that. We launched our new jobs action plan just this week. We want to see that improvement being reflected right across the country and we want to see well-paying jobs being available for individuals and for families because that is the best way out of poverty.

Clearly, the Deputy has outlined a situation that she has concerns about in respect of Tesco but, in the first instance, it is for discussion between employers and employees. We have well-tested labour relations mechanisms available where there is conflict, and I would hope that they would be used.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independent)
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The Tánaiste is ignoring the fact that the jobs debate is not simply about quantity, but also quality. It is not just about establishing commissions. We need robust legislation. The Government is allowing us to become a low-pay Ireland. According to the OECD, one in four Irish workers is low paid. According to yesterday's SILC report, there are more than 100,000 working poor. The same report stated that consistent poverty among the children of lone parents, who are disproportionately retail workers, has increased to 26.2%. These figures do not even count those people who are underemployed or the prevalence of short contracts and low, insecure hours.

What action will the Tánaiste take about this? Tesco is one of the few employers in the retail sector that still has thousands of decent jobs in which workers earn enough on which to live, and it has these jobs because workers organised. Research shows that, in the retail sector, those in unions earn approximately 30% more than those who are not. I urge the workers in Tesco to stay strong, stay together and remember that if the company is given the right to impose terms unilaterally on one group today, it will do so to another tomorrow.

This week is the 70th anniversary of the death of Jim Larkin. I will conclude with the slogan: an injury to one is an injury to all. That message should go out to every worker who is fighting those issues.

12:35 pm

Photo of Denise MitchellDenise Mitchell (Dublin Bay North, Sinn Fein)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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We all share the goal Deputy Joan Collins outlined of creating high quality jobs in this country. We certainly want to see that. In relation to the statistics that were published today, I wish to make the point that the full impact of the recovery that is ongoing is not reflected in the 2015 figures because we have had improvements since the figures that are in the report today were examined. As the Deputy is aware, we were in a position to introduce a range of welfare increases from 2016 onwards and, as a result, fewer people are dependent on transfers. For example, the number of people in receipt of working age income and employment supports continues to fall, to just under 405,000 people in December 2016. I accept that is still a large number. However, it is 10% less than the number claiming those allowances in the previous year, thus showing the rise in income. The jobs that are being created are taking people out of poverty and poverty traps but work remains to be done.