Thursday, 4 July 2019
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
The Minister will agree that there could not be a worse time to conclude the Mercosur deal than today. There could not be a worse time from the point of view of our climate. The Oireachtas has declared a climate emergency - a declaration that is being repeated all over the world - and there is an awareness now of how finite our time on this planet is. The conclusion of this deal could not come at a worse time for the beef or poultry sectors. The latter have suffered significant price reductions and difficulties with factories. The Government is putting its head in the sand while these sectors are being decimated and hoping it will all go away. Despite this, the EU Commission has decided to conclude a deal. The deal in question has been has been 20 years in the making, it goes against all of the principles, beliefs and declarations relating to climate change, it will sound the death knell for Irish beef and severely damage the Irish poultry sector.
Then there is the background of a hard Brexit. We have discussed the ins and outs of the very a particular impact the latter will have on this island. What is agreed is that no matter what happens with Brexit, it will bad for our economy and, in particular, our beef producers. Mercosur, Brexit and the climate emergency are leading to a disaster that is being underpinned by the agreement to which I refer, to which the European Commission has signed up and in respect of which there have, depending on the day of the week or the hour of the day, been incredibly mixed signals coming from the Government.
This agreement was signed up to without any environmental analysis. In an article in today's edition of the Irish Farmers' Journal, Commissioner Hogan indicates that every country should carry out its own environmental analysis. What land is he living in? He is certainly not showing any awareness of where this planet is at if that is his attitude. When replying to questions on the matter from Deputy Micheál Martin on Tuesday last, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton stated, "This trade deal has compliance with the Paris Agreement at its heart. If there is not compliance with the Paris Agreement, there is no deal." I can tell the Minister opposite, Deputy Regina Doherty, that there is not compliance with the Paris Agreement because the EU is planning to reward governments, including that in Brazil, which is clearing rainforests at a rate of knots in order to make room for cattle which will be sold as part of this deal. Every 15 seconds, an area rainforest the size of a football pitch is cleared. Since President Bolsonaro took office, the level of deforestation has accelerated. The EU Commission is saying, "Go ahead," and giving him a clap on the back. Where is the Paris Agreement in that context? Instead, what we got all week were different messages. It seems that the Government is engaging in media management in order to try to manage its own backbenchers who have suddenly have woken up to the implications of this deal.
As both a Minister and a representative for Meath, Deputy Regina Doherty should be aware of the challenge facing our beef and poultry sectors. As a young Minister, she should be aware of where we stand in the context of the climate emergency. In order to get some idea as to where matters stand, from a Government perspective, can she outline her view on the agreement? Should the Mercosur agreement be passed and should the Government endorse it? Is the Minister on team Creed, the leader of which is going to take the agreement apart. Is she a member of team Humphreys, the leader of which thinks the agreement is good and that it will present many opportunities? Is she standing with the beef and poultry farmers? Is she standing with the climate against the might of South American climate deniers? Will the Government ratify or reject the Mercosur deal?
As a young Minister, I am on team Ireland, as are the Taoiseach, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton. I expect all Members of this House and of the Seanad are also on that team.
It is fully acknowledged that having a balanced international trade deal is important for our economy, including our agriculture sector. There is no point in having a benefit for one part of the economy and not having an equal benefit for another. That is why the agreement, which includes a significant tariff rate quota that will allow beef imports from Mercosur countries, is a disappointment to every one of us. That is why we have been working for the past number of years to bring it from where it was to where it is now. As the Deputy will agree, however, there is still a long way to go.
We worked hard with our colleagues in Europe to ensure that we will try to mitigate the impacts of what is on the table today. The agreement does not only have negative connotations for Ireland and Ireland's beef sector, it has those for other EU countries and some others who have aligned with the EU. While it is disappointing, the amount of time that it has taken for us to get where we are shows, in part, out efforts to try to mitigate what was originally a 300,000 tonne quota. That quota has now been significantly reduced. The Taoiseach, the Minister, Deputy Creed, Commissioner Hogan and others who have expressed their views, including the Deputy - I genuinely believe we are all on team Ireland here and on the same side - need to work together. My party and the Deputy's party need to use their connections in Europe to ensure that we get both a better result and better a transposition of what is a headline agreement into the legal text. That includes carbon-proofing the production methods used by all of those who are operating on a level playing field. It also includes taking cognisance of the governance in our beef and poultry sectors which is second to none. It further includes the quality and the delivery of the standards with which we have become synonymous internationally.
What is agreed today is not satisfactory from our perspective. Equally, it is not satisfactory from the perspective of others across Europe. The Taoiseach was fairly clear yesterday and the day before when he stated that we will work over the next couple of years with the influence that we have collegially with other countries and also with our Commissioner - he has done a tremendous amount of work to reduce the impact in recent years but the job is not done yet - to ensure that we continue to reduce the impact on our beef and poultry sectors. The agreement is currently a headline document and it will take at least two years - if the 20 years it has taken to get to where we are today are anything to go by, it could effectively take longer - for us to agree and align with those who are in similar positions to ourselves in order to ensure that we get a level playing field in respect of governance, carbon production and quality with regard to the sectors concerned.
There is no disjointedness and there is no spin. I genuinely believe that all politicians in this House should be on team Ireland and that we all should be working for the best outcome for our beef sector, but also for all of the other sectors that will benefit from the positive parts of Mercosur.
Everybody is on team Ireland. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, is on team Ireland but he fell asleep when he was on the pitch. Is Commissioner Hogan on team Ireland? The Commissioner is the cheerleader for this deal but I have noticed that there are more Fine Gael tanks being placed on his lawn than we will see in Washington later today. Commissioner Hogan is going to become the Government's scapegoat for this.
Our beef farmers, poultry farmers and pig farmers are on team Ireland but they are not feeling the team spirit at this stage because they have been thrown to the wolves. So many people are on team Ireland in terms of climate but they see the Government acquiescing to a deal that rewards climate change deniers, those who destroy rainforests and people who adhere to low standards.
I agree that team Ireland has the highest possible standards. Our beef, our poultry and our pigmeat are world class because of those standards, which cost money and make our products slightly more expensive compared with those of countries that do not have standards.
By acquiescing to this deal, we are rewarding the absence of standards. We are rewarding climate change deniers and abandoning our core agricultural industry. Farmers are not really feeling part of the team at the moment. Team Ireland is a lovely concept but those left on the substitutes' bench or indeed outside the stadium are not part of the team. Our beef, poultry and pig farmers do not feel as if they are in the stadium and they certainly do not feel there is anybody playing for them at the moment.
The Deputy knows how these deals work out and unravel. We are only at the start of the end of phase 1. The transposing of this headline agreement into a legal text will take place over the next number of years. It will be absolutely crucial that we represent the best interests of the beef industry in this country, as this Government and the ones that went before it have always done. That is why we should be on team Ireland. This is not about Fianna Fáil against Fine Gael against Sinn Féin. We all should want the best outcomes for all of the industries we represent. Beef is an incredibly important industry here but there are also beneficiaries of this deal. We need to reduce the difficulties and negatives in the deal for our beef and poultry industries while maintaining all of the positives for our drinks, chemicals and pharmaceutical industries. There is a fine balance to be played over the next few years by us and our skilled negotiating team in Europe, which includes Commissioner Hogan, to ensure that the final legal agreement hits the mark and provides positives for every industry.
Speaking on "Morning Ireland" this morning, the former head of the Army Ranger Wing, Commandant Cathal Berry, said that the purported pay package for members of the Defence Forces to be announced today amounts to "too little, too late". It is hard to disagree. The Minister talked about team Ireland. These are people who put their lives on the line for team Ireland. He said that what is on offer will work out at just €1 a day before tax for many soldiers and that "this is the kind of money you would give a child to get sweets and that is what the Government thinks of the Defence Forces." Again, it is hard to disagree. There is a serious recruitment and retention crisis in the Defence Forces, as there is in some areas in our public services on the front line. Some 3,700 personnel left the Defence Forces over the last number of years. The average turnover is currently 9%. In the Naval Service it is 14%. These people are voting with their feet. They do so because of the very low levels of pay that they receive. They pay mortgages and rent. Like everybody else, they are caught with the high cost of living, childcare, sending children back to school and all of the costs that families have to bear. They do so on very low and unsustainable levels of pay. Many soldiers see a long-term career in the Defence Forces as unsustainable and unviable. Those are the words they use. That is why for the sake of their families they are unfortunately leaving in their droves. Defence Forces personnel are among the worst paid workers in the public service.
This is relevant to the Minister's portfolio. There are Defence Forces families that are reliant on the working family payment. The fact that many families cannot make ends meet means they are dependent on welfare transfers simply to get by. Imagine people who work in the public service not being paid a living wage. Imagine people who put their lives on the line and who are the front line for this State getting welfare transfers because the State will not pay them what they are due. They legitimately ask for a pay increase to compensate, in the first instance, what was taken from them when FEMPI cuts were imposed on them by others in this House. Pay was unilaterally taken from them by previous Governments and all they are looking for is justice and fair work. They are also looking to be represented by a trade union or representative body. We hear from the Cabinet meeting that there will be some movement in the area of pay and allowances which, as the Defence Forces themselves are saying, it is too little, too late. Some form of yellow-pack collective bargaining and trade union membership has also been proposed. Does the Minister accept the words of Commandant Berry when he says this is too little, too late? Does she accept that an awful lot more needs to be done to ensure that these workers are paid a fair wage? Does she accept that it is unacceptable that welfare transfers are being paid to these workers? Will she commit to full collective bargaining rights for all members of our Defence Forces?
I thank the Deputy for his question, which is very topical as the Cabinet is currently meeting to address this issue. The report that was prepared by the independent Public Service Pay Commission is either being discussed or has been approved by Cabinet at this stage and will be published later by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The report of the independent commission is the outcome of the Government's recognition of the challenges surrounding recruitment and pay issues in the Defence Forces. It is not an abstract thing. It was prioritised over other groups in the Public Sector Pay Commission in the first instance because of how seriously the Government takes its commitment to the people who serve us on a daily basis. The recommendations will be published later on. I hope they will go a long way to addressing some of the concerns the Deputy has raised, those raised by Mr. Berry this morning and other representations that have been made. Families have come to each of us in recent months expressing their concerns and difficulties.
I am not at liberty to go through the details of the report although I am aware that everybody probably knows most of them already.
I like the job I have and I do not want to get into trouble for saying something that has not been agreed at Cabinet. There will be a press conference this afternoon and all of the details arising from the commission will be given. They will set out exactly what has been agreed. It will then be over to the men and women of our Defence Forces to decide whether they accept the proposal.
The problem is that we have already seen this. It has been leaked. We are reading in the papers. We have a fair sense of what is being proposed and discussed at Cabinet. We have very senior current and former members of the Defence Forces saying it is not enough. These are really genuine concerns that members of the Defence Forces have. It is soul-destroying for someone doing a job as important as being in the Naval Service or the Army or any of the Defence Forces not to be able to pay the bills and not to have even a living wage. Yesterday, the technical group that calculates the living wage produced an increased figure. Again yesterday in this House, the Taoiseach turned his face against introducing a living wage, even in the public sector. He is still saying to these workers that he is not prepared to pay them what is necessary to put food on the table, pay their rent or mortgage, pay for their children going to school or meet the cost of living. It is very clear that because of this, members of the Defence Forces are leaving in their droves. That is the message the Government is giving them. It is too little, too late and an awful lot more needs to be done. I am asking the Minister again if she will commit to ensuring that members of the Defence Forces get the just pay increases they need, full restoration of all cuts that were taken and sustainable wages. The Minister did not answer the question in respect of full collective bargaining rights. They have the same right as anybody else to be represented in terms of their working conditions.
Respectfully, while it might make a good soundbite, the Deputy knows full well that I do not have the authority to answer his questions in the affirmative. All I can say is that I have the authority to represent a Government that has a commitment to our Defence Forces and that is why the Public Service Pay Commission sought to address this issue as a priority. That is why the range of allowances, including the military service allowance, security day allowance, patrol duty allowance, Army Ranger Wing allowance and bomb disposal team allowance, as well as the return of premium rates for the weekends, have all been under consideration by the commission and will be presented in a document this afternoon for our Defence Forces to appraise and decide whether they will accept it. The priority from this Government is to ensure-----
I wish to return to the widely leaked announcement, confirmed by the Minister, that the Government is to sign off on €10 million of extra allowances for the Defence Forces today, or so we are led to believe.
This follows on from a report by the Public Service Pay Commission into the recruitment and retention crisis that we all acknowledge exists in our Defence Forces. There was, however, a clear flaw in the remit given to the Public Service Pay Commission for the work it was set in this regard. The commission was not permitted to examine the issue of core pay. A pay commission was prohibited from examining core pay.
Ireland is now in a situation where the economy has recovered, the cost of living is going up and there is a widespread view across the House - as the Minister has acknowledged - and across the country, that the Defence Forces have been left behind and need a particular focus and an upgrade in pay and conditions. In these exceptional circumstances why did the Government not include in the terms of reference of the Public Service Pay Commission the ability to look at the core pay of the Defence Forces? Every national pay agreement - two of which I was involved in - is held together with any number of sub-agreements and special arrangements. Given the scale of the crisis in the Defence Forces there is no reason this could not have been done.
It is reported there would be a 10% increase in the military services allowances but what does this mean in real terms? It means an extra payment resulting in an increase of between €4.20 and €12.30 per week. I do not believe the Government seriously thinks this would make an impact on the requirements for our Defence Forces' men and women. Having road tested the response in the media for the last week, and finding it to be seriously inadequate, apparently the Government has made one last minute adjustment by proposing another review to be announced this afternoon. This time it is for the 2,500 members of the Defence Forces who are specialists. This is simply a case of the issue that needs to be addressed being pushed down the road. I imagine the intention is to probably kick it beyond the next general election.
What does the Minister have to say to the thousands of men and women in our Defence Forces who need their pay increased today? Why did the Government not include an examination of core pay - which is the nub of the issue - in the review's terms of reference, a review the Government has vaunted every time the matter was raised in this House in the last months?
I feel that my ears are not hearing what the Deputy has suggested given that he was the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for five years and central to the establishment of the public service stability agreement, which has been tested time and again but has always held firm. That the Deputy would suggest we break with the public service stability agreement and put paid to the 1.75% pay increase - coming this September anyway - with a view for one section of the public sector-----
The Public Service Pay Commission was challenged with addressing the issues we have around recruitment and retention. This is the report its has come up with today that was charged with looking specifically at the issues we have, which are well documented, around the Permanent Defence Force and the Naval Service recruitment and retention issues. The report, which will be issued this afternoon, is the commission's suggestions for addressing that. The Deputy can reject them if he wants to but I believe it is more important that our Permanent Defence Force and Naval Service will consider there are items in the report that are enough satisfy them at this stage, while we then move on to the next section of the public service pay agreement.
The truth of the matter is that the issue of core pay was excluded from the review and it is not the independent review of the commission. The Public Service Pay Commission has said that its hands were tied behind its back because the terms of reference precluded it from looking at the issue of core pay. The Minister is aware that there is any amount of wriggle room available in these agreements. The Government found it for the nurses - rightly so - and found it for the Garda when it was put under pressure. Because the Government knows the Defence Forces cannot strike, its members are to be treated differently and they are not to have the increase in their actual pay to which everyone in this House and everybody in the trade union movement would agree they are entitled. I ask the Minister to not hide behind the review of the pay commission when it was the Government that preset the terms and the outcome by not allowing the commission to look at the issue of core pay. Will the Government now acknowledge that what it is offering will not be adequate to meet the legitimate demands of our Defence Forces' men and women? Will it agree to have a speedy review of core pay now and not just for a subset of the Army, who are the 2,500 specialists, but for all 8,500 men and women who serve our nation with such distinction?
-----but now is being entirely reckless today with the pubic sector agreement deal, which the Deputy knows needs to be maintained by all of us. What is on offer today is that the Public Service Pay Commission, having been charged with looking at issues around retention and recruitment, will offer its best endeavours to try to address those issues.
I would like to raise the issue of online safety for children in Ireland. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charles Flanagan, will be aware that cyberbullying and access to graphic adult material online such as pornography and violence is increasing in Ireland at an alarming rate. The availability of negative and exploitative online material to children from the youngest age through all the devices that are available such as mobile phones, tablets and gaming apps The emotional and mental anxiety experienced by children and young adults is at epidemic proportions with increased levels of self-harming among teenagers as a result of online peer pressure. On occasion this tragically results in victims taking their own lives. We are failing our young people by not taking the practical steps in implementing a system which educates Irish children in positive online behaviour. According to a recent OECD report Irish 15 year olds report incidents of cyberbullying at comparatively high rates and are more likely to use the Internet for extreme use by accessing harmful and damaging material.
Children need a basic building block, a skill set that will serve them in good stead for lifelong engagement with the Internet that will ensure that they can cope on the occasions when the cyber wolf comes to the door. The skill set needs to include discernment; critical thinking; empathy; and the ability to cope when presented with uncomfortable behaviour.
Technology is required that develops these relevant and age appropriate attitudes and strategies in a supervised, safe and controlled cyber environment. Technology is the pen and paper of our time and it is the means by which our children and young adults communicate today. The problem with the Internet and social networks is that we have never been taught how to use it. The Internet and social networks developed organically on a global scale without any conditions, rules or boundaries as to what is permissible behaviour. It was left up to humankind to police ourselves and as a result bad behaviour was given as equal an opportunity to flourish as good behaviour. As there are no rules and no repercussions, and because an individual is anonymous behind a computer screen he or she can inflict a lot of damage. This has to stop and it begins with practical education from the earliest age.
CyberSmarties.com, an international award-winning company based in Limerick, has had detailed discussions with officials from the Department of Education and Skills, the Garda authorities and Opposition Deputies. CyberSmarties is a safe social network for children aged seven to 12 years old and has been operating since 2015. More than 80,000 primary school children use the application and it operates in and out of school. It is a fully monitored, locked down social network for children, where no adults have access to the website. It is the first social network to authenticate a child as a real child through their schools. CyberSmarties' research has been used internationally and is recognised as the leading expert in child-safe social networks. CyberSmarties has worked closely with the national protection services within An Garda Síochána and is recognised by them. I ask the Minister to ensure that the CyberSmarties system is rolled out to our primary schools under the auspices of the Department of Education and Skills.
It is a topical issue and I thank the Deputy for raising it. I am the mother of four teenagers who have grown up knowing nothing else except technology in their hands. I am also the proud parent of two children who have used technology as part of our their educational offering from our local school. They have been very successful and have had a good experience with it.
The Deputy is correct. There is not a mam or dad, or probably any adult, who is not concerned about the amount of time our children spend online but, more important, about the material they can potentially access, or the people who have access to our vulnerable children. Not only do we need to take it very seriously as parents - it is challenging and difficult, and I am not saying it is an easy thing to do - but the Government also has to take the health and safety of all of our children extremely seriously, and that is particularly true in the online environment.
The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, will bring forward the online safety Bill in the autumn. We propose that, hopefully, this will happen with everybody's input, because it will have to go to pre-legislative scrutiny following the public consultation that has taken place over the past couple of months. We are going to ask all web providers to operate under a new safety code. There will be a clear expectation that they have to take responsibility and measured steps to ensure that children and young, vulnerable adults are safe online. We have to absolutely ban and outlaw cyberbullying material that is designed - it is totally mad to think about this - to encourage children to try to be bulimic or try to be anorexic, or to teach them how to self-harm and how to do damage to themselves. I do not understand a person who would create content like that but our children are getting access to that kind of content just by being available to YouTube, Google and all of the other apps that they enjoy using socially with their friends. The laws of the land have to ensure that not only are there rules, but that they are enforced. The new online safety Bill and a new online safety commissioner will play a pivotal role and we, as a House, should make sure we get that legislation drafted and passed as soon as we can.
Parents have a huge responsibility at home but schools and teachers also have a huge responsibility, not only to make sure there is a digital strategy and a safety strategy in every school, but also to ensure that we teach our kids, in this new environment, to recognise what is good or to recognise somebody who is out to do them harm, because most of our children are young and naive, and they believe what they are told and never assume it is a bad thing.
I have no knowledge of the company, CyberSmarties, to which the Deputy referred. I checked in the Department and I know it has a hugely valuable reputation. It has had enormous interaction and I suggest that it needs to have more. If it is doing work with An Garda Síochána, there is nothing that we cannot learn in regard to best practice from an international perspective. We all want the same thing, which is for our children to enjoy the new world of technology but to get the best out of it, and for us to protect them as a State, as parents and as school educators from the worst aspects of this.
Everybody recognises the dangers and the problems but we need to do something about it. This company, which is recognised internationally, has been working with the Department of Education and Skills. Many of us did not grow up in the digital age. I believe practical Internet education is the very same as driving lessons for a young person who is going to drive a car or stabilisers for a bicycle, and is essential to protect children online. The CyberSmarties technology is a practical educational platform, which has a forward-thinking approach to online safety. It has been introduced to the Department, and the Garda authorities are on board. I ask the Minister to encourage her Government colleagues to implement this technology in all of our primary schools as a matter of priority. I hope this could become the subject of discussions on the forthcoming budget between the Departments of Education and Skills and Finance to make sure this technology, which has been proven to work, can be available to our young people. The parents of 80,000 children are paying for this online. They find it helpful and useful and it gives them peace of mind. Parents are living a nightmare due to worry about what their children are accessing online. We need to assist them and support them, and we can do it through our primary schools.
I hear the Deputy loud and clear. If there is any agency or organisation that has developed technology that will assist us in the Webwise programme that is delivered to all schools, then, obviously, we have to listen to it. Perhaps this should not be exclusive and I do not want to give the Deputy the impression that there are not other people available. If this company is successful and established, and is doing exactly what parents and educators want, which is to ensure we guard our children, we certainly have to learn with it and co-operate with it. I can certainly re-engage and talk to my colleagues, and that is no problem.
We need to learn from the technology that is available from multiple platforms. The Webwise programme within our schools needs not only to be advanced at the speed the technology is improving and increasing, but it has to be consistent in every school in every county. Each of our schools is run by a board of management and those boards of management are responsible for devising policies, including digital strategies, bullying strategies and self-care strategies. There has to be consistency on this. We need to ensure that what happens in Donegal happens in Dublin and Dunboyne as well. On that basis, when we establish the online safety rules and their governance and enforcement in the legislation this year, it has to feed into a digital strategy in all of our primary and secondary schools.