Wednesday, 14 July 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
National Economic and Social Council
7. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council, an independent statutory agency operating under the aegis of his Department. [36335/21]
9. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council, an independent statutory agency operating under the aegis of his Department. [37715/21]
11. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council, an independent statutory agency operating under the aegis of his Department. [37721/21]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 12, inclusive, together.
The National Economic and Social Council , NESC, is an independent statutory agency operating under the aegis of my Department. The role of NESC is to analyse and report on strategic policy matters relevant to Ireland's economic, social, environmental and sustainable development, and to advise Government. I appoint the members of NESC. The membership of the council comprises a chairperson and a deputy chairperson, and three people nominated by each of the business and employers' organisations, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, agricultural and farming organisations, community and voluntary organisations and environmental organisations. In addition, membership of NESC includes four public servants, including one representing the Minister for Finance, and seven people possessing knowledge, experience and skills relevant to the functions of the council.
The NESC work programme for 2021 includes: Shared Island, a programme of research on possible co-operation across a number of economic, social and environmental areas in Ireland, North and South; climate, biodiversity and just transition, which includes research and advice on a just transition to a low carbon economy and society; and a well-being framework. NESC has provided a valuable vehicle for consultation on the development of a well-being framework for Ireland through a subgroup of stakeholders, experts and wider consultation. Alongside the Government's First Report on a Wellbeing Framework, published on 6 July, NESC produced a corresponding report, Ireland's Well-Being Framework: Consultation Report, NESC report No. 155. In addition, the council has so far published three other reports in 2021. Those are Grounding the Recovery in Sustainable Development: A Statement from the Council, NESC report No. 152; Shared Island: Projects, Progress & Policy Scoping Paper, report No. 153; and Digital Inclusion in Ireland: Connectivity, Devices & Skills, report No. 154. As reports are finalised in the relevant areas, they are brought to Government for approval in advance of publication.
I will ask the Taoiseach about the work of NESC. I know it does a lot of great work and has been contributing, as the Taoiseach mentioned, to the well-being framework for Ireland, of which the first report was published last week. Among other things, the well-being framework for Ireland will provide a comprehensive set of well-being measures to create a well-rounded, holistic view of how our society is faring as an important complement to existing economic measurement tools. This will be an important assessment of our State beyond just looking at the economics.
I know that NESC also published a secretariat paper on building a new relationship between voluntary organisations and the State in the health and social care sectors which looks in detail at the organisational changes and innovations that have taken place. It is about health that I wish to ask the Taoiseach a quick question. My question relates to the redeployment of child psychologists to vaccination duties in the health service, as has been relayed to me by a reply to a parliamentary question. We have extensive waiting lists for children's mental health services, as the Taoiseach is aware. Some of the longest are in my constituency of Fingal and while I know the vaccination programme is of paramount and fundamental importance, so too is the mental health and well-being of our young people. I ask the Taoiseach to speak to his colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, about getting child psychologists back working with children who need these vital mental health supports and that a comprehensive catch-up programme is drawn up in order to cater for the missed care which has arisen as a result of their redeployment to vaccination duties. In the context of the work NESC is doing on the well-bring framework for Ireland, I think ensuring the well-being and positive mental health of our young people is incredibly important.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I ask that in his communications and that of his Department with NESC, specific consideration is given by the council to a study on the particular challenges facing the Border region. We are all well aware that Brexit will continue to have adverse impacts, particularly in the Border economy, both North and South, much more so than anywhere else on the island. That has already been demonstrated by studies. Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic will also impact more severely on enterprise and commerce in our smaller towns and villages, which are typical of population and business dispersal in the Border counties.
We need a joined-up approach to tackle these issues at central and local government levels. I believe that worthwhile analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the economy at local level should inform decision-making. Going forward, such detailed economic analysis should be conducted on a cross-Border and all-Ireland basis. It should run in a complementary manner to the worthwhile work of the shared island unit.
We have many challenges in the Border region but there are also opportunities. We should have and need to develop new areas for economic and social development. I believe we need national and regional strategies. I often talk in this House about the need for infrastructural development in counties such as Cavan and Monaghan. We also have an enormous resource in social and educational infrastructure. We can cater for a growth in population because we have the voluntary and sporting infrastructure. In most cases, we also have the educational infrastructure. We may need expansion in areas such as roads and broadband but I believe that while we must tackle particular challenges, there are also opportunities that we must seize. We must do it in a regional, well thought-out and focused way.
NESC has done quite a lot of work on the area of good employment and what that should be. I have raised with the Taoiseach on a number of occasions, as have others and advocates in the areas of arts, film and cultural works, the distinct lack of good work. Film relief under section 481 contains a legal requirement for quality employment but, as NESC points out, that is not defined.
I will give the Taoiseach a couple of instances of where he needs to do something about this, because this is public money. I watched a video last night about a film worker who was protesting with other film workers outside the location of the shooting of "Vikings: Valhalla" by one of the biggest recipients of public money. This is somebody who worked in film for 40 years but is not working now on "Vikings: Valhalla". He had worked on all the previous "Vikings" series but is not working on this. He said he was blacklisted along with other workers because they had pointed out at an Oireachtas joint committee meeting in 2018 that all this public money was not leading to quality employment and training and there were virtually no proper jobs or any sort of job security or pension entitlements for workers in the film industry. These workers are being blacklisted from working.
People who have worked for decades are being blacklisted. Structurally, this is allowed because the producers tell the Government that it is a film-to-film arrangement and they cannot have security of employment. The Department with responsibility for arts and the Government allow this to continue when in fact, EU state aid rules insist that public funding for the arts must be linked to creating a permanent pool of secure employment. Even if it is film to film, there should be security, pension entitlements and recognition of the service of those working in the industry.
Similarly with performers on the "Enchanted" film, I pointed out to the Taoiseach this phenomenon of buy-out contracts whereby producers tell actors and performers that they will only get a job on the film if they agree to sell off their rights to what are called residuals, that is, royalties on future performances of that movie or film. This is something actors and performers used to enjoy and now producers are telling them they do not get to work unless they agree to a buy-out contract. And of course, the actors and performers want the job so they say, "Okay, I better accept that". It is absolutely wrong. Those buy-out contracts should not be allowed. The Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media needs to ensure we do not have blacklisting and do not have workers in that vulnerable position. They have a right to recognition of their service in the arts and cultural area. They should have some sort of security of employment so they cannot be made vulnerable to blacklisting or whatever it might be.
I also want to focus on the question of quality employment. I will return to some of the questions I posed to the Taoiseach yesterday, on which I received no answers, regarding the so-called work placement experience programme, which is a new free labour scheme for employers where workers will get less than the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and are expected to live below the poverty line while working. It is JobBridge 2.0. The truth of the scheme is that workers who are on it will get an extra €3.43 per hour for working 30 hours a week without a guaranteed job at the end of it.
I also asked the Taoiseach to confirm that bosses can have up to ten workers in the scheme without paying a penny and whether he agrees it indicates that this can discourage the creation of real jobs, as did JobBridge 1.0. Does he agree that it will act to create a downward pressure on wages? If employers can take someone on for free then why would they agree to increase wages?
Finally, I wish to ask about the role of private contracted companies in handling cases. The scheme sets out that this will be policed by new caseworkers and the Pathways to Work strategy talks about expanding the role of private contractor companies, like we have seen with Seetec, and Turas Nua. What are the plans to outsource the case officers for the new JobBridge 2.0?
In many ways, the Border is a man-made barrier to enterprise and economic development. A couple of years ago, I undertook the authoring of a report on the all-Ireland economy on behalf of the enterprise committee. It was the first report of its kind undertaken by the Oireachtas in this State since partition, which is incredible. I interviewed hundreds of people from all different backgrounds. Everybody I spoke to in the North of Ireland agreed that if we plan, fund and deliver services together, they will be better services and we will have a better economy as a result. That, however, takes a Government that is real as regards working towards economic convergence North and South.
I will make the final point that the Government should really be looking at Border innovation and enterprise zone, taking in the counties that straddle the Border in order that they get an advance as regards enterprise development to fight against the disadvantage they have had for years because of the Border.
Deputy O'Reilly is correct with regard to the well-being framework and the redeployment of child psychologists to the vaccination programme. That should not be the case now. We have an independent work force in respect of vaccination. There may be certain people at senior level who were deployed and who played a management or co-ordinating role in respect of some vaccination centres, particularly in terms of testing. There was a lot of redeployment in the early phase of the pandemic when people were redeployed to do the testing but then the permanent work force was put in place. In terms of vaccination, we had the redeployment of many nursing staff and management. They have done a fantastic job and it has been incredibly efficient up and down the length of the country. I will, however, follow up with the HSE in respect of how many psychologists are involved and the level and scale of this issue.
The well-being framework is something on which I am particularly keen. Developing a well-being framework is in the Government's programme. We appreciate the work NESC has done regarding the subgroup of stakeholders and experts it created to support the development of a well-being framework for Ireland and the consultation in terms of different social partnership pillars, external experts and interested parties. Much good progress was made in this regard. It will take time to get the criteria right.
NESC surveyed approximately 500 organisations about this and there were 450 responses. Initial research was carried out on Irish and international experiences with well-being initiatives and frameworks. Consultation was carried out, in close co-operation with my Department, with regular feedback into the Department working group.
NESC believes there is a compelling case for developing a well-being framework in Ireland and for the centrality of consultation to this work. A well-being framework can contribute to a more holistic approach to well-being by creating a shared vision, which mobilises action by linking policy action and review to measure the lived experience of citizens. It can help to create greater focus on outcomes within the policy system on cross-cutting approaches in the role of collaboration earlier and more formally in all stages of the policy processes, including oversight and review.
The council, like the Government, believes the development of a well-being format is an opportunity to bring about transformation in a fair and equitable way, addressing complex policy priorities. The late Bobby Kennedy summed it up when he spoke about what GDP measures but more importantly, what it does not measure. The well-being framework is really about capturing that which makes life essential in terms of the quality of life.
Deputy Brendan Smith made a very pertinent point about the Border area. NESC is doing work on the shared island projects in respect of progress and policy scoping to build up our shared knowledge base and understanding about possible ways in which greater co-operation can emerge across economic, social and environmental areas in Ireland, North and South, and between these islands, east and west. Substantive work is now under way by NESC to provide advice to me and the Government on strategic policy issues relating to sustainable economic, social and environmental development.
In addition to that work, I will take up the Deputy's point in respect of a more specific focus on the economy of the Border region. I will approach NESC with a view to perhaps having an addendum to the shared island work or in parallel with it to see if more work can be done in terms of the Border area. As the Deputy suggested, the shared island initiative will obviously deal with a number of issues in respect of the Border. As the Deputy will know, we announced the funding for the Narrow Water Bridge, which I believe will have significant economic impact in that area. The funding will allow the project to get to tender stage and more funding will be provided once that is done. Louth County Council will be the lead agency in that regard.
Deputy Tóibín later made reference to enterprise. The shared island fund, for example, is working on projects that will marry Derry's City Deal initiative on industrial development on the Derry-Strabane side to industrial development on the Donegal side.
We are very focused on all aspects of the relationship, North-South interaction and how we can develop enterprise.
Deputy Boyd Barrett referenced good employment and he has been focused on the film industry and the section 481 relief. Based on the issues he raised, perhaps there needs to be a social dialogue framework around this particular industry. It is not one that-----
I am just making the point. This is an industry which is very mobile. There are clearly challenges in the modern era in respect of it. Individuals would need to be consulted as well to ascertain their desired outcomes. However, there should be no blacklisting of individuals who take a stand or who have a particular perspective on issues. That should not happen. I can see the complexity around security of tenure, pensions and so on, although I do not think it is as simple as was articulated. That said, workers need rights even in sectors that are more challenging than traditional, conventional ones. The balance between that and facilitating investment in the film production industry must be weighed up as well. I am open to the best avenue to pursue this.
Deputy Paul Murphy spoke about the work experience programme. I genuinely believe activation works. This is not about suppressing wages at all. From the experience of talking to people who availed of job experience programmes, they have led to permanent employment and career development for many people. The funding for this programme is higher than anything to do with JobBridge and it is voluntary. Many young people, often rightly, say they do not have experience in a given area. These programmes give a person the experience to pursue that career in a particular firm because these are experience programmes of short-term duration and are not open-ended. Therefore, they provide a platform to enable people to get the skills and experience they can use to get more permanent jobs. Work activation works and has been proven to work in the past.