Thursday, 17 December 2020
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
10. To ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development the way in which her Department is facilitating remote working to encourage more persons to live in rural areas; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43592/20]
I raised this briefly in the previous round of questions. The Departments and the Government need to look at remote working and encourage more people to do it. The pandemic has provided a once in a lifetime opportunity with people working remotely and from home. There is an opportunity here. I ask the Minister to make a statement and I will come in then with a supplementary question, if that is okay.
I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 30 together.
The increased shift to remote work in the last nine months as a result of Covid-19 has given us all an opportunity to reimagine the possibilities for a greater regional distribution of jobs and for transforming rural Ireland. Remote working supported by appropriate infrastructure and facilities has the potential to encourage more people to live in rural areas while working in good quality jobs, no matter where their employers are based. It can also help to revitalise our rural towns if remote working hubs are developed in their centres.
The Western Development Commission, WDC, in partnership with the Whitaker Institute at National University of Ireland, Galway, has conducted extensive research into remote working in Ireland during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Recently published results from a survey of more than 5,600 people found that among those who can work remotely, 94% were in favour of working remotely on an ongoing basis for some or all of the time. Some 23% said they would consider relocating within Ireland based on their experiences of remote working since the onset of Covid-19 and 7% said they had already relocated within Ireland.
To support this shift, my Department is collaborating with the WDC to develop a national integrated network of remote working hubs supported by shared back office services. The national network will build on the work of the WDC in developing a hub network along the Atlantic economic corridor. The development of the national network is being overseen by an interdepartmental working group chaired by the Secretary General of my Department. Work is already under way to map and classify the various remote working facilities throughout the country. My Department has also allocated funding to the WDC to raise awareness of the hub facilities and the hub ecosystem across Ireland. In addition, €5 million has been allocated under budget 2021 for investment in remote working facilities at digital hubs and broadband connection points across rural Ireland.
I thank the Minister for her commitment to this and for her engagement with me on it. I have given a proposal to the Minister, which her officials have been dealing with, on putting these digital hubs next to rural post offices. Many debates have been held in the Dáil over the years on the future of the post office network. In recent months, the issue of urbanisation and the drive to the cities has been completely turned on its head. There is scope for this now. We have a proposal to put a digital hub adjacent to a post office. We have put the plans in place, identified the building and identified what can be done. There is no fibre broadband within the community. There is a huge opportunity here to revitalise towns and villages. We should embrace the changes in working from home and working in digital hubs that have happened due to Covid-19. I ask that the Minister would look at this. I know she has been engaging with the Department on it but I ask her to continue to do so. I may come back with a supplementary question.
What has happened in recent months is that as a direct response to the pandemic, companies and their employees have collaborated to allow employees to work from home. Many have described this as remote working. The founder of Grow Remote, Tracy Keogh, would rightly argue that this is not remote working as it should be but that this is effectively crisis management. That is what has been happening in recent months. We urgently need to sit down with bodies such as Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and the WDC to set out a well-planned and well-thought-out strategy for the development of remote working as a permanent option for employees in Ireland. The benefits it can bring to rural communities and families are many. I am delighted to hear the Minister is showing leadership and taking the initiative on this. I urge her to keep going to ensure that, rather than returning to what we described as the normal of the past, there is a new normal created in which remote working becomes a long-term viable option for thousands of workers across the country.
I agree with the Deputies. Remote working, or as I like to call it, connected working, will be a game changer for rural Ireland. Last October or November, I carried out a joint initiative with Tracy Keogh from Grow Remote. What was a concept is now a reality and because of Covid-19 it is a working reality for tens of thousands of workers. There is a huge opportunity here for regional development. One looks at companies like Indeed and Microsoft, which have told their staff they can work remotely for the long term. That is hugely positive.
There are benefits across the board from remote working. For example, people can live and work in their locality; young people can avail of cheaper houses in the countryside; less time is spent commuting, which is also good for the environment; and most importantly from my perspective, it supports rural communities. The reality is that if one is an office worker and has a good phone and broadband coverage, one can do the same job in Ballybay as one can do in Ballsbridge. We need to seize the momentum on remote working. The Tánaiste is working on the development of a national remote working policy. That will be very important and I know he hopes to get it finalised in the coming weeks. That will look at areas in which employers can be given enhanced rights in being able to request the right to work remotely.
It is true that one can work remotely just as well in Ballybay, Ballsbridge, Duhallow or Dublin. The Minister is dead right about that. This has challenged policymakers to make the decisions on remote working, smart working or working in communities.
I want to take the Minister back to the proposal we have. I cannot emphasise strongly enough the gains that are there for everybody who is working at home and for those who are within the communities as well if this project is taken up. It is a pilot project that is well thought-out and we have put the facts behind it. We welcome with open arms the Minister's support to date and we hope the Minister will continue in that. I know she will do so and I want to press to make sure she continues supporting it through An Post and through the Department of Transport and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who is supporting it as well. It is a pilot project and it can prove what can be done. It can be a template for the future for post offices and rural communities.
I thank the Minister for her comprehensive response. Her passion for this is obvious to all.
One thing the Government should be doing is encouraging the public service to become leaders in this area so that others might follow. We attempted in the past, albeit it was a poor attempt, to decentralise public service operations to various locations throughout the country. Perhaps the technology, knowledge and know-how to do that well did not exist back then. It exists right now and from talking to many public servants who are working remotely from their homes in an effective way in towns and villages across east Galway, I know that this is possible now. It would be helpful if the public service itself was seen to take a leadership role in the area of remote working, to lead the way, to find the mechanisms for doing it successfully and then to use those mechanisms as an exemplar for others to follow in its footsteps.
I am familiar with the Kishkeam project courtesy of Deputy Michael Moynihan. It is something we should explore, developing on what we do in post offices. It is a good project so I am happy to work with the Deputy on it.
Deputy Cannon is right. There is a commitment in the programme for Government that 20% of public sector employees will be able to work remotely. My opinion is that we need to be much more ambitious than that. In the Department of Rural and Community Development, practically all staff, that is over 95%, are working remotely. In the Department of Social Protection, over 3,000 staff are working remotely and that is about 50% of the Department's staff. If the Department of Social Protection can get 50% of its staff working remotely, given all the challenges it has faced in getting 13 million payments out to people since last March, that shows we need to be much more ambitious. If we were writing the programme for Government today, the targets would be higher and there is no reason we should not be more ambitious. That is something we have to work on and we are going to make it happen.