Tuesday, 6 July 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 17, inclusive, together.
As committed to in the programme for Government, the social dialogue unit has been established within the economic division of my Department to co-ordinate and support our approach to social dialogue. The unit's initial focus is on supporting, enhancing and engaging with the social partners, including through existing mechanisms such as the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, which deals with labour market issues. The LEEF helped to ensure useful discussions between the Government, employers and trade unions during the Covid-19 pandemic. I chaired the most recent plenary meeting yesterday, where, along with discussions on Covid-19 and our economic recovery, we discussed ways to strengthen social dialogue and the LEEF. There is significant work under way in the LEEF on issues such as introduction of statutory sick pay, remote working and a high-level review of collective bargaining. In addition, I recently met with representatives of the environmental, community and voluntary and farming and agriculture pillars, where we discussed how social dialogue can be strengthened as well as current issues of concern to those sectors.
The social dialogue unit is also currently mapping out existing the dialogue and consultation practices across government, which have evolved over the years. There are many different forums 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' Assembly. There is also regular engagement with social partners by individual Departments and Ministers, of which I am very supportive. The unit is developing a set of principles which could support this type of ongoing social dialogue undertaken across specific issues. The unit is currently supported by three staff at principal officer, assistant principal, and higher executive officer level. Further resources over time will be provided as required as this work progresses. I will also point out that I met recently with fishers, along with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, in respect of the challenges facing the fishing industry.
I will ask about two priorities for this unit. A motion from my Labour Party colleague, inner-city Councillor Kevin Donoghue, was passed by Dublin City Council last night. It was a very interesting motion on something we have been pushing to have considered for some time. It called on Dublin City Council's chief executive to engage with trade unions representing council staff with a view to piloting and introducing a four-day working week. Will the social dialogue unit seriously look at this? We have learned much from Covid and the Labour Party believes this is something that should be seriously studied. It was passed unanimously by all the councillors last night. I do not know what the Taoiseach means by "of course". It was passed because it deserves to be considered, to be fair. It should be assessed very quickly and proceeded with to see if it can be implemented. We can look at it across various sectors. It might not suit every sector, obviously. I do not know why the Taoiseach is grinning.
Is it something the Taoiseach would consider and this unit will look into? That is what I am asking. Does the Taoiseach endorse it? We all have to rebalance our lives after the pandemic.
The second issue, which I do not have time to dwell on, is that of a catch-up programme for schools. My colleagues, Deputy Ó Ríordáin and Senator Bacik, have been pushing this for some time. A significant amount of funding is going towards this in Britain and other countries. Will there be a catch-up programme for schoolchildren, given what has happened over the last year? In fairness, the Taoiseach has taken an interest in this previously.
There was a really shocking report in today's Irish Examinernewspaper that stated a complaint has been lodged with the Irish Prison Service by a female solicitor, who was instructed by a male prison officer in Clover Hill to remove her underwear if she wanted to visit her client because the underwire in her bra had set off the metal detector. The woman concerned has described how she felt extremely vulnerable and targeted as a woman, and how she felt humiliated to have her dignity so casually taken from her. So many things are wrong with this incident and, indeed, the Irish Prison Service's response to it. In my view, this is not just a run-of-the-mill complaint to be dealt with solely within normal procedures. It warrants a wider, and very full, review of prison culture and practices to ensure this type of degrading treatment of any woman never happens again. It was also reported that the woman in question later discovered a male colleague had previously visited the same client and despite the male colleague setting off the alarm three times, he was able to visit his client without any similar request being made of him. Does the Taoiseach know if the Minister for Justice has received a report from the Irish Prison Service on this complaint? What action has she taken to ensure policies and procedures are in place across all prison services to ensure no woman faces such degrading treatment ever again?
Can the Taoiseach confirm that the Government will meet the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and SIPTU this week to discuss issues relating to aviation? Can he confirm that the issue of the planned lay-off of hundreds of workers in Cork in September is on the agenda? Does he agree that Aer Lingus and other airport employers should not receive bucketloads of State cash to keep workers on the payroll and, at the same time, plan to take hundreds of workers in Cork off the payroll in September?
These workers must be kept on the payroll. Does the Taoiseach agree?
I welcome the motion from Dublin City Council but it is behind the Government on this issue in that the Government funded a €150,000 study by the Four-Day Week Ireland campaign last year. That study will be interesting, particularly in light of the Iceland report.
What role will young people's organisations play in the social dialogue unit? What focus will be on the issues of youth unemployment and education? Has the lived experience of young people during the pandemic, which has been particularly severe, featured in the discussions?
On the earlier question relating to dialogue, it is a fact that the Taoiseach met taxi drivers and that the Minister is engaged with musicians and entertainment people. The Taoiseach either does not know, which is dreadful, or he is being dishonest. According to the Department of Social Protection, the PUP will be withdrawn from those whose PUP rate is reduced on 7 September to €203 and they will be told to go on jobseeker's allowance or to sign off the PUP. Therefore, they cannot earn that extra bit of money to which the Taoiseach referred. They will be told they are unemployed or they can return to work and lose all supports when their industries will not have recovered. Will the Taoiseach please clarify the situation? These people have been writing to him on this issue. They want dialogue and they want answers.
Another group, comprising student nurses and midwives, including those in the disability and mental health sectors, were promised that they would get €100 per week for their placements. That is a miserable response to their demand to be properly paid when they are on placement, working on wards and so on, which in reality they have been doing for years, but particularly during the pandemic. I am informed this week by a student nurse that while the miserable €100 was paid to nurses and midwives, despite the promises, those working in disability and mental health care did not get their €100, a miserable amount. They should at least get what the Government promised them. I ask the Taoiseach to please look into that or to confirm if they will be paid the €100 they were promised. The Government should be giving them a hell of a lot more than that.
In response to Deputy Barry on the issue of JobBridge 2.0, the Taoiseach was coy about what he described as the pathways to work scheme. The language he used in respect of activating people who are unemployed, in particular young people, was strikingly reminiscent of the language used around JobBridge. Let us remind ourselves what "scambridge" was about. It involved tens of thousands of workers being grossly exploited. They were compelled to work for free for nine months in fear of losing their social welfare benefits. They were paid €1.25 per hour for jobs such as a sandwich artist or working for a national chain of garages, which employed almost 30 people, saving itself almost €400,000 in wages. There was widespread abuse in the public sector to get around the employment moratorium at the time. The Taoiseach should come out and say what he is proposing. What rate of pay is the Government planning for this new pathways to work scheme? Is the Government planning to make it compulsory? Would it not be far better to invest in education, including apprenticeship schemes and on-the-job training, and a green jobs programme to create the jobs that are needed to do the work for a rapid and just transition?
A lot of questions were asked. Deputy Kelly raised the decision unanimously agreed last evening by Dublin City Council. The Government has initiated a study in regard to this issue and will examine it. It will need to be examined in considerable detail because the implications are significant and dependent on the outcome of that evaluation in terms of productivity and what is best in the overall sense. We have learned a lot through remote working and the potential for blended working as we emerge from Covid and people return to the workplace, offices and so on and whether they can work in part at home and in part in the office. That has to bed down and we will have to evaluate how that works out over the next year. The wider issue of a four-day week versus a five-day week needs to be evaluated in terms of all of its impacts. The proposal is very popular. Most people would say, "Great". We have to be realistic about it as well. We will need to do the analysis on it instead of just agreeing with it straightaway and saying it is a great idea and let us all go for it. We have to work through it and identify the implications. Different sectors will have a different take on it. We have to look at it from a sectoral perspective as well. In terms of our competitiveness, it could lead to more productivity in some cases, but it may not do so in other cases. We will need to undertake a serious evaluation of it.
On the catch-up programme, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, is committed to, and has already provided resources, for it. The view now is that it would probably be better to integrate it into the next school session, in particular the autumn session. The proposal is that in addition to the day-to-day provision of the curriculum, there would be a special catch-up programme for children who may have been left behind as a result of the experience of the pandemic and being out of school for so long. A variety of approaches will be adapted in response to that.
On Deputy McDonald's point, what happened is shocking and unacceptable. I was struck when I saw the headlines on that this morning. I will ask the Minister for Justice for a report on what transpired and the polices and practices of the Irish Prison Service. As I said, it is unacceptable and it should not have happened. I can understand why the solicitor in question would have felt her dignity was taken from her and felt undermined by the request. It is not good enough in any shape or form. It is all wrong and it needs to be addressed.
Regarding the aviation industry, which was raised by Deputy Barry, discussions were held yesterday with the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, on aviation. LEEF, working as part of the social dialogue, created a subgroup on aviation to look at the specific challenges facing the industry as a result of Covid-19. The challenges have been very severe in terms of the restrictions on travel. More than 90% of travel has been reduced as a result of Covid-19 and this has had a severe impact on airlines, airports and workers who are feeling it most desperately. That is why workers are anxious that we reopen travel as quickly as we possibly can. That is what most of the workers in aviation are saying to me, notwithstanding the challenge globally around the Delta variant and Covid. It is one of the reasons we are participating in the EU directive and framework around a digital Covid certificate. We are very conscious of the economic impact of the continued suppression of aviation on individuals, airports, airlines and on the country at large.
The workers are who we are primarily concerned about. We had a discussion about the situation, and SIPTU in particular raised the issue in regard to the Cork workers and the need for intervention there. Government will reflect and work on that with the social partners.
Deputy Calleary is correct on the funding of the study in regard to a four-day week and social dialogue being a part of the overall examination of that issue. He made a good point regarding the lived experience of young people. I acknowledge there is more work to be done in that regard. There is also an issue around how we can get the voices of young people articulated in the social dialogue process. We did not meet the community and social pillar; we met the environmental pillar and the farming organisations. Macra na Feirme was part of the farming social dialogue, which was interesting. It was the one organisation among all we met that had a specific focus on young people. I will take the Deputy's views on board.
Regarding the questions put by Deputies Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy, the Pathways to Work scheme is about investing in young people across the board and helping people to get skills for work and to reskill. I will check out the situation in respect in of nurses in the areas of disability and mental health.