Seanad debates

Monday, 15 February 2021

Remote Working Strategy: Motion

 

10:30 am

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I welcome my neighbour, the Minister of State, Deputy English. I also welcome Senator Currie, who will propose the motion. Under a new procedure of the House, the combined speeches of the proposer and seconder shall not exceed 16 minutes. All other Senators have six minutes. I call Senator Currie to move the motion.

Emer Currie (Fine Gael)
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I move:

“That Seanad Éireann: - supports the recent Government launch of the National Remote Work Strategy by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; acknowledges: - the transformative impact remote working can have on the workforce and communities;

- the difficulties people have faced working from home under emergency Covid-19 restrictions;

- the progress already made by recent Governments, including investment in co-working spaces, a network of hubs like DigiWest, along the Atlantic Economic Corridor, broadband connection points, the National Broadband Plan, Broadband Officers, remote jobs, community infrastructure, training opportunities and building local remote working communities, through the work of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Department of Rural and Community Development, Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, Local Authorities, Údarás na Gaeltachta, Grow Remote,and the Western Development Commission;

- sár-obair atá déanta ag Údarás na Gaeltachta chun Gréasán nuálaíochta agus digiteacha a bhunú trasna na Gaeltachta agus na hOileáin Gaeltachta cois cósta; and calls on the Government to: - deliver on the actions contained within the strategy, including to:
- mandate public sector employers, colleges, and other public bodies to move to 20 percent home and remote working in 2021;

- review the treatment of remote working for the purposes of tax and expenditure in the next Budget;

- provide employers and employees with ongoing up-to-date guidance on remote work;

- explore how the National Broadband Plan can be accelerated;

- map, invest and grow the network of remote working hubs across Ireland;

- legislate for the right to request remote working;

- develop a code of practice for the right to disconnect;

- develop national data on the incidence and frequency of remote work;

- identify a set of appropriate economic metrics to track the impact of remote work; and

- promote remote work amongst businesses, including skills, training and best practice;
- firmly establish equal opportunities as the cornerstone of the strategy;

- make remote work visible in the job creation sector and support remote job creation in communities all over Ireland;

- develop and fund remote work community infrastructure like childcare and sustainable transport as well as broadband and remote working hubs;

- prioritise the impact and potential of remote work in local and national planning strategies, including forthcoming County and City Development Plans, the Rural Strategy, National Economic Plan and the National Development Plan;

- assist individuals, communities and companies through the remote work cultural transformation; and

- build a remote work ecosystem.”

I wish to share time with Senator John McGahon.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Emer Currie (Fine Gael)
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The remote work strategy marks a significant move towards changing how we work for good. It is a framework for long-term change, and we need it. For over 100 years, we have used the same traditional model of work for office workers, a version of 9 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. that is office-based and location-based. For approximately one third of the population, this involves leaving home early in the morning, making an increasingly long commute to an area of high employment and coming home again in the evening. If we were designing a model of how we work from scratch, we just would not do it like that. Why? It is because our settlement patterns have always evolved around access to employment. People followed jobs, and our planning, economic investment strategies and transport systems have all developed around supporting this dominant model of location-based work.Therefore, some communities thrive when others try to survive, creating a stark urban and rural divide, perpetuating regional inequality. The old model of work also does not perform well for other groups such as women or disabled people, where Ireland has some of the lowest workforce participation rates in Europe. In general, women in Ireland, when they become mothers, still tend to be the ones taking up the majority of care, child rearing and domestic work. A one-size-fits-all approach to work simply is not practical, conducive or attractive to many of them. Other structural inequalities can be added, such as the lack of affordable and accessible childcare, even in places like Dublin 15 where it costs €10,000 per year on average, and one can begin to understand why the odds are stacked against them. This outdated approach to work is simply not fit for purpose anymore.

When we reached full employment a mere 18 months ago, there were working parents getting up at 5 a.m. to drop their children to family or to crèches to get to work, to afford to pay rent or mortgages and commuter times further and further away, coming home to kiss their children good night, and rear them at the weekend. They were trying to beat the crowd to get onto trains that were absolutely jammers at Coolmine or buses at Littlepace every morning, sitting in lines of cars spewing tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. These were people taking longer hours out of their day to secure the increasingly elusive social contract that many of our parents enjoyed, that is, the idea that if one works hard, one will have a nice life. As legislators, we tinker around the edges of a model of work that is fundamentally only suited to a limited amount of the population in an effort to rebalance workplace inequality, where people like me with good jobs, good education and ambition left those jobs when they have children because of the struggle to juggle everything financially, logistically and holistically. Is it any wonder that before Covid, surveys showed that most people would take work flexibility over a pay rise or that when Covid forced a third of workers to leave their offices behind and work from home that six months later, despite all the pressures that we are under, 94% of people surveyed said that they wanted remote working to be a feature of work for good? Is it a surprise that mortgage applications, according to Permanent TSB data, have gone up between 20% and 30% outside Dublin compared with prior to the first lockdown?

I could spend my 11 minutes telling everyone how great the Government is for recognising the potential of remote work when others did not, and in fairness, that would be deserved. It has invested €180 million in enterprise hubs, supporting over 300 hubs and 3,200 spaces nationally, and the innovative work of the Western Development Commission, the Atlantic economic corridor, Údarás na Gaeltachta and Grow Remote. It has forged ahead with the national broadband plan when others opposed it, undermined it, and just did not seem to get how fundamental it is to our digital and regional transformation, equal opportunities and work-life balance. That connectivity, through broadband and hubs, is at the very heart of locationless and remote working, of building remote-ready communities.

The Government has recognised the need for our first national remote working strategy and the actions that are required to build a framework around it - the legal, tax, health and safety environment, training and skills, the national and local infrastructure required to support it and its place in our planning strategies. However, there is an urgency that leaves no room for complacency. Covid has not fixed our problems of work-life balance, workplace inequalities or regional imbalance, it has just proven that we can do things differently. Where we go from here is entirely up to us. My message today is that the Government should go big or go back, and nobody wants the latter. When people start to return to offices, equal opportunities must be the cornerstone of our new approach. We have to do that from the start. If somebody feels disadvantaged by working remotely, office presenteeism will quickly return. I am sure everyone has heard the expression that "you don't get a promotion on Zoom". Nobody wants to see remote work become gendered and it really does not have to be that way. A remote-first culture means that technology brings people and their work together, not the office, not one location and not where the boss is.Making an organisation location-agnostic creates a level playing field no matter where one is, regardless of whether one is office based or availing of a hybrid arrangement, or whether the arrangement is for five days per week. As with other significant changes in our economic and social environment, the Government should prepare and help organisations through a remote-first transition and with best practice. We did it for Brexit and other major social and economic changes, and we should do it for this. The carrot is always better than the stick.

We need a full-scale communications campaign with case studies to show where anchor tenancies and local hubs can be secured by employers; where people who work from home are using best practice in health and safety; where the forthcoming right-to-disconnect proposals are part of the working policy; where head offices have been swapped for regional bubble offices for co-working and team meetings; and where existing building stock is repurposed for the same reason. Somebody working for a Department, for instance, might not have to travel to Dublin headquarters but just to the nearest county office, where he or she could work alongside other departmental staff. This is all part of the digital transformation of Ireland and, because of Covid, it is happening at an accelerated pace. We need to help people through it by showing them the potential for change and best practice.

There is too much emphasis on delivering two days per week at home and three days per week in the office. That is what we are defining other people's choice as. It still entails a location-based mindset. Without changing the culture, it could reinforce, rather than relieve, inequality. The Government should not define what the choice looks like; it should create a culture of choice so workers, with their employers, can figure out what works best for both.

Remote working is but one type of flexibility. There are others, including job sharing, compressed hours, annualised hours, core working hours and flexitime, to name just a few. The right to request should not just extend to remote working or working parents and carers, as outlined in the EU work-life balance directive. For all the reasons I mentioned, more people should have the chance to improve their quality of life. What about a young professional who could work compressed hours and then travel for a couple of months or parents who want to work in the office but whom it would suit to come in at 10 a.m. instead of another time? Only 40% of people working remotely at present are actually women. Part of the challenge regarding remote work is that it is not visible yet. It needs to take its place within the overall jobs sector or remote workers will continue to be invisible and we will undervalue the impact of remote working on communities.

Remote work is not coming; it is here already. According to EU Remote Jobs, there are 720,000 remote roles available in Ireland per year. Why are we not talking more about that? How many people here know the name of the biggest remote company in the world, which actually employs a thousand people in Ireland? It is GitLab. Salesforce has just gone remote. When companies advertise roles, they are still slow to offer them as remote. There has been a 1,754% increase in roles advertised as involving working from home on IrishJobs.ieby comparison with last year, but that is more of a reflection of the base we have come from, and it is still called working from home instead of remote working.

Over the new year period, there were three different IDA Ireland announcements about 270 new remote jobs for Ireland, but on Twitter all the fanfare was about the physical jobs being secured in Galway and Dublin, even though remote jobs can benefit every county in the country. We need to find a way to recognise and celebrate remote jobs, especially for areas that could would normally see a red ribbon moment. Have Members seen a photo op at someone's home office? They have not but maybe they should. If we are serious about remote work, as we should be, we must create pathways to remote employment nationally and locally. Grow Remote is already doing it. We already partner with it but we need to up the game nationally and join all the dots together into a remote work ecosystem. Any Government action plan for jobs should set out ambitions and measure remote jobs per local authority area.IDA research shows that for every two jobs secured in a community, another two are sustained locally. That means more people being able to live and work wherever they want. That is progress in regional balance. That is change but it will not happen organically or by accident. It has to be planned. Now is the time to think about building remote-ready communities, prioritising remote infrastructure in cities, towns and villages that are aligned with Project Ireland 2040 and the national development plan, securing access to housing and Irish Water supplies in order that growth is organised and planned, as well as about prioritising mixed-purpose communities and local development plans. Mixed-purpose communities flourished because of Covid, while single-purpose communities declined. It is time to think about investing in hubs and community childcare like we invest in schools in targeted areas, supporting sustainable transport and allowing people to work closer to home, breaking the dominant one-size-fits-all model of travelling long distance for the majority of the day, which is limiting and which drives inequality for women, primarily, as well as poor work-life balance. Instead, let us make work flexibility and childcare accessible.

The forthcoming town centre first strategy will be critical and we need to ensure more flexibility in changing planning uses from retail to offices and residential, making use of our vacant premises. Some people mistakenly believe remote work is all about rural Ireland and they are wrong. Mixed-purpose communities and hyper-proximity principles of 15-minute cities are just as important in Dublin. Would it not be great to see more families living in our cities, like other European cities? I want to see a co-working space on every main street in every village of Dublin 15, where people do not have the real estate or space for home offices. It is entirely achievable quicker than one might think. There has been a marked increase in the funding of broadband connection points, BCPs, and co-working spaces and communities around Ireland but we need more. We need those funds to be updated and made more available and specific to hub roll-out, including in Dublin where the same funding simply is not available.

There are ways to get better value for money too. Instead of local organisations all over the country finding different suppliers to kit out co-working spaces individually, we could devise something similar to the design and build template for schools, where we have a c of suppliers who will do it to a higher specification, getting better value for money and ensuring less variance. At present, there are more than 300 hubs around the country but they are primarily for enterprise, not co-working, and it is difficult to make the co-working model work financially. As well as taking their place in the network of hubs the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, is introducing, I suggest the €3.20 employer tax relief be made available for employees working in such hubs. Long-term anchor tenancies is what they will need and that is dependent on an accessible, affordable and professional network of hubs. Revising the tax treatment and the limited return for personal tax relief is something I have spoken about at length and which I raised when I first entered the Seanad. It is simply not enough and it needs to play a bigger role while employers transition.

I do not stand here today as a party of one or even as one of just a party. This is bigger than that and the people with whom I work are fantastic and really believe in this. I refer to people like Tracy Keogh, John Evoy, John Riordan and Karen O'Reilly. The problems are well rehearsed. We have had a year to experiment because of Covid and people working from home but the problems can be overcome. I ask the Minister of State to work with us on that.

John McGahon (Fine Gael)
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That is a hard act to follow because Senator Currie has been talking about remote working since long before Covid existed.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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Will the Senator formally second the motion?

John McGahon (Fine Gael)
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I second the motion. We can see how impressive Senator Currie is because of the clear and detailed ideas she has put forward. Credit has to be given to her for that.

In my part of County Louth, the national broadband plan will have to play an important part if remote working is to be successful. I pay tribute to Fine Gael and particularly its website, finegael.ie/broadband, which was announced this morning. One can go onto the Fine Gael website and look up 120 townlands in County Louth or look up any county in the country. For each of the 120 townlands in County Louth, it will show what week and month it is scheduled to have the surveying carried out in the area.It gives people totally up-to-date information. It is actually better and more accessible than the National Broadband Ireland website. Therefore, I pay particular tribute to that.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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I will not oppose this motion. I admire greatly the commitment of Senator Currie to the whole concept of remote working. To me, it is something that will obviously be part of our future to a greater extent than was ever envisaged. As Senator Currie stated, the process has been dynamised by the Covid-19 lockdowns as people are beginning to see it is possible to work remotely and to shift work from centralised bases.

I also believe it is a question of introducing flexibility and freedoms into our economy. As somebody who is a liberal by nature and also pro-enterprise, I believe there are huge positives to remote working and to its espousal by many enterprises in Ireland. I fully accept what Senators McGahon and Currie said about the infrastructural basis of it, especially in the context of our roll-out of broadband nationally and the creation of hubs. Those are important issues.

I want to say a few things, though, by way of caution. It is very simple to get enthusiastic about a project and see none of the downsides of it. I am not at all saying that critically of the proposer or seconder of this motion. I will make a number of points, however.

I heard the Tánaiste speak about introducing the right to remote working. In the context of most private sector employment, the right to do something, as opposed to a partnership agreement between employer and employee, is a crucial concept. We cannot have people saying they are off and will not be at their workplace and will work from home. There must be a realisation that some dynamics in organisations require the congregation of people, whether they are in local hubs or central hubs. One of the things I did when I was Minister with responsibility for justice was to move a number of State agencies to various places outside Dublin. For example, I relocated the Prison Service to County Longford. There was a great deal of scepticism at the time as to whether they could actually work properly, and there still is in respect of some of them.

I will also make the point - the Minister of State may agree with this proposition - that a Minister running a Department on occasion needs a centralised hub of people who are available almost immediately when a crisis breaks. One cannot just try to assemble people on a Zoom call over 12 or 18 hours in order to respond to a situation. There are critical requirements even in the public service, and there always will be.

There will definitely be cases in small and medium enterprises where it is unthinkable that one would confer a right to work remotely on an employee and put the employer in the position of saying that person has to like it or lump it. Particular problems would arise from that. Therefore, in the private sector as opposed to the public sector, where public administration is different in character, there must be a partnership approach.

I also raise the point about socialisation. We say that our children must go to school for socialisation purposes, that their education must be centralised and that they must meet each other. There is a socialisation aspect to employment and that is acknowledged in the strategy document. One cannot just simply spread people all over the place and thereby create a situation where they never meet each other and where the power of employers might be unacceptably magnified.

I ask people to also remember that accessibility to a place where one actually wants to do business is extremely important, as is direct interaction with people. Those of us who have seen our bank branches evaporate over the past ten years and been told to contact a call centre in Belfast or further afield now know what it is like to try to do something in the absence of direct interaction.With many State agencies the position is the same. One is dealing with people who are not accessible and one cannot sit down across a table and discuss one's problem with them. Let us remember that.

I agree with Senator Currie that the carrot, rather than the stick, is the approach to take with all of this. On commuting, one of the more amusing comments made by one Member was that people could commute on their bicycles from Kildare. I thought of what it would be like to commute by bicycle from Kildare during the last week. Commuting eats up whole swathes of people's lives, even in the greater Dublin area. Traffic jams and so on destroy people's daily lives if they also have to bring kids to crèches and schools, get food in the evening, collect kids, visit elderly parents and all the rest. The crippling experience of commuting is something we must try to minimise.

This is a good motion and I support it but we should also look around a few corners. There are some aspects of remote working which will need to be carefully balanced, rather than remote working simply being accepted in a naive and over-enthusiastic way.

Ollie Crowe (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the motion and recognise its importance. I compliment Senator Currie on her great knowledge of this issue, which she has raised for a number of years. From our point of view, the motion fulfils a programme for Government commitment in which it is specifically pledged to developing a strategy for remote working.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought hardship and loss in so many ways across Ireland. Perhaps one of the few bright spots to come from this hugely challenging period will be the development of remote working. Although the adoption of remote working was already increasing in Ireland, Covid-19, as Senators are all aware, has greatly accelerated this trend, making remote work a central part of the workplace today and, hopefully, the future. Research carried out last October found that 94% of participants would like to work remotely after the crisis. As has been outlined by previous speakers, remote working has the potential to make significant positive impacts by improving work-life balance for people across the country. In conjunction with the implementation of the national broadband plan, remote working will rejuvenate towns and villages throughout rural Ireland, whether in Galway or elsewhere. We all know villages that it will help bring back to live.

With remote working set to be a permanent feature in the workplace in Ireland, we need to ensure the transition happens in a way that maximises economic, social and environmental benefits. The remote work strategy is built on three fundamental pillars, which will be bolstered by underpinning conditions. Pillar 1 is focused on creating an environment conducive to the adoption of remote work. As remote working is a new way of working, it will need new and different measures to be put in place to support it into the future, as the Minister of State will be aware. Changes to how and where people will work will have impacts on a number of different areas, such as the rights and responsibilities of employers and employees, health and safety legislation and tax arrangements. The actions in this pillar are centred on supporting employers first of all, as well as employees.

Pillar 2 highlights the importance of the development and leveraging of remote work infrastructure to facilitate increased remote work adoption.Adequate infrastructure must be put in place to allow employers and employees to avail of remote working opportunities both at home and in hubs. The actions in this pillar are focused on development and investment in national hub infrastructure and the delivery of broadband nationally, both of which will be significant drivers in facilitating people to work remotely.

Pillar 3 is centred on maximising the benefits of remote work to achieve public policy goals. To achieve this, policymakers need to be aligned with a shared vision and supported by access to the most relevant data to inform evidence-based policy. The actions relating to this pillar will ensure that data from collaborative practices is used to best effect to achieve multiple policy goals. The three pillars are bolstered by underpinning conditions. These horizontal factors focus both on the promotion of remote working and best practice, as well as the skills need for its increased adoption. This section also highlights the opportunity that the public sector holds to lead by example and to demonstrate best practice to employers nationally.

Employers and employees will be obliged to give a great deal. It is not a divine right to work from home. The co-operation of both employers and employees will be needed. By progressing actions in each of the areas to which I have referred, the Government will realise the vision of this strategy to ensure that remote working will be a permanent feature of the workplace in a way that maximises economic, social and environmental benefits for everyone.

This is a welcome motion. I commend Senators Currie and McGahon on proposing and seconding it. It will be absolutely vital going forward. I have no doubt that it will receive the full support of the House.

Marie Sherlock (Labour)
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I welcome the motion. The ability to work remotely and the use of such technology have thrown a lifeline to hundreds of thousands of workers and businesses across the country. While remote working is not new, we are all fairly certain that it is going to become more widespread after this pandemic. The motion refers to the national remote work strategy and the need for additional data.

We need to pay tribute to the Central Statistics Office, which has worked hard at putting together data as to who is and is not working from home, as well as what type of work people have done from home over the past 12 months. We know that before Covid kicked off just under 500,000 workers did some or all of their work from home, with 5% of workers doing all of their work from home. A much larger number of us, over 800,000, one in three of workers, are now working from home. There is an understanding as to how big this is.

While there is no doubt that the ability to work remotely has brought significant advantages, such as cutting out the long hours commuting, more time with children and less in childcare costs, it has also exposed many challenges such as inadequate workplace provision, people having to work from the edge of the bed and the failure of some employers to make proper provision. We know from extensive research conducted by Eurofound that remote working has led to longer hours and fewer rest periods, along with the corrosive mental and physical health impact of feeling that one is always on.

Do policymakers promote remote working first and then protect people afterwards? The clear message from the national remote work strategy is very much about taking a step back with regards to protections and promoting first.I do not think that is good enough. We are told the tax treatment of remote working will be reviewed in the next budget. We knew there was an issue at the previous budget and yet there was a failure to do anything. We are told that a code of practice will be put in place on the right to disconnect. If any employment lawyers in this Chamber will tell me that will do any good, I am open to those arguments. However, I do not believe that will be worth the paper it is written on. We are told there is a commitment to gathering more data on the incidence of remote working trends. I will point people in the direction of the Central Statistics Office. We are told there is a legislative commitment on the right to request remote working. That was going to be foisted upon us anyway because of the EU directive on work-life balance.

There is, therefore, a big difference between my party's approach and that of Fine Gael with regard to remote working. We want to protect first before we start to promote even greater levels of remote working. That is why my party produced a Bill on working from home last November. I was delighted to see the Government did not oppose that Bill. It seems now, however, that view has changed and the remote working strategy will take a much more hands-off approach towards the protection of workers.

Our Bill set out to do three things. It is important to state it here. First, to ensure employers adequately provide for workers in terms of a workstation. We have a raft of health and safety legislation in this country governing the responsibility of employers towards their employees in terms of their workstation. However, we know that enforcement is a huge issue. The 2007 legislation is out of date. Therefore, the reality at the moment is that employees are very much at the mercy of their employers regarding what resources are put in place as regards a computer, desk, chair and so forth.

The second point is with regard to a flat rate payment in respect of the cost of the utilities of working from home. We have seen the cost of working in an office shift from the shoulders of an employer to a worker, and all the costs associated with that in terms of broadband and increased heat and electricity. There is a huge difference between being able to claim back some of the share of those costs from the Revenue Commissioners and what some good employers do, which is pay up to €3.20 per day as a tax-free allowance. The difference can be between €24.52, as one calculation put it over a six-month period, versus €576 as a tax-free payment. We conducted a survey last summer of those working from home. To me, the important point is that while for many it is a really positive experience, those who are renters are almost twice as likely as owner-occupiers to say they do not want to continue remote working into the future. That is a clear reflection of the obstacles and challenges for those who are younger and less economically secure.

The third key proposal we put forward was the right to switch off. Many of us are seeing a blurring of lines. While it is fine for those of us in the Chamber, and for me with three small kids, to say I want to log on at 10 p.m., for others, it is not a choice. They are under pressure to respond to their bosses' emails. We need to put those protections in place. France, Belgium, Italy and Spain have all moved to put in place legislation on the right to disconnect and yet this Government says it cannot do so and wants a code of practice.

I want to finish on a positive note. I know there is a line here about a stated commitment to equal opportunities in the context of working from home. We need to make certain it is about ensuring people working from home are treated just as equally as those in the office. We know from research, particularly in the United States, that those who work just as diligently at home are treated unfairly. They receive less of a pay increase and a poorer performance appraisal relative to those in the office because being in the office is equated with a sign of commitment. We can have all the codes of conduct in the world but we need legal protections in place for workers, otherwise the commitment to equality will not be worth the paper it is written on.

Róisín Garvey (Green Party)
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It is nice to see Senator McGreehan in the Chair. I welcome the Minister of State. I thank Senator Currie. This is indeed a fantastic piece of work. To alleviate some of the Senator's concerns, the Government has been working hard on this issue to ensure it is done properly and fairly for workers. As Green Party spokesperson on enterprise, trade and employment, since we have been in government, we have made submissions on many things to which the Senator has referred. To clarify, nobody is saying anything about stopping the right to switch off. I will go through a few things to inform the Senator properly about it. Perhaps she is not fully aware of what has been going on with the work behind the scenes.I have years of experience myself, so I have good experience of the pros and cons and how to do this right, as have many other people in government who have been working hard on this motion. I state that just to alleviate any concerns. This can be done and it can done well, and that is the whole purpose of this motion we are working on. We know first-hand that if workers are not taken care of, they will not be as productive. We can look to the private sector in that regard. I met with representatives from Dropbox, a company which has been doing remote working for years. It was found there that not only was productivity better, but remote working also saved the company money and made its workers happier. That is what happens if workers are taken care of, so that has to be a top priority.

It is also important, because we have committed to 20% remote working in the public sector, that we empower and enable all those public sector workers who can do so to work from home. We should look into the ergonomics involved in doing that, which we are doing as a Government. We must also ensure that remote working does not cause or exacerbate mental health issues and that is why it is great that we are doing so much work on the broadband connection points, BCPs, and the digital hubs. In Clare alone, we have digital hubs in Kilrush, Feakle, Carran, Miltown Malbay, Ennistymon, Kilfenora, Kilkee, Corofin, and those in Ennis, Cross, Einagh and Flagmount are on the way. It is a great development, which means that people like me, who do work from home, are able to take care of our mental health by booking into one of these super and excellently funded by the State social workspaces. Having worked from home, I know it is good to sometimes be able to clock into one of those places to meet other humans.

We are taking care of things, therefore, from the perspective of working from home and from the perspective of the provision of good broadband with the creation of these digital hubs all over the place. I was involved in a pre-budget submission on these Wi-Fi hubs to the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, who has approved €5 million for them. These digital hubs are specifically intended to target smaller rural places where people might be isolated in their homes. They will also be using existing community buildings, which is great because those assets will also be available in the evening.

In my village at home, we hope that once we have the digital work hub, post Covid-19 and because everything is going online, we will be able to engage with older people who find it difficult to do things online so that these hubs will be used by them and we will be able to help those people to do their online business. We might be able to train them up as well, so I feel very positive about this development. It is brilliant to see that people will now be able to work in any part of Ireland. I am a real rural advocate and, knowing how much it costs to live in cities and because our cities have so much traffic and living costs which are so high, it is positive that we are doing this and doing this well because it means people will now have choices to live in rural villages and towns that need life and breath brought back into them.

As Senator Currie mentioned, that is why it is so important that we get the town and village renewal scheme under way and that we do it properly. Remote working will be a major part of that endeavour, as will water infrastructure and being able to do up old buildings to make it possible and simpler for people to live above businesses in our small towns and villages. That is why we need these broadband connection points and these digital hubs, and why we need this initiative done and done well to protect the workers. It will also be great because we will be able to look at job creation as well. I have friends who work for Google and do website design etc. People from all over Ireland and Europe are now living where I do, which was not the case before, and this development has been made possible by digital hubs funded by the State.

We now have a digital hub where the founder of the GAA, Michael Cusack, was born in the most remote cottage I have ever seen, just outside of a village called Carran that is outside of any town. It is a place that already has a remote working hub, and three of the four desks are already booked up. These digital hubs are badly needed places. I thought nobody would use that hub, but all kinds of people live in places throughout the country. I am really excited about this development and the work that is being done on this by the Government. We must take our hats off to Senator Currie for her work on this motion. We are all in this together.

I see no negatives associated with this initiative, because we also understand the need to protect those people who are going to be working from home. Aspects such as the quality of desks and other equipment are also important. If people volunteer to work from home, they must also ensure they can get the space and the time required to do that. As someone who works from home, I recognise that we must also choose the right to switch off ourselves. There is some personal responsibility involved. As Senators, we are online seven days a week anyway, but I know when I was working with an NGO, notionally from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., I was often working sometimes on a Saturday and a Sunday. That is something we will all have to watch out for more, even if our bosses are not making us, which they will not be now, because it will be done properly now and there will be legislation in place. We will have to watch our own work-life balance, however, and keep an eye on what we are doing.We will all have to watch out for that, even if our bosses are not making us switch off, which they will not be in future because it will be done properly and there will be legislation for it. We will have to watch our work-life balance ourselves and keep any eye on it.

The last point I will make is that we have been talking about well-being metrics. There will be an analysis done on the economic metrics in regard to remote working, but we must have well-being metrics as well. I would look to the private sector in this regard. Having met many people in the sector who have been doing this for many years, they have it nailed down to a fine art and they know how to take care of their employees. We want to make sure that applies to both the public and private sectors across Ireland.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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It is nice to see Senator McGreehan in the Chair and to have the Minister of State, Deputy English, in the House. On behalf of Sinn Féin, I welcome this motion. There are lots of positive messages around remote working that we fully support. Like my colleague from the Labour Party, however, I am concerned about the aspirational nature of much of what is proposed as opposed to there being nuts-and-bolts provisions in terms of protections for workers. I will deal with that point presently.

As we all know, when the pandemic struck, there was a sudden shift to working from home, which fully awakened people to the possibilities in terms of remote working. While it has been a difficult experience for some people, it is fair to say that, for the majority, it has been quite positive. We need to build on that. The national strategy has the potential to do so, but we need to ensure that workers' rights are protected. I see this motion as one that falls within the frame of workers' rights. Unfortunately, I am sorry to say that, as I will outline, Fine Gael does not have the best of records when it comes to workers' rights. For example, we are one of the few countries in Europe that does not have collective bargaining rights.

In terms of the various issues that have been raised so far, I share the concerns around a code of practice in regard to the right to disconnect. That right is absolutely fundamental to this issue. Working from home is only a benefit if one can save time, including travel time, and get to spend more time at home. As someone who has practised industrial relations for well over a decade, I have to say that codes of practice do not work. In fact, when I hear the words "code of practice", I think of Captain Jack Sparrow and the pirates' code, which, if Senators remember, turned out to be just guidelines as opposed to an actual code. We need legal protections, not just good wishes. That is why this conversation is welcome. Now is the opportunity for Fine Gael to acknowledge that a code of practice is not enough and to ensure there are legal protections in terms of the right to disconnect.

Other speakers mentioned the tax issues. I hope we would all agree that the €3.20 allowance per day is not enough and we need to do more in that respect. It should have been done in the last budget but if we can get a firm commitment from the Minister of State that something will happen in the coming budget, I would welcome that.

We need to ensure that workers are not taken advantage of when it comes to home working and that they are not expected to work more hours. For instance, how will the 48-hour working rule be policed when people are working from home? That needs to be teased out. The savings that companies are making, as referred to by other speakers, should be passed on to the workers. Surely that is the best benefit workers can get out of home working? There are massive savings for employers in terms of property costs and so forth. We need to ensure those costs are not transferred to the workers.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, has had a lot to say on this issue. I urge Senator Currie and her colleagues in Fine Gael to look at its statements. I am surprised that in a 410-word motion, there is not one mention of the views of trade unions on what is, as we have agreed, a workers' rights topic. Again, there is an opportunity now to go back and look at those statements and consider the urgings of the ICTU, in particular, in regard to tax and the right to disconnect.

The most fundamental protection one can give workers working from home is the right to collective bargaining. In this regard, I must point out that, just last week, the Tánaiste aligned himself with the leaders of Hungary and Poland to block an EU directive that would have extended collective bargaining rights to workers in this State. How does that stand with the Government's position in the area of workers' rights? My union, SIPTU, was absolutely outraged by it. My colleague, the deputy general secretary, Gerry McCormack, said: "The Minister, Leo Varadkar, knows that if the proposals from the EU are just recommendations, they will be absolutely useless for workers in Ireland." The Tánaiste is saying that he does not want the directive to be legally binding; he wants it to be watered down to a recommendation.Mr. McCormack added: "The three parties in government have a track record of supporting employers' interests above those of workers and this is just another disgraceful example of this." That happened last week, and it was Senator Currie's leader who aligned himself with the leaders of Hungary and Poland. I find that more than just disappointing. How can we talk about workers' rights and improving rights for workers at home when the Government went out of its way last week to water down a key EU directive, the minimum wage directive, which also deals with collective bargaining and would have required the governments to work towards 70% coverage of collective bargaining? If workers do not have the right to decent union representation or the right to stand together, in particular when they are working on their own at home, what rights do they have? They are, in effect, at the mercy of employers.

The fact is that this Government has chosen in the past week to take that stand. As a member of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment I am especially upset about this because we met with the Department only a couple of weeks ago and we discussed this directive and got legal advice on it. We were told there was no problem with the directive going forward. No one from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment said to us that Ireland would align itself with Hungary and Poland to make sure that collective bargaining does not get strengthened in the legislation. That is what the Government did, and that is the most disappointing aspect. Fine Gael Senators have plenty of good ideas, but they have been let down by their leader and their party. We should see much better from this Government. If we are going to start with rights for workers working from home, let us start with collective bargaining rights. Let us see something concrete done on that. I urge those in Fianna Fáil and the Green Party to raise their voices at this stage if they believe in workers' rights at all.

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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Like other speakers, I welcome the motion. There was much that I liked in the wording of the motion. I commend Senator Currie on her proposal because she spoke to a number of important issues. Remote working is not the same as home working. It may be about hubs. She spoke about how important this is for rural areas, but also that the idea of a 15-minute city is crucial for cities. We do not want a hollowed-out city simply filled with office blocks where people commute but where they cannot live.

The motion contains many positive measures but because my time is limited, I will focus on the areas we need to strengthen because I think this is important. This is another moment in terms of the re-imagining of work, which is something that is important. It is unions very often that have led some of that debate. It was the Irish Women Workers Union that first pushed for the two-week holiday and the idea of leave. It was something no male-led union had ever done in Ireland. The union pushed for it and said that the way we think about work and its relationship with life, family and connection needs to be linked up. That is a wider conversation and it is appropriate at a time when we need to re-imagine work again given the way life has changed. Although there has been change, the way the working week has been planned has been very rigid for a long time. We have just about held on to the 40-hour working week, which again was won by unions. There has often been an invisibility of the reality of family life, care and community work that people are not paid to do. This is a really exciting moment but, as legislators, we must do it very carefully and strongly in a way that looks at the fact that it is only when one puts things strongly and firmly down in legislation and regulation that one gets best practice.

I wish to highlight issues concerning the private sector and the public sector. There are recommendations on the public sector, but the private sector needs strong regulation in this area as well. It is vital that we do not have a casualisation of work that comes with remote working. For too long we have seen, for example, that part-time work, which is usually done by women, got treated as somehow temporary or more casual when in fact it should be quality part-time work. Those who are working part time should still have pathways to progression. We do not want to create a new category in terms of remote workers being invisible when it comes to progression, greater responsibilities and opportunities. We have seen the casualisation of labour through the gig economy. It is important that remote working is a quality narrative of employment rather than a narrative of casualisation. The issues of health and safety have been mentioned. It is really important that these are not optional issues because the health and safety of workers are vital. We will need to empower a new kind of health and safety scrutiny of organisations that are using widescale remote working to ensure they give the right protections and supports to their workers. Issues of heat and electricity, outsourcing of costs and the socialisation of costs from organisations need to be looked at. We need a conversation on the strengthening of PRSI and this conversation dovetails with that. We need more PRSI from employers in Ireland.

The right to disconnect is important. Again, this is one area where a code of practice will not be enough. If we are talking about legislating for the right to request remote working, then we need to legislate for the right to disconnect as well. That needs to be put in law. It is important for that to happen in a meaningful way.

As well as looking at the economic metrics on the impact of remote work, I urge for the economic and social metrics to be looked at because both these issues are important.

The question of unions and the right to collective bargaining is important. It becomes more important when we have a workforce spread over diverse settings where people do not get to congregate. There needs to be a right to collective bargaining because it will drive best practice in this area. It will lead to quality outcomes. It needs to be in place all the more when it may be that unions need to contact people remotely or virtually. There is a great challenge to be addressed and I urge all parties here to speak to the Minister on this issue. Ireland needs to move on in this respect.

I am keen to point to the question of the kinds of digital hubs. They need to represent a quality environment. It is exciting for people in the west of Ireland and other places that these can be hubs that allow people to have a short commute instead of a long commute. We need to look at how this fits with ideas like the community hubs, other spaces for digital empowerment in the community and childcare services. There is a chance to create strong community spaces in this regard.

My final point relates to the digital divide. We need a strong reality check all the time. To be clear, as someone who is excited about the digital era and what we can do with it, I note the EU digital economy and society index for 2020 found that 44.6% of people in Ireland lack basic digital skills. We do not want to create a split in society. We need to create digital empowerment. I have put forward proposals that I hope others in the House might support in this regard. We need to look at empowering people not only to be workers but to be empowered co-creators of online spaces, including online workspaces.

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Fine Gael)
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I am sharing time with Senator Dolan. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy English. I thank Senator Currie for her work on this motion.

Balanced regional development is something Fine Gael absolutely believes in. We believe it is good for the regions, as well as being good for Dublin and the east coast of Ireland. Infrastructure is necessary for this to happen. This has traditionally meant road, rail, water and waste water. High-speed broadband is now to the fore in this regard and is central to it. Fine Gael has been to the fore in this debate. We prioritised State investment to ensure all homes, businesses and farms will be connected to high-speed broadband. This has now started and we have budgeted to ensure it will be completed. This will allow and encourage remote working.

The onset of Covid-19 has shown what can be done from home or remotely in local hubs. This has been and has shown a positive impact on the lives of people. We can see more family time, rest time, social time and exercise time, as well as less commuting and lower transport costs. It may not be for everyone, but it should be possible for those who wish to avail of it. It may not always be a case of five days per week working at home or remotely, but it could be two, three or four days depending on circumstances. Some days may be still required back at base. To be clear, working from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in an office should not mean working any longer at home. Working from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. can still be 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at home. High-speed broadband is absolutely vital for this to happen. I believe the potential is immense.That is why Fine Gael has been to the fore in ensuring that all parts of our country, every townland, will be connected to high-speed broadband. As others have said, it is not just about the home, hubs are to the fore in this regard as well. I acknowledge the work of the Western Development Commission on the promotion and development of hubs within the western region. Freisin, tar éis an obair atá déanta ag Údarás na Gaeltachta le blianta anuas ó thaobh an ghréasáin dhigitigh, Gteic. Tá obair den scoth déanta acu trasna na nGaeltachta agus na n-oileán agus pleananna acu chun áiseanna le ceangal ardluais a chur ar fáil trasna na Gaeltachta. Tá sé fíorthábhachtach poist a chruthú agus daoine agus an daonra a choimeád sa Ghaeltacht agus ar na noileáin cois cósta. The pre-Covid work of Udarás na Gaeltachta. with its strategy for a network of digital hubs across its area of responsibility, has been immense.

I commend the motion and acknowledge Senator Currie's work and belief in the positives of remote working.

Aisling Dolan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the House. In terms of his responsibility for employment affairs and retail businesses what we are discussing is really important. I commend Senator Currie on the work she has done on remote working and I welcome the strategy that has come forward.

The remote working strategy recently launched by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment references three pillars, namely, creating an environment for remote working to flourish, remote working infrastructure and policies to support this. The goal is to have 20% of the public sector working remotely. That is fantastic. Hopefully, that will happen in the coming years. This is setting an example by the Government. The strategy speaks to how remote working will offer more flexibility, which can only be a positive, particularly for women, working mums, single parents, people with disabilities, carers and how it can change how people access and carry out their roles without having to commute. Remote working will also have environmental benefits. The drive here from Ballinasloe took two hours. Imagine the benefits if we could remove the need for people to have to do such long commutes.

We are in a period of change. As mentioned, the rights associated with remote working are very important. The report speaks to the need for a balance between remote working and the dynamic process of people coming together to brainstorm, which cannot be lost. We all know the importance of that. The infrastructure is an issue I have been looking at. Two years ago, two schools in east Galway were judged the worst in the country in terms of download speeds. This meant that children in the west of Ireland did not have equal access to education. Following on from the work of Fine Gael and National Broadband Ireland in terms of driving the national broadband plan, the roll-out is happening and schools are able to access broadband. I was told earlier today by staff at a Gaelscoil in Ballinasloe that they have to work from home because they cannot work from the school. Broadband is really important for education and business. It is about having equal opportunity.

We are supporting employers, employees and the self-employed across the country. In the Ballinasloe, south Roscommon and east Galway region, more than 3,300 premises will be connected by May and June. This includes areas such as Clontuskert, Ahascragh, Kilconnell, Ballydangan and Moore. We are one of the top five priority areas, which is amazing because there are many black spots in east Galway and south Roscommon. There will be provision for schools and farmers' marts as well because marts are outside of that zone.

I wish to acknowledge that the support the Government provided at secondary school level and at third level for devices in order that students from disadvantaged areas can access education is crucial. Finally, the Grow Remote initiative and the just transition funding have been crucial in supporting remote working hubs in particular areas in the midlands and the west.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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It is good to see Senator McGreehan in the Chair. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English. Like others, I pay tribute to Senator Currie, who is passionate about this issue. This is a timely and appropriate debate as the Government contemplates issues around remote working. I would like to comment on a couple of the contributions.Senator McDowell is right to state that we need to encourage the decentralisation of the public service. When he was Minister for Justice, one of the things that he committed to was decentralising the office of the gambling regulator. This year we will finally see legislation on gambling regulation. I am quite confident that my Wexford colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, will deliver on that, 14 years later.

Senator Higgins was right in respect of the question around progression opportunities. It is most important for those in the public and private sectors, that if they choose to engage in remote working, they are in no way denied progression opportunities. Measures must be put in place to ensure that. Senators Higgins and Sherlock raised the question of the right to disconnect and the importance of putting that on a legislative basis. I am not quite sure how the right to disconnect could be enforced for Members of the Oireachtas, or indeed for local councillors, or how it could be explained to constituents. It is a challenge for us Members as we are so often in contact with constituents. However, as has been said, remote working has been transformed and has the potential to transform not just rural but many urban communities. I have seen it in my home town of Gorey where, in a partnership that was developed between Redmond Construction and Wexford County Council, the M11 business park was developed. It had a number of anchored tenants. The Hatch Lab was also developed which accommodated a small number of companies as well as hot-desking. There was, therefore, a local ecosystem which allowed the escape referred to by Senators Currie and Garvey, but equally allowed for the exchange of ideas, which is most important within communities.

In light of the welcome remote working strategy, a review of the outdated national planning framework is necessary. Given some of the overreach of the Office of the Planning Regulator in respect of our city and county development plans, the fact that we are all now working in a new and different way must be taken into consideration. This has been shown by the pandemic. The pandemic has also shown the importance of some of our values as a society around health, family and community, and how remote working can reinforce them.

I will make a few general comments on the change in the use of technology, which will be wonderful. However, I am concerned that we, as a society, and I include the Government more generally in this, are not sufficiently prepared for the pace of technological change and how that will impact not just on society but on the workplace over the years ahead. We will see a far greater degree of automation over the next decade in all areas. In fact, there are very few professions or occupations that will not be impacted by automation. We must put in place strategies to deal with that. That includes significant levels of upskilling and retraining. In my view, if the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is purely an administrative Department, it will have failed. Its role must be to identify the technological change that we will see and to prepare all citizens to be ready for that change.

In the future, we will not see remote working or learning, where people are simply at home the whole time and locked away. We will see a blend. We still all need human company. Dare I say it, but I am missing physical meetings. One cannot read a room on Zoom. There is great benefit in being able to walk around a workplace and pick up knowledge and interact with people. There will be a blend. How that will be regulated will be important.

I welcome this motion. It starts an important debate that we must have about the nature of the workplace and the challenges we will face as a result of technology that is coming down the line.I hope that, in the Minister of State's response and in the Government's implementation of this remote working strategy, we look at levels of serious investment in reskilling and upskilling and, as Senator Higgins, said, addressing the digital divide.

Garret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the Chamber. I welcome the motion and congratulate my colleague, Senator Currie, on the work she has done on this. Long before most people were speaking about remote working or Covid-19, the Senator was advocating a change in view in how we will work and live in future. From all of the contributions, most people recognise the importance of remote working and everything that goes with it. I agree with what Senator Byrne said about the right to disconnect. This is part of society adjusting to the opportunity of remote working. In my household, we try to work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. but it can be quite difficult. People who have children do not get what they would normally view as a full day's work done between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and they can find that they are working later at night. It is quite difficult to manage. I suppose this is a process we will learn as we go on. The key is having the option. Just because there is remote working does not mean people cannot work in a workplace if that is what they choose to do. It is about having as many options for people as possible so they can be part of the workforce and contribute in a positive and effective way in whatever work they do.

In Tipperary, the most important factor in remote working and giving people this opportunity is broadband. Many people in Tipperary work in Cork, Limerick, Waterford or Dublin. They do so because they need to but not always because they want to do so five days a week. Broadband will be a game changer. Fine Gael is the only party that supported the national broadband plan long before the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the necessity of a reliable broadband connection. Broadband is coming to every town, village and community throughout the country. This is based on Fine Gael's ambition to make Ireland one of the first countries in the world where every home, business and farm has access to high-speed broadband. This is a huge project that will take time. If we could, we would do it overnight but it has started. While Covid-19 might have delayed us it will not stop us and Fine Gael is determined that the 1.1 million people in 544,000 homes, 695 schools, 54,000 farms and 44,000 businesses in the country will be online under the national broadband plan. Not one of the Opposition parties supported Fine Gael's broadband plan and they sought to block it at every turn. There are remote and rural areas in Ireland where commercial providers were not investing, and if it were not for Fine Gael, places such as Tipperary would not have had investment in broadband.

John Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the Chamber. I echo the comments of my colleague on Senator Currie and the fantastic work she did in this area before it was popular to do so.

There is no doubt we are in an era of change. Covid-19 has probably accelerated the move towards remote work and remote learning. It has probably accelerated it by several years. It was going to happen but Covid has moved the process along. The possibilities are endless. We have probably seen a glimpse into the future of what it will be like. We have seen the advantages of remote GP consultations, remote medical services, smart farming, cloud computing, reduced travel and emissions and online public services.There are probably many such developments that we have not seen yet. Facebook did not exist ten years ago but we now have so many thousand people employed in companies directly associated with it. There are many more such examples. There will be so many online opportunities to work. This affords towns, villages and cities outside Dublin a great opportunity to attract people back to them. From them, staff can still work for major multinational corporations based in Dublin. A member of staff might need to be in Dublin for only one day per week and might be working at home or in a remote hub for the other four. As other Senators have said, the blend is what will be appropriate. My wife has been working at home for 12 months at this stage. The lack of an office environment is difficult, particularly when there is nobody else in the house. I am acutely aware that while the opportunities are vast, we must also be conscious that we need to have a balance.

In my county, Waterford, 15,000 homes will eventually be connected through the national broadband plan. Many of the strategies being mentioned would not be possible without that plan. The decisions made by the previous Government to accelerate the plan are now bearing fruit and will continue to do so over the coming years.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on this motion, which I welcome. I congratulate Senator Currie on her very hard work on it. I have heard her speak about the benefits of remote working on numerous occasions. I completely support her in that regard. Last week, I had the opportunity to raise on the Order of Business our need to reimagine our lives, look at things differently and work differently. We must also examine our connections and connectivity. Regarding the development plans being produced right around the country, Kildare has just started the process. The plans must support regeneration in our rural towns and villages. If people are to be able to work from home or remote hubs, families should be looked on more favourably through planning permission in relation to giving support to those around them.

There is no doubt that rural broadband is key to this, but I had to smile wryly when I heard my colleague, Senator Ahearn, saying broadband would not happen overnight. Fine Gael had nine years in government to deliver it. The national broadband plan is important and I am glad it is being implemented but I am sure the Senator will also send his congratulations to the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, who also helped to deliver it.

Opening up the workforce is important. There are many people with disabilities who do not have the opportunity to leave home to seek or go to work. Remote working could open a new area for them. There are many women at home who have not had the opportunity to reskill and return to work. There are opportunities in this regard that we should be able to tap into.

Our small towns have been haemorrhaging residents for many years, particularly in areas that are more rural. They have a huge opportunity. We can live healthier lifestyles when we are not racing or rushing to train stations to get onto crowded carriages. We are paying a significant amount of money to do so. We can lead healthier lifestyles when we are not racing to leave babies and toddlers at childcare at unearthly hours of the morning and collect them at unearthly hours in the evening. It can certainly lead to a better lifestyle. It gives people the opportunity to be part of stronger, healthier communities.There are many people living in communities who do not have the opportunity to connect because of the hours of commuting and unhealthy lifestyles due to that commuting. There is much to gain.

Not all roles lend themselves to remote working. It is important to note that some employees who have had the opportunity to correspond about remote working over the past year have referred to experiencing isolation, loneliness and stress. We have to look at that too and at how we can explore creativity, group dynamics and shared ownership, because there is nothing like getting around a table with colleagues at work to brainstorm about solving a problem and finding a shared vision going forward. I certainly do not want to see everything being dealt with remotely. Senator Cummins mentioned health being delivered remotely. He is right that that can be a good thing but it cannot be a replacement. In one small town in Kildare, Ballymore Eustace, instead of a general practitioner, a remote health service was put in place in a local shop. That has certainly filled a gap but it is not a replacement and we should not see it as such.

Remote hubs are important. Apart from working at home, the idea of being in a remote hub where we can have a sense of collegiality is important. My village, Rathangan, is a small village with a population of less than 1,000. A quick survey was done on a Sunday ten months ago and 87 people said that they would like to work from a remote hub. We are looking at ensuring that the local community centre can be kitted out as such. Finance to help support that is important. Those necessary financial supports have to be rolled out together with broadband. We also have to look at other aspects of remote working that we can support. I support and commend the motion.

Micheál Carrigy (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English. I fully support this motion and thank Senator Currie for the work she has done on this important issue. It is important to acknowledge that the national broadband plan was signed off on by Fine Gael despite opposition from all sides at the time. It is impossible to envisage any vibrant future for Ireland without broadband at its heart. Our vision as a party at the time was to enable new ways of working and to exploit the significant benefits that remote working offers to each citizen and to society in general. It is the largest project undertaken by the State since rural electrification, and we all know from speaking to our parents how important that was at the time.

We placed a significant emphasis on remote and flexible working in our general election manifesto. The Government has advanced this policy by publishing a remote working strategy and increasing investment to provide hubs. We also have proposals to introduce tax expenses and allowances for changes to help those who make this choice. Another significant step was the funding provided by the Department of Rural and Community Development in 2017, with €42,000 for each local authority to appoint a local broadband officer. In my own county, the local broadband officer, Christine Collins, has been proactive with the establishment of broadband connection points and WiFi4EU being established in town centres. It was the first local authority to introduce eduroam Wi-Fi hotspots to support local students and researchers. A number of schools have been connected, with a commitment to accelerate this plan so that all schools are connected by the end of 2020. I welcome the announcement by National Broadband Ireland last week that all households, more than 8,500, will be connected by June 2022.

Remote working hinges on having a proper broadband service.We need to address the issue whereby some providers are advertising services that can be accessed from a mobile signal and looking for new customers while their existing customers are not getting a proper service and are paying a full price. I got an email from a friend of mine who works for the Department of Social Protection. He is based in Dublin but has been working from home. His work for the past 12 months has related to the pandemic unemployment payment. He asked whether if a person goes into a store and sees a damaged or faulty item, he or she would be prepared to pay the full price or would one look for a properly functioning item? That is the case at the minute. Some people are paying the full price for a service which is not good enough and has been wrongly advertised.

I welcome the work that has been done by a couple of voluntary committees in my county to provide hubs, including the Co:worx building in Edgeworthstown, which was an old Ulster Bank building purchased by the local authority in conjunction with a local voluntary group to develop a hub that is linked to Athlone Institute of Technology. We now have a situation where some of the private providers are looking for more than €20,000 per year to provide 1 Gb of fibre. The Government needs to look at that. Excessive costs are being imposed on the voluntary organisations that are putting these projects in place. I also wish to refer to the Yard Hub, a collaboration between Longford County Council and Waterways Ireland in Abbeyshrule, which is well known as one of the tidiest villages in the country. Funding has been put in place through the rural development fund to provide a hub and they now have a significant issue about not getting a proper, dedicated fibre line. It is an issue they have taken up with Eir.

I ask the Minister of State to take those two points on board. It will be difficult to fully deliver those two significant infrastructural projects in the county because companies are looking for excess funding while another company is not prepared to put in the infrastructure to make the projects a reality. A national remote working strategy will be of significant benefit to our county. It will show that our county is a great place to live and work, with opportunities and great people.

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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I support the motion. It is great to get an opportunity to debate this issue. I am smiling somewhat at the number of Fine Gael speakers who have referred to delivery of broadband. It has been a long road to get to here and we are all obviously friends in government, but it is worth pointing out that Fine Gael were involved in the two previous Governments and that broadband still has not been delivered to Mayo. Many people are still waiting for it. However, I would agree that it is vital for a remote working strategy that people can actually get online. That is something to which the three partners in government are committed. We will finally deliver broadband to every citizen, business and community in this country.

The public has been ahead of us on this matter and remote working is here to stay. It is something that was forced upon us but it has accelerated a change that was happening anyway. People want this, they are demanding it and we have to make it happen. There are many aspects to making this happen but the process is well under way. People want remote working because they want to reduce the stress and anxiety in their lives and achieve a better work-life balance. For many families, while lockdown is very difficult, having that extra time at home and not having to commute an hour or two each way every day and not rushing to the childminder in the morning and evening has meant that people have had a different way of life for the past year. It would be almost impossible to go back to the way things were previously. Thank God for that because I do not think that anybody wants to go back to the stress we had in our lives.

There is a commuter belt around our capital city and more are developing around other cities. Travelling long distances to get to work is having detrimental impacts not only on commuters' mental health, but on the well-being of their families and children, who are missing out on vital family time when both parents, mum and dad, are present together - if they are there - or even in a single-parent household. It is important that parents are present with their children and not absolutely wrecked tired from a long day at work and a commute. The quality of the time, rather than the quantity, is important and that has been missing from many families. They have been missing quality time where people have the space and energy to have a proper family life.

We need to acknowledge, however, that there are consequences to remote working and all of us who are here in Leinster House today and have walked around the streets of our capital city can attest to how quiet Dublin is right now. The same is true for Galway, Limerick, Cork and many of our bigger towns. They have been hollowed out and are very quiet.That has implications for many people's jobs. Many of the coffee shops and other retail outlets, as well as bars and restaurants, are built around those people coming into city and town centres to work. We must deal with the fallout. We know it is happening but how will we protect all those businesses that will lose out from the reduced footfall, from people not being there in the morning to get their cup of coffee going to work, picking up lunch on a break from work or popping into some of the retail shops on that lunch hour? Many businesses are losing out because of this and many will not survive remote working. As a Government, we must do something quickly about this and prepare for what we can see coming down the tracks to protect those businesses and jobs while trying to realign how we use our city and town centres.

With regard to the required facilities, I have touched on broadband, which is clearly a massive deficit in many rural communities in delivering a proper remote working strategy. Remote working has also thrown up a plethora of challenges around duties of care by employers to employees and how to ensure that when an employee is working from home, he or she can still be working in a safe working environment with proper equipment. For example, employees must log off from work and not take that work from the workstation to the kitchen table and then into bed at night. It is really important that there is that cut-off. I know some companies are doing great work in this regard by ensuring employees have a set working space that is separate and distinct from where they live and have their family life. That will be a challenge for employers as not every employee has the space to do that. That should not preclude them from availing of the option to work from home.

There must be some out-of-the-box thinking from employers, and the biggest employer in the country is the public service and the State, so we must lead the way on this to ensure employees have the option to work from home. When they do so, they must be properly cared for and the duty of care owed by an employer to the employee should be properly maintained so we do not see any difficulties down the line. We can do this by planning ahead and anticipating the challenges we know are coming down the tracks, putting a plan in place and ensuring we can deal with them adequately.

We must also look at local amenities. If more people than ever are to work from their base at home and not travel to the towns or cities to which they would normally travel, they will require better local amenities in smaller rural towns and villages. We have come to have a new or greater appreciation for shared outdoor public spaces. There was much discussion in the Chamber today at various times about the national development plan, and many of us have said the deadline is this Friday for having a say or giving a view on how the plan should be shaped. It will effectively deal with every fabric of life, including the distribution of housing, education, public amenities, transport and communications, as well as all other aspects of life. It is important these national plans, which are for the long term, reflect the changes that have occurred at an accelerated pace in the past year. Part of that will concern the redesign and reconfiguration of our outdoor shared public spaces not just in the large urban centres but in villages and smaller towns. They have really been neglected because, until now, most people left their villages and travelled elsewhere to go to work. People still need to have the space to go outside with work colleagues at times, and for their well-being and health they should have an opportunity to exercise outside.

Remote working is here to stay but because of it we will see many challenges. We must ensure people have the facilities for it and the employer's duty of care is maintained. We must have the required resources, such as broadband. We must also deal with the incoming difficulties arising from the fact that people will no longer work to the same level in our city centres and think about how we can reconfigure city centres to still work for us.

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber for this very important debate. I acknowledge the proposer of the motion, Senator Currie, as it affects all parts of Irish society, including rural and urban areas. It is a key because society has changed so dramatically in the past year. We are now catching up with how society is working. The motion encapsulates the view of the public, so it is important we have the debate.

Many elements of the remote working strategy must be discussed but I will touch on just three because I know time is tight. The first is broadband, which has been mentioned by many people in the Chamber this afternoon. It is a key driver in ensuring equality of service and opportunity for people in both urban and rural areas. The national broadband plan, controversial as it was, will be key to ensuring that equality.We must accelerate that plan and get more information out to the public. People need to know when the installation in their property will happen. That information is not fully on the national broadband website at present and we must do more in that regard. As was mentioned by other Members, the national broadband plan will change Ireland forever, particularly rural Ireland. The opportunity to have high-speed broadband in every house in Ireland will change how we do business. A person in Goleen in west Cork who has the opportunity to have high-speed broadband will not have to travel for two hours to Cork city to work as the person will be able to work from that beautiful, remote part of the world. That is the advantage of having broadband in that part of the country.

The concept of how we are going to change our society will be a big issue. The remote working strategy is very important, but there must be changes across all Departments. There has to be a whole-of-government approach because it involves every Department, whether the Department's responsibility is local government, finance or environment. All Departments have a crucial role in ensuring that the strategy works. I wish to mention one anomaly in the system, and the Minister of State will be aware of this from his time in local government. There is an exemption in place for dwellings whereby there can be a development at the back of the dwelling of less that 25 sq. m. In my constituency people are opting to develop what are basically pods in which they can work remotely from home. They have the opportunity to work from home, so they are now going to build these exempted developments at the back of their houses.

However, one of the anomalies in the system is that the 25 sq. m includes all development on the site, whether it is a garden shed, a pump house or, in the case of the constituent who spoke to me, a tree house. All of these must be taken into consideration in that 25 sq. m. We must examine the planning regulations in that regard. The world has moved on but, unfortunately, the planning regulations have not. To have a restricted development of just 25 sq. m that takes into consideration every part of the development, be it a pump house, garden shed or tree house, makes no sense. A 25 sq. m development is a modest development when one considers what we are seeking to provide in this case, which is nothing more than a room so the individual can work from home. There is a plethora of those planning applications being made throughout the country. I have six of them, currently, in west Cork. These people want and need to work from home. They want to plan for the future. We are going to provide them with the broadband, so we must change the planning regulations so they have that opportunity.

There are other people who do not want to work from home. They want to work in an e-centre or hub. These facilities are very important. There are hubs in places such as Skibbereen, where the Ludgate hub is one of the most amazing centres one can see. There is also Brookpark Business Centre in Dunmanway, another state-of-the-art centre. These work spaces that provide hot desks and other amenities are important because they provide a dynamic whereby people do not simply have to work from home but can come to a centre and work there as well. We must invest more in that strategy. There is no single fix to this issue - people want choice. As all of us are aware, working from home for five days per week is very taxing, to say the least. To have the opportunity of spending three of those days in a hub or something similar is the model people are talking about, because they want to have that break. It also helps how society is going to deal with it. Whether one has a coffee shop or is the owner of a shop in a town, one wants to have footfall and the ability to still make a living. There are issues that must be teased out.

However, I return to my first point, that this will have to be a whole-of-government approach involving all Departments. If we have that opportunity, we can do something special. The broadband is on the way. It is being brought to areas in my part of the world at present. The national broadband plan is up and running within a mile of my part of the country. That is what we have seen, so we must now join the other dots together to ensure that rural Ireland can thrive.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I will have to call the Minister of State soon, but Senator McGreehan wishes to contribute.

Erin McGreehan (Fianna Fail)
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I was not going to speak. Having listened to the contributions and all the advertising about Fine Gael's new telecommunications company laying the pipes and fibre broadband across the country, however, I had to say something.

I commend Senator Currie on the motion. Remote working has been the only way my family has been able to operate over the past five or six years, having a business at home and being lucky enough to have broadband. Now more than ever, we are at home constantly. As Senator Lombard said, it is about the blend. My partner has been working from home for the past 12 months. I think he is on the verge of killing us all and maybe the four children as well. It is an incredibly difficult time for many. We are all being pushed into this and I do not think community and business would have been as open to remote working were it not for Covid. That push to get ourselves ready for remote working has been the one silver lining of Covid. We need to be sure that we do it properly. As previous speakers noted, it is about getting a framework and guidelines and legislation put in place to protect workers and ensure that there is better family and community life.

Hubs will start popping up across the country. There is funding for one in Dunleer in Louth. My colleague, Councillor John Sheridan, has been speaking about this for so long. It is the way forward. I look forward to a community hub in north Louth along with the fibre broadband. We are on the verge of something great which will change the way we work. It creates so many opportunities to improve communities. I spoke to someone in my area during the week who became disabled recently and who is unable to go out to work because he is not medically fit to travel. He is starting work from home next Monday. It is a brilliant day when we can say that he will be a full part of our community because of remote working.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I ask the Minister of State, insofar as he can, to conclude by 6.25 p.m.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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We will manage. The Leas-Chathaoirleach can give me a kick to remind me when we are nearer the time.

I thank all the contributors to this debate and Senator Currie for bringing forward the motion to give us the opportunity to have this conversation.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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Apologies for interrupting. As we began late, the Minister of State has until 6.30 p.m.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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Could we not push it to 7 p.m.? No, there is no problem with that. I am conscious of the rules in having to finish by 6.30 p.m.

I compliment Senator Currie on bringing forward the motion. This is a conversation that we need to have as a country. It is one we have been having over the past 12 months, but it had started before that. We need to build on what has gone before.

Senators raised various issues which need to be addressed. The Tánaiste launched the strategy a few weeks ago. It is an action plan but it also gives us time to have conversations of this nature in the coming months as we bring forward legislation. It is important that we tease through the various aspects of what is involved, which this motion gives us an opportunity to do. People have said that they have been talking about this a great deal. I have been listening to them, which is important.

Senator Currie has been driving this issue in this House and elsewhere for some time. She put forward the many reasons - I will not repeat them - as to why it is so important that a proper strategy is in place and why we should facilitate remote working and recognise it as equal to working in the office or elsewhere. It is the future. It has been building in recent years but the concept has been proven over the past 12 months for many people that it really is an option. The strategy is about making it an option and giving people the choice, as many Senators have noted. It is not about forcing remote work on anybody but about giving them the option that if they would like it, they can request it and that we can make it happen. The job of the Government and other parties is to make it happen and ensure that the choice is a real choice.It is also necessary to work with employers and employees to facilitate that, as well as recognising that many jobs never had to done be in an office in the first place. Locationless jobs have become the norm in many countries. It is important that we build on this and make it happen. We want to work on that. I thank everyone for their work and comments today. I have taken a note of most of them and we will feed back through them.

Senator Currie said that for 100 years we have had the same logical approach to work. Thanks to our involvement with the EU, things have changed over the years, particularly in terms of the working time directive and various other initiatives. From an employment point of view, matters have changed dramatically over the past 30 or 40 years in terms of employment rights. I want to be very clear on this. It is something the Tánaiste are very much committed to.

Senator Gavan should check his records. We did not impose any directive last week. I attended two of the meetings at which we discussed the issue he raised. He forgot to mention that countries like Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark were part of the same letter and conversation. We correctly raised some issues regarding the approach with the Commission through a directive, something we, as a country, are well ahead of in terms of what is being sought by means of the directive. We had concerns around-----

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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Information-----

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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We had concerns about it. It is not opposed. It was a letter in which concerns were raised, which is part of the conversations we have on the way to a directive. I sat here politely while the Senator misled the House earlier. I ask him not interrupt me when I am trying to make a point.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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How dare the Minister of State-----

(Interruptions).

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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The House was misled earlier when the impression was given that the Government imposed a directive. We, along with many other countries – I understand 12 or 13 were included - wrote to the EU to raise some concerns regarding a directive relating to the process to get there. That is the way we have always done our business and the Tánaiste has been very clear on this. The Department has responsibility for employment rights and creating jobs. We are committed to employment rights, and our record shows that.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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The Minister is watering down-----

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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Senator Gavan should not try to mislead the House. It does not help politics.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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Opposing an-----

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I have said repeatedly in these Houses that I have no issue with debating facts and having factual conversations. I do not like people who mislead, tell lies or exaggerate positions. It does not help any debate. I will park that now.

In those situations in Europe, we are very much involved in progressive legislation and employment rights. The illusion that there is no collective bargaining in this country is wrong. We have collective bargaining, and our unions are very strong on and involved with that. Legislation was brought through the Houses by the Labour Party, when it was in coalition with Fine Gael. A Labour Party Minister brought it through-----

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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There is not a right to collective bargaining.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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-----in 2015. We are very committed to upgrading that.

On the subject of this debate, remote working, everyone touched on its benefits, how important it is for family and community life and the opportunities it provides. Over the past year many people were sent home to work remotely in an unplanned way and this has had various consequences. Many difficulties have been worked out over the past year and conversations became more planned and organised.

We can see the benefits of working from home. If it is planned, it is much better for everybody and has much more positive outcomes. People had to adapt quite quickly last February and March. The conversation Senator Currie is leading and which we, as a Government, want to lead is how to plan and allow for it and put strategies in place that back it up, facilitate it and make for much better outcomes. A big part of that comes down to trust. Employers and many organisations have learned a great deal over the past year in terms of trusting employees and understanding that, in the majority of cases, productivity did not drop but, rather, was enhanced. We have all been on a journey and it is now much more acceptable to discuss options and the right to work from home. Many want to buy into that because they can see all of the benefits of it for our communities, towns, villages, families and, more importantly, individuals and employees.

I represent a commuter town. We were not born with two legs in order to sit in cars for four or five hours each day. That was not meant to happen. As a result of poor planning over many years, things worked out that way . People were left having to make journeys of two or three hours to and from work or did not know how long the journey would take, which is even worse because they could plan their lives. Remote working, as well as investment and all of the other infrastructure, including rail and so on, will lead to a much better lifestyle. Remote working is the biggest part of the latter but that will involve investing in digital infrastructure and skills. The Senator also touched on the importance of upskilling - not just for our workers but for all of us. If we invest in digital infrastructure in our communities, people of all ages can come with us on the journey because everybody has tried to live remotely and live with technology over the past 12 months but not everybody could perfect that or benefit from it. We have a lot of work to do in investing in technologies and infrastructure but also in people. Apart from the societal and community living aspect of that, there is an opportunity for jobs growth. If we do not invest in upskilling and people, we will be left behind when it comes to job creation and those opportunities. There are, therefore, many reasons to do this.

Likewise, investment in broadband is key. I know the Chair had to struggle through a lot of speeches by Fine Gael Members mentioning the success of the broadband plan. When the contract was signed a little over a year, not everybody agreed with it and we had to defend it, so the odd time, when we get a chance to compliment something we did in the past, we will avail of it. Under the national broadband plan, there is a commitment to spend €5 billion on broadband, half private and half public money, and rightly so. We all agree with and want to benefit from it and make sure it happens. All of our jobs involve making sure it happens more quickly, which is where we, the three parties working in government, come in, supported by many other Members in opposition who sometimes agree with this. They might say something different at home but in here, they agree with it. The key is to make the plan happen more quickly. One of the actions in this remote working strategy is seeing whether we can speed up that contract and deliver broadband more quickly to some of the places to which we are committed. That they will have to wait for two or three more years is not really what many people want to hear. Now that the contract has been signed and is in play, let us try to drive it on as much as we can.

The review of the national development plan will examine the various projects that we all compliment. Broadband is part of that but it also includes other infrastructure that helps people to be able to work remotely, develop our communities and create a sense of place. A key part of this, which was touched on, is the national planning framework. When we put that plan in place about three years ago, we needed to think about what would happen in the future. We looked ten, 20 and 30 years ahead. The pace of change over the past year has been dramatic, which is a positive, but we need to make sure we adapt our strategies to that. The 20-year planning framework has jumped on so much in the past year that we need to look at the population levels we set at the time. Our main aim was to ensure the next 1 million people living in this country were spread out. Where would they live? Where would we invest in hospitals, education, housing and jobs? That population growth was to be spread all over Ireland, not just on the east coast. Many people on the east coast have gone home to Longford, Tipperary, Cork, Wexford or wherever else ahead of the strategy and are looking for homes in their towns and villages. We have to adapt quickly to that and put plans in place to accommodate people in a correct and planned way. This is what the planning framework was about. The review of the framework and the investment strategy is, therefore, timely. Thankfully, as a nation, we have the option to spend the guts of €120 billion in capital to make all this happen in the years ahead. We are in control of our destiny because we have the resources to do so and we have plans in place that can be adjusted, moderated and driven on. We are in a very good place to deal with what the pandemic has brought us and to future-proof this country. A major part of that is allowing for and developing remote working as much as we can.

One issue raised relating to planning involves pods for people's homes. There is a long-standing planning rule that people can extend their house by up to 25 sq. m without requiring planning permission. It is probably time to consider how we can accommodate home offices without imposing on people the cost of making a full planning application, which can be quite expensive.

We also need to have a conversation about how we maximise the uses of houses in rural Ireland. It was mentioned that it is harder to get planning permission in some counties than in others but there are also loads of empty houses in rural Ireland. We need to bring forward policies to join those two dots. People are more interested in living at home. We have debated how to save rural Ireland here many times. The whole conversation was around how people needed to have a functional reason and not just a desire to live in rural areas. They needed to have jobs, which meant investing in infrastructure and much more besides. Now people can have jobs elsewhere and they can be at home. There are many more opportunities to develop rural Ireland now. We knew these would come eventually but it is now a matter of dealing with them as quickly as possible.

The Making Remote Work strategy is a plan to make remote working a permanent feature in a way that benefits our citizens. It is about options and choices. Senator McDowell spoke about forcing it on employers. I do not think that is what he meant but that is the impression he might have given because he views working from home as a right.What we are talking about at this stage is the right to request to work from home. We are proposing to deal with that. Likewise, people have a right to parental leave and then they work through with the employer whether they take it in blocks of six weeks, two months, one month or in whatever way they do it. That is also what we are saying in respect of this right. It is a right to request the ability to work remotely. For some jobs, it will not be possible at this time but technology is constantly changing. However, for many jobs, it is absolutely possible once the employer is willing to have that conversation, to see what supports are there and how to make it happen. Going back to the carrot approach, we are asking that employers embrace this. There never has to be force involved. They will recognise the benefits for themselves, their organisation, their staff and the community and country as a whole. That is what we are trying to do and that is the message that Senator Currie and many others have been pushing and driving for a long time.

Grow Remote and many others are involved in this conversation. As a Department, we took on this challenge well before Covid and there was a great deal of research into remote working, what had to happen, how to develop it, what the opportunities were and what the interest was. That was happening in 2019. We had some guidelines published in early 2020 and they had to be updated because of all the changes. As a Department, they were looking at this but it has jumped on a lot so we had a review of that strategy and a consultation day over the summer and out of that, the Tánaiste launched this strategy and this plan a few weeks ago. Interestingly, more than 500 submissions came into that from many representative bodies and employer bodies. They were all positive and everybody wanted the opportunity to develop remote working. In many cases, research will show that people still want that blended model with the option of both. We have to facilitate that. For many, it will be fully remote working in the house or local hub; for others, it will be two or three days. It is all about giving people the choice and the recognition by all State agencies, including the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and the local enterprise offices, that jobs do not always have to have a location. They can be completely remote. They do recognise that and we have seen some good success. Companies were named by Senator Currie earlier on that have come into this country and created hundreds of jobs and yet there is no office that one can link them to. That is really positive. There is so much opportunity for everybody if we tap into that.

I had a speech to go through the details of this but I will not go into it now. It is a strategy with actions, a 15-point plan that we want to work on with everybody over the weeks and months ahead. It will mean some legislation to be brought in here. That is what we are working on and hopefully we will be back here in the near future with the legislation.

On the right to switch off, I absolutely agree. I think everyone would support that. That would be developed as a code of conduct first and we will see how to bring everybody with us on that journey. Codes of conduct work extremely well if everybody buys into them. They are well recognised in our labour legislation and our infrastructure to deal with labour issues. Codes of conduct are a positive step and we want to build on that.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for that and for his co-operation with the order of the House, which I did not determine.

Emer Currie (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State and everybody for their comments and contributions. There is so much work to do with this and it is important that we recognise the challenges because only by recognising the challenges can we come up with solutions. That is what I ultimately want to do and the people who are invested in this want to do that as well. We have had so many naysayers about remote work for years and then Covid happened and it showed things could be done differently. So, when people tell me again that something cannot be done because of X, Y or Z, I will push back and say it can because of this experience. The strategy is aspirational in parts but behind the aspirations there are ideas to make this work. If it can change the way we work and live, that is a good thing.

We are living in an extreme at the moment. We are all working from home and it is ironic that by limiting our choice and restricting our movements, that is the time where we are showing that remote work can work as a choice. Remote work is all about choice, even with the irony that it had to be under conditions in which we did not have a choice.That will change. The real challenges are coming now. We have seen what can happen when going from one extreme to the next. The question is how we are going to cope. We are talking about a blend, but a blend is what is just naturally going to happen and we have to be set up for that.

I do not buy into this idea that remote means the death of the office. I do not buy into the idea that it is the death of physical meetings or the death of cities. It is not. It is coming together with a purpose. If we are working remotely more, we come together with more of a purpose. There will be plenty of offices where people congregate and nobody is suggesting that is not going to happen. It is about choice and maintaining equal opportunities around those choices.

It is very important to stay connected to the companies that are doing this well, like Dropbox, which is giving up its fancy HQ office to go for bubble offices around the country, where people can meet for team meetings or for co-working, and where people get to work side to side. While there are problems in regard to socialisation and peer-to-peer training, there are ways around that.

In regard to the point that the strategy takes a hands-off approach to health and safety, the Department came out with advice very quickly and ran a public consultation that became a bigger conversation, and it now has more guidance on health and safety. It is very difficult for people whose homes are just not set up for this, and the question of the right to disconnect has really shown how important this is. We need to look at the legislation that is there and that people do not know about, given there seems to be quite a bit that the public does not know about. We can then see what needs to be done to fix the gaps, wherever they are.

A booklet around home working is very important. We have done this for other sectors and we need it for people who are working from home going forward. That work is not going to be wasted. There needs to be clear guidance because there are places where employers come to me and say they are not sure about this and say that the guidance is not as clear as it should be.

In regard to tax, we have to be careful about the transition for employers given that only 5% of employers are paying employer tax relief, and we need them to invest in remote first.

To sum up my main points, we need to focus on remote first for equal opportunities and we need a communications campaign around that. I want to leave the House with that idea. I accept what speakers say about the gig economy, but this should not be about that. It is not the casualisation of work and it should be about pensionable jobs. The quality of the hubs is going to be very important. That is why I came with ideas about how we can do that and how we can ensure that, instead of communities doing this by themselves, we are offering a standard quality whereby, if someone has a phone call, he or she can go somewhere private and we do not have those issues. We have to create supply. Employers have to be able to advertise jobs that are remote. We need to be able to create the pathways to employment and then, locally, we need to create remote-ready communities where the demand is.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator, the Minister of State and other colleagues.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Emer Currie (Fine Gael)
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At 10.30 a.m. on Friday next.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.35 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 19 February 2021.