Tuesday, 1 June 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 15, inclusive, together.
The Government recognises the importance of regular and open engagement with all sectors of society. As we enter the early stages of recovery from the pandemic and as we work towards reopening our economy and society we need to work together on a shared common purpose. This is particularly important as we face the enormous challenges ahead, including climate action, digital transition, disruption to the labour market and housing.
There are many different fora in place for these conversations, including the National Economic Dialogue, the National Economic and Social Council, various sectoral groups and initiatives such as the citizens' assemblies. There is also regular bilateral engagement at official and ministerial level, of which I am very supportive.
As committed to in the programme for Government, a social dialogue unit has been established within the economic division of my Department. Its initial focus is on supporting and enhancing engagement with the social partners, including through existing mechanisms such as the labour employer economic forum, LEEF, which deals with labour market issues. LEEF helped ensure useful discussions between Government, employers and trade unions during the Covid-19 pandemic and I chaired the most recent meeting in February where, along with Brexit and Covid-19 issues, we discussed ways to strengthen social dialogue and engagement with civil society and representative groups. A further meeting of LEEF will take place shortly.
In addition, I met with the environmental pillar on 21 May, and will meet with the community and voluntary pillar and the farming and agriculture pillar in the coming weeks, to discuss how social dialogue can be strengthened and to exchange views on issues pertaining to those particular sectors. We had a very progressive and constructive engagement with the environmental pillar on a whole range of issues from climate change legislation to the circular economy and biodiversity.
I want to divert the Taoiseach's attention to the report from the Irish Youth Foundation issued today, which I am sure he has seen. This report finds that young people in disadvantaged communities are those most disproportionately affected by the pandemic. This will not come as a surprise to many of us. The report talks about poor mental health as a consequence of the pandemic. We need a youth trauma task force to deal with the wave of mental health issues and problems which have been exacerbated by this pandemic, particularly among young people and disadvantaged communities. Would the Taoiseach's Department be willing to champion this proposal, which is desperately needed?
I will raise two key issues with the Taoiseach. My colleague, Senator Bacik, has introduced a Bill in the Seanad to provide for paid reproductive leave. This would provide for up to 20 days of paid leave for early miscarriage and ten days for those availing of IVF treatment and fertility programmes. Will the Taoiseach confirm that this Government will support this Bill, address this issue or work with us to deal with it? Many of the Taoiseach's colleagues have come out in support of the Bill, which they feel is an excellent initiative. New Zealand has successfully introduced such provisions. We would appreciate the Taoiseach's support.
Will the Taoiseach confirm that his Government will bring forward proposals for statutory sick pay this year? From the Tánaiste's comments in particular, it sounds like we are always nearly there but the announcement never quite comes. Is it being held up because of lobbying? It has been nine months since the Labour Party published its Bill. We hope that we are coming to the tail end of the pandemic but this provision is still not in place. We were originally told that the Government's plans would be announced in March. There was then a delay. We have delayed our Bill deliberately because the Taoiseach said in all sincerity that he was going to address the matter. That was postponed again and the Taoiseach said the announcement would come in May. The Tánaiste said yesterday that he would bring a memo to Cabinet in June and wants to have the provisions in place by the end of the year. It does not sound like this issue is being treated with great urgency. Will the Taoiseach confirm his Government's stance on both of these issues, namely, Senator Bacik's Bill relating to miscarriage and IVF and the matter of statutory sick pay?
In asking a previous question, I told the Taoiseach that the design of the new national childcare scheme is jeopardising early education opportunities for some of the most deprived and vulnerable children in the north inner city. I am sure this situation is mirrored across the State. The Taoiseach responded to me by listing investments made in education and childcare generally in the north inner city. In case he harbours the delusion that there has been deep investment in early education or, in fact, in any education in our inner cities, I will tell him that he is wrong.
There is much more that needs to be done. On the immediate issue, I repeat, up to 80% of children attending specific early learning settings in the inner city are children who are deeply disadvantaged. The Government's new scheme threatens the capacity of those services to survive. I would like to hear a more solid commitment from the Taoiseach than that he will engage with the Minister and the Department because the providers have been doing that for months. I would like a commitment from the Taoiseach that these children, the most disadvantaged children in the community, will not be further disadvantaged and find themselves in a position of having no childcare provider to go to. That is what they are facing into.
Some employers are using the pandemic to launch a one-sided class war against their workforce. One such employer is Aer Lingus. It has given its workers a deadline of today to respond to proposals which include, a five-year pay freeze, pay cuts, lower starting rates for new staff, cuts to duty allowances, cuts to sick pay arrangements and more. For those who are interested in knowing what more is involved I have posted the details on my Twitter account. These proposals are shocking. They are unacceptable and they would set a terrible precedent for trade unionists throughout the country and beyond. I sincerely hope the workers resist them. I want to know what the Government, which provides Aer Lingus with State support through the EWSS, intends to do to protect these workers and to prevent assaults of this type on living standards.
Last week, I questioned the Tánaiste about the double rent hike facing renters this July as landlords attempt to impose two year's worth of rent increases in one fell swoop, which is allowed under the legislation introduced by the Government. The Tánaiste seemed genuinely surprised and unaware that this was possible and he said that it was not the Government's intention to allow for such percentage increases in rent. Will the Taoiseach and the Government bring forth this month the emergency legislation needed to stop this happening? For the average renter in Dublin, an 8% rent increase would be an increase of €140 per month, an incredible amount of money that is unaffordable for many, especially considering the cuts coming down the line in terms of the PUP. We should be extending the rent freeze. We should be taking action to bring rents down. At the very least, we need emergency legislation to stop this double rent hike happening. If the Government refuses to do that, People Before Profit will bring forward legislation and we will make sure that it is a major issue in the by-election in Dublin Bay South. Which will it be, Taoiseach? Will the Government bring forward the legislation that is needed or will it again abandon renters to landlords?
Deputy Gannon raised the issue of mental health and wellbeing. I agree with the points he made. We discussed this earlier in the House. Again, it is a key issue, particularly in terms of young people. Any supports we can give, we will give. We will work with the Deputy and others in respect of that particular issue.
Deputy Kelly raised a number of issues. We will work with the Deputy's party in respect of the Organisation of Working Time (Reproductive Health Related Leave) Bill 2021 in relation to supporting those who have gone through the trauma of miscarriage. On statutory sick pay, the Government is examining the issue and is positively disposed to such a scheme. Work is ongoing in that regard. This question was on the social dialogue and on the leave programme. We have made considerable progress on a number of fronts. This is an issue on which we want to make progress. We have work to do in regard to the living wage as well, which is provided for within the programme for Government and also in terms of other initiatives that we can take and lessons that we can learn from the pandemic in regard to sick pay, illness benefit more generally and supporting workers more broadly into the future.
On the new national childcare scheme, I reiterate what I said earlier, that is, significant and substantial resources have been provided to childcare providers during the pandemic and that will continue. Our aim is to provide for children in very disadvantaged settings and to provide good quality childcare for children in those environments. That has been the commitment of the Minister and of the Government during the Covid-19 pandemic. As we emerge from Covid-19 we want to establish a strong, supportive situation for childcare and for the early years sector. The most important years in the development of any child are the formative development years when children learn an awful lot that is key to their development. We will work on that.
On the wider issue of the EWSS and the supports we provide, from which companies like Aer Lingus have benefited significantly, last week we had a number of Deputies in the House saying that the Government was not providing supports to aviation or to the airlines. The reality, of course, is that through EWSS and other supports Government has provided substantial supports to employers to keep employees working and to keep their companies viable so that when the reopening and the restart happen they will be in a position to retain that employment and to grow the numbers working in those companies into the future. That is the raison d'être of the supports that we have introduced for businesses. Up to 315,000 workers are currently being supported by EWSS. Many more have been supported over the last two years, but currently the number of workers being supported is 315,000. More workers are being supported through the Covid restrictions support scheme and other schemes introduced by Government. We will continue to do that.
With respect to proposals from a particular private sector company, the Government has made clear to the companies it supports that it expects all agreements to be honoured. There are industrial relations mechanisms in place to facilitate resolution of any issues that employees might have with their companies. We have made a number of things clear to companies in that respect. In terms of aviation, we want connectivity, including regional connectivity. We want flights operating again from Shannon Airport. We want to see the return of early flights to London, transatlantic flights and flights from Cork. We believe in strong regional growth and development and we have made that clear to Aer Lingus and to the airlines, both in terms of employment creation and FDI. Under the urban regeneration development funding, the Government provided over €1.2 billion for locations across the length and breadth of the country to build up the regional cities and to build up towns. We will continue to do that. There has to be reciprocation from companies given the nature of State support in terms of maintaining good pay and conditions for workers and the broader economic goals and objectives of Government in respect of a balanced economic development across the regions. We have made that clear in any engagement we have had with companies, not just in aviation, but in other sectors as well.
The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is examining the situation with regard to the possibility of landlords doubling up in respect of rent increases, which we do not want to see happening. As we speak, that situation is being actively considered by the Minister. We will do what we can to support tenants through the legislation already enacted to protect people from eviction, to protect tenants in terms of security of tenure, to build more houses and make them available for people across the length and breadth of the country, to make sure that councils can get housing projects through planning and passed so that the housing can be built because there has been too much delay in some councils and, in my view, too much negativity and too many projects gathering dust for far too long.