Tuesday, 1 October 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions
Cabinet Committee Meetings
I propose to take Questions Nos. 12 to 18, inclusive, together.
The role of the social policy and public service reform division is to assist me, as Taoiseach, and the Government in delivering on the objective in the programme for Government to provide public policies and services which drive a socially inclusive and fair society, and to assist in renewing and transforming the public service. Specifically, the division assists the work of the Cabinet Committee on social policy and public services and the associated senior officials group. This committee, which covers issues relating to health, Sláintecare, education, children, equality, social inclusion, the Irish language, the arts, culture and continued improvements in and reform of public services, last met on 10 September and is due to meet again before the end of the year. The division also assists the work of the Cabinet committee on security and the associated senior officials group. This committee, which covers issues relating to justice, defence and policing reform, is expected to meet on 10 October.
The social policy and public service reform division also provides programme office assistance to the policing reform implementation group and the high-level policing reform steering board on the implementation of A Policing Service for the Future, which is the Government’s four-year plan for the implementation of the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing. The division advances the north-east inner city initiative, including through the north-east inner city programme office, the programme implementation board and the oversight group. It assists the work of the Civil Service management board, which oversees the implementation of the Civil Service renewal plan. It assists in the delivery of Our Public Service 2020 through membership of the public service leadership board and the public service management group. It incorporates the programme for Government office, which monitors and reports on the implementation of the commitments contained in A Programme for a Partnership Government across all Departments, with the latest annual progress report published in May 2019. It has departmental oversight of the National Economic and Social Council. It provides me with briefings and speech material on social policy and public service reform issues and participates in relevant interdepartmental committees and other groups.
Cabinet committee E last met on 22 November 2018. Following a Government decision in July to reorganise the Cabinet committee structures, the Cabinet committee on social policy and public services now covers health and Sláintecare.
I am not sure whether the Taoiseach is aware that engineers have identified structural flaws in 17 public school building projects that house 18 schools. This came to light during the summer. Educate Together is the patron body of several of the affected schools, including one in my constituency. These schools are in addition to the 22 schools that were found last year to have had defective builds. It is worth noting that the schools in the most recent batch of defective builds were cleared for use last October and November after limited assessments found no requirement for precautionary measures to be put in place. I understand that following its review of the affected schools, the Department of Education and Skills intends to undertake a wider independent review of its design and build programme. Such a review is very necessary.
I must state honestly to the Taoiseach that I have significant concerns about wider Government public procurement processes and the Department's ability to deliver schools building projects. My personal experience of engaging with the Department on one of the affected schools - Broombridge Educate Together national school - has been a real eye-opener. I have found it impossible to secure basic information from the Department. I have found it impossible to establish what was wrong with the school, what remediation works have been carried out and what further remediation works are envisaged next summer and the following summer. The school in question also houses a crèche. Parents were hugely put out when their children could not enter this childcare facility to avail of its services for many weeks during the summer.
Despite my best efforts, up to and including with the Minister, I have not been furnished with basic information to which any Member of the Oireachtas and any taxpayer should be entitled when such defective work has been done as part of a school construction project. Can the Taoiseach assist me in getting to these basic facts? Wider issues like public procurement and the delivery of these projects also arise in this context. There have been many defects in school builds. I ask the Taoiseach to explain why there is almost a secret of Fatima atmosphere from the Department and the Minister, who refused to answer basic questions during the summer. What is wrong with the building? What remediation has been done? What further remediation is necessary? I would have thought that such questions were very straightforward.
Any social policy worth its name would understand the key importance of treating pensioners with respect and fairness. Even though they are no longer working, we must ensure their rights are upheld and the contribution they have made to our society through their work is respected. Earlier today, hundreds of pensioners protested in the pelting rain as part of a protest organised by the Federation of Pensioners Associations. They believe the Government is failing to respect this country's pensioners, to give them their rights and to give them the level of access to State agencies and institutions that they should have to ensure they are represented properly and treated fairly. The point they are making is that they have suffered with FEMPI and with other changes that have been made by employers and Governments. Their pensions have been substantially affected. Some pensioners have not seen a pension increase for ten years. They have absolutely no right to be represented as a group with the Government at partnership talks, the Workplace Relations Commission or the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman. When their pensions, incomes and quality of life are affected by changes and cuts, they have absolutely no say in the matter.
Will the Taoiseach respond to these concerns raised by pensioners? Will he give them the right to be collectively represented at wage agreement talks in respect of any area where their pensions might be affected and to have the right to collectively go to the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman and WRC? Pensions are, in effect, wages deferred. Pension schemes comprise money which was put in by workers while they were working. However, once they have retired and are pensioners, they have no right to access the WRC. That is not right and I want the Taoiseach to respond positively to the demands of pensioners.
Last week, the chief executive officer of Bord na Móna told trade union representatives that the company faced a dire future which will have devastating consequences for thousands of its workers. In his recent speech on climate at the United Nations, the Taoiseach spoke of a just transition. This is the first real test of a just transition, yet his Department and Government are already failing. The National Economic and Social Council, which falls under the remit of the Taoiseach's Department, has been given responsibility for dealing with the transition to a low carbon economy. The promised just transition task force, which was meant to tackle the threats to the jobs of Bord na Móna workers and others, has yet to be established. Will the Taoiseach commit to the immediate creation of a national just transition task force? Will he ensure that all stakeholders are involved so that workers like those in Bord na Móna can be protected?
Yesterday, it was announced that homelessness had reached a new record high and for the seventh straight month over 10,000 people were homeless. Even more shocking is the fact that 70 children became homeless last month. This has happened five years after the Government finally admitted that there is a housing crisis. It happened through the terms of four senior Cabinet members and Ministers for Housing, Planning and Local Government and three years after the publication of a plan which replaced four other plans and was presented as a belt and braces initiative which was certain to succeed. It is now two years since the Taoiseach announced the "plan is working" at a Fine Gael Ard-Fheis, a year and a half since he said homelessness was being overcome and a year since he said, with regard to housing, that the "worst thing we could do is change policy." Does the Taoiseach honestly believe that having a homelessness figure that exceeds 10,000 for seven months in a row and having 70 children become homeless last month alone represents a policy which has been working for the past three years? Clearly, he and his right hand adviser, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, have been surprised by these figures; otherwise they would not have spent so much time early last year claiming to have made decisive progress on the issue of homelessness. The Taoiseach did not find the time this week to tweet about or reference the new homelessness figures but he issued a claim that we are starting to see results in regard to house prices. How many people does he project will be homeless at the end of this year? When will the figure be reduced to the level it was when he first said his policies were working?
I again thank Deputies for their questions. I am aware that there are structural flaws in quite a number of our schools and public buildings. These flaws are all of a different scale. In any case, where there are structural flaws in a school or public building, the number one priority, in particular in respect of schools, has to be the safety of children and staff. Any defects will be repaired on a needs and priority basis. I am not familiar with the school Deputy McDonald mentioned but I will advise the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Joe McHugh, that she raised it in the Chamber. I do not understand why there would be any need for secrecy about these issues. I have been able to get answers on the schools in my constituency where there have been structural flaws. I do not see why the Deputy should not be able to get answers but perhaps there are things I do not know.
Deputy Boyd Barrett said we should respect our senior citizens and pensioners, and I agree. I am very proud to lead a Government which has increased the State pension to a record high. We have one of the highest weekly pensions in the entire world. It is double or treble what it is in Northern Ireland or across the water in Britain. We have some really successful schemes which have been defended and funded through the years, such as free travel and the household benefits scheme. We are also constantly improving life expectancy, and Ireland is ranked among the highest in the world in terms of people living long and healthy lives.
Poverty among pensioners in Ireland is less than 2% or close to statistical zero. Pensioners in Ireland are less likely to be poor than any other social group in society, such as working people, children, etc. That did not happen by accident. Rather, it happened because for years, and perhaps even decades, parties in government pursued policies that looked out for our pensioners. That is not to say that we cannot do more, because we certainly can, in particular around the quality of our health services and the very long time many older people have to wait to see a doctor.
The Deputy referred largely to occupational and private pensions. They are all different and are paid in addition to the State pension. They are very much linked to how much is paid in, the quality of the investments made by the pension fund, if any, life expectancy and other such issues. It is very difficult to give the Deputy a comprehensive answer on an issue that is so multifaceted and complex.
When it comes to involvement in the WRC, I struggle to see how that would work. When workers go into the WRC to negotiate a pay increase or reduction, as the case may be, or to negotiate job losses, the negotiations concern productivity, changes to work practices and all of those things. It is difficult to see how this would be applied to pensioners. A pensioner could not be made redundant or sign up for productivity or workplace changes in return for an increase or decrease in a pension. It hard to see how that would work.
Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked about just transition, which is something we are examining quite closely. We had a meeting of the Cabinet subcommittee on the environment yesterday to review the progress being made on the climate action plan. In a particular section of the meeting we discussed the midlands, where issues around Bord na Móna will require us to focus on just transition in that region. In many ways, the midlands and Bord na Móna will be the first test of just transition and we need to get it right. It is not just about looking after the Bord na Móna workers and making sure they are treated properly but also about making sure there is alternative employment and payroll coming into the region. That is something on which we need to work. At the moment, we are trying to work through whether we should have a single just transition task force for the entire country or whether it would make more sense to have localised ones where the issues are very different. The issue of just transition for Bord Na Móna workers in the midlands will be very different from a just transition in a different part of the country for a different type of industry. Maybe one size does not fit all and we need localised approaches.