Tuesday, 14 December 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, and 95 together.
My Department's Strategy Statement 2021-2023, published earlier this year, reflects the role of the Department to support me as Taoiseach and the Government to ensure a sustainable economy and a successful society, to pursue Ireland's interests abroad, to implement the Government's programme, and to build a better future for Ireland and all its citizens. My Department will provide progress reports under the six strategic priorities set out in the strategy through the normal annual reporting cycle.
My Department continues to work at the centre to ensure that policies developed support the Government's commitment to develop Ireland in a sustainable way which supports economic development and social progress. It achieves this mainly through the Cabinet committee structure. Through the work of the ten Cabinet committees supported by my Department, a range of work across government has been advanced under the new strategy statement. Included in this is management of the whole-of-government response to Covid-19 including the national vaccination programme roll-out. The economic recovery plan, which was published in June, is also included. The implementation of this plan is helping to drive a sustainable recovery in economic activity and employment, while also investing in the transition towards a decarbonised and digital economy. The strategy statement also includes delivery of an initial well-being framework for Ireland and supporting information hub, which are being developed to better understand and measure our progress as a country. It also includes support for the cross-Government work to manage the ongoing economic and political impacts of Brexit, the establishment of a social dialogue unit in my Department, which is working to co-ordinate and support the Government's overall approach to social dialogue, and the delivery of our shared island commitments on a whole-of-government basis through the shared island unit in my Department and the shared island fund.
The strategy statement also includes the Future of Media Commission, which has now concluded its work, the completion of the work of the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality and the launch of the revised national development plan, setting out the roadmap for investment of €165 billion in new and upgraded infrastructure over the decade ahead. Included also in the strategy statement is the publication of the Housing for All plan, which is an ambitious and far-reaching plan to address the provision of housing. Support for the development of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 and the Climate Action Plan 2021 is also included. These are key elements of a suite of measures introduced to alter fundamentally Ireland's approach to climate change. The strategy statement also includes supporting Ireland's role in Europe and the world, including through my participation in the European Council and Ireland's seat on the UN Security Council, and with respect to continuing EU-UK discussions on the Northern Ireland protocol. The strategy statement also includes the recent publication of the National Risk Assessment 2021-2022 - Overview of Strategic Risks and three legislative programmes published setting out priority legislation across the Government.
My Department's priorities for 2022 will include continued focus on the whole-of-government response to Covid-19 and vaccinations, economic recovery and investment, driving delivery of the housing plan and measures on climate action, progressing health and wider social reforms, EU engagement and Northern Ireland, and advancing specific new work relating to the citizens' assembly and a new digital strategy.
The programme for Government makes a number of significant commitments to those working in our Defence Forces, and the Department's strategy statement commits to implementing them, but members of the Women of Honour group have been to hell and back and have been let down again by their Government. They have demonstrated incredible courage, strength and dignity in disclosing the horrific sexual assaults as well as the disturbing emotional and physical harassment they experienced in the Defence Forces. These women were failed in the worst way imaginable. The very least they are entitled to is the full support of the State as they seek truth and justice. It is unbelievable that the Government intends to do the exact opposite. The group has expressed its deep disappointment with the insistence of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, on committing solely to an internal review of their allegations, which will not have the power to compel witnesses or hold perpetrators to account. Essentially, the process will see the Department investigating itself. These women have no confidence this will deliver justice. Why is this happening? Has the Taoiseach spoken to the Minister, Deputy Coveney? Does he stand over the process the Minister intends to follow? The Women of Honour must have a robust, impartial and independent investigation, one that can compel witnesses and hold accountable those who inflicted the abuse and those who mishandled the women's initial complaints.
The programme for Government commits to assist owners of latent defect properties by identifying options for those who have been impacted by defects to access low-cost long-term finance and to bring forward law reform to improve the legal remedies for homeowners dealing with defects. Last night, I had a meeting with the Construction Defects Alliance. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Department have put together a working group which is investigating this issue, as the Taoiseach is aware. We are anxious to know whether the working group is still on schedule to report by the second quarter of 2022 so that any financial implications that may arise from the working group can be included in the budget for next year.
The Department's Strategy Statement 2021-2023 lists the restoration of the economy as one of the key Government priorities. While the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and countless other sectoral specific supports helped to stabilise the economy and bolster it during the pandemic, the construction sector remains very much in a state of flux with huge volatility in the price of materials. Throughout Covid we have seen a 30% rise in the price of steel and similar increases in the costs of timber and insulation. Over the weekend, I saw three letters from building suppliers in Clare indicating a further price hike in January 2022. Construction prices need to settle and stabilise. Supply chains need to be fixed. Has the Government engaged with the Construction Federation of Ireland and other stakeholders? At the European Council, has the Government used its voice in Europe to look at the breakdown of supply chain materials in construction at European level?
I also want to raise the case of the Women of Honour. They have been battling for justice after their experience in the armed forces for a number of years and not just in recent times. Their particular case has become centre stage due to the work of the Katie Hannon documentary a number of months ago. Their allegations are with regard to sexual abuse, bullying and discrimination and that the State has stood idly by in relation to these actions but it is not only about this. The key issue is that there has been a systemic battle against these women in their efforts for justice. Their careers have been held back for decades within the armed forces as a result of them standing up for themselves. It is incredible that we have armed forces where people suffered these crimes and when they fought those crimes they were identified and pushed out of the armed forces over a period of time. They were promised an independent external investigation. They were promised they would be able to add into the terms of reference. This has been refused to them. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has met them only once since the crisis broke a number of months ago. Will the Taoiseach ensure that there is an independent external investigation and that these women feed into the terms of reference that govern it?
A sustainable economy as referred to in the strategy requires at the very least that the earnings of workers keep pace with inflation. With inflation running at approximately 5%, many people are limited to 1% pay increases and some are getting nothing. Workers are in effect taking a pay cut at present. I want to know what the Taoiseach will do about it. I will ask him very specifically about one group who were absolutely critical during the pandemic. These are private security workers. There are approximately 28,000 of them in the country. Their earnings are capped at €11.65 an hour. They work in our hospitals, schools and public transport. They were recommended a 4% increase at the end of 2020. They still have not seen a cent of it because it was not signed off by a Minister and because some nasty employers in the sector are resisting pay rises. It is a miserable 4%.
These are workers who carried us and worked all through the pandemic to provide security at every level of our society, in supermarkets, hospitals, public transport and concerts, you name it. I asked the Taoiseach to look into this before.
As the Taoiseach knows, for a long time we have been stressing the importance of ventilation and filtration in a strategy to fight Covid-19, which is an airborne pandemic. We were therefore very glad that People Before Profit’s Workplace Ventilation (Covid-19) Bill 2021 received the support of the entire Dáil. The Minister of State, Deputy English, who contributed to the debate on behalf of the Government, pledged that he would contact me that afternoon to arrange a meeting to discuss how its aims could be rapidly implemented via regulation. During that debate, the Government promised that this would not be “a case of sending it to [the] committee and setting it to one side”, but that seems to be precisely what is taking place. I never got that call. We contacted the Minister’s offices seeking a meeting, but we never received the arrangements for a meeting. Instead, we got a long letter raising various legal questions over our Bill and saying that the Minister is going to write to the Health and Safety Authority over the coming days to ask it formally to review the regulation. The absence of urgency on this crucial question of workers' right to clean air in schools, colleges, pubs, restaurants, offices and factories is a central issue. Will the Taoiseach intervene to ensure we have regulations before the end of the year on this issue?
Deputy McDonald raised the question of Women of Honour group. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, met with the group’s members. My understanding is that he was very taken by their presentation and was anxious to do the right thing for and by them. When the Deputy talks about an external investigation to compel witnesses, what does she have in mind? She needs to spell that out. Is she talking about a commission of investigation?
I will come back to Deputy Tóibín, who also used that phrase. It is very important to know what we mean by that here in the House. We can all promise things and say we will do them but if crimes have been committed, and I think the Deputy is saying that crimes were committed, they need to be investigated. In the first instance, they have to be investigated by An Garda Síochána. Any abuse of women is clearly a crime and needs to be referred to An Garda Síochána to be investigated in the first instance. The challenge is how we arrive at a proper review of this and have it dealt with-----
-----without undermining any investigation by the gardaí. That is the problem and the challenge which I think the Minister may be grappling with. I will talk to the Minister again on this but we need to have clear lines of demarcation between different types of reviews. There is no question but that this needs to be addressed as an issue. I would like to think that any crimes should be referred in the first instance to the gardaí and should be pursued through that channel. Failing that, there would have to be further consultation with the group involved in this issue. I will talk to the Minister in respect of what has been said here today because it was not his intention in any way to have a development here that would not be in keeping with the spirit of his engagement with the group at his meeting with them. I will follow that up on behalf of the Deputies. It is important to point out once an investigation is initiated - if it is an impartial commission of investigation under legislation, for example - that has all sorts of implications for any other actions subsequent to or parallel with that. If the Deputies wish to engage with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, I am sure he will talk with them on this issue to work out what the optimal way forward is for the women involved, in particular.
On the Construction Defects Alliance, Deputy Ó Ríordáin has said that the report should be due by the second quarter of 2022. The Minister is very conscious of this issue. We have already had a number of issues in the context of pyrite, mica and so forth. We will be moving on that and responding to the issues that arise out of that report.
Deputy Cathal Crowe raised the issue of the construction sector. Earlier in the House I dealt with some aspects of raw materials price inflation. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has changed the approach to tenders, for example on the fixed-price period and the material price variation. Anything over 15% can now be recouped by the contractor. Changes have been made to the tendering to recognise the supply chain difficulties that have been partially responsible for the increase in prices of basic raw materials for the construction industry. These difficulties have been largely related to Covid-19 on the international plane. They have been discussed at European Council level and I have no doubt that they will be discussed again. This issue is also affecting fertilisers and other agricultural prices, which are going very significantly higher as a result of a range of economic pressures that have arisen from the rebound from Covid-19, which has placed very significant strains on supplies generally. Brexit has also been a bit of a factor, adding to and compounding the overall Covid-19 situation. The Minister of Public Expenditure and Reform is very aware of this and is trying to facilitate greater flexibility and change within the public sector tendering process in this area. That being said, the economy has rebounded overall. Ireland enjoyed the fastest economic growth in the third quarter of any European country. There are 30,000 job vacancies in the economy now compared to 19,000 in the same period two years ago.
I dealt with Deputy Tóibín's question in response to Deputy McDonald.
Moving to Deputy Boyd Barrett, my understanding is that the joint labour committee, JLC, was legally challenged.
In any event, our view is that we support the JLC process and we believe the awards should be followed through and fulfilled by employers in respect of JLC recommendations.
On the issue of ventilation raised by Deputy Paul Murphy, the legislation has been passed and very extensive guidance has been issued. To illustrate my point that one cannot have a universal approach, yesterday I was in a 1970s-built school where every door in every classroom opens out onto the yard. I was told that the school has no issue with ventilation as a result of the construction of the school in the 1970s.