Seanad debates

Tuesday, 9 July 2024

Nithe i dTosach Suíonna - Commencement Matters

National Advocacy Service

1:00 pm

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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The Minister of State is very welcome. The National Advocacy Service provides a free and independent representative advocacy service to adults with disabilities across Ireland. The service has a particular remit to work with people with disabilities who are in vulnerable situations such as people who are isolated from their community of choice or mainstream society or who may communicate differently and who have limited formal or natural supports.We are talking about some of the most vulnerable people in our society and a service that is absolutely crucial to those people. These advocates stand up for people who in many cases have nobody else to stand up for them. The National Advocacy Service provides assistance to more than 1500 disabled people each year, with in-person advocacy interventions in areas including housing, access to justice, healthcare, safeguarding and supporting in decision-making. The service is currently in crisis and the workers are now on strike for the second time. The reason they are on strike is that their employer, the Citizens Information Board, along with the Department of Social Protection, is refusing to implement a Labour Court recommendation to make modest improvements to their pay scales. The existing scale has just four points and the recommendation from the Labour Court is to bring it in line with other similar organisations, by expanding it to a ten-point scale with additional long-service increments. The top salary is just €46,000, which, for the challenging and highly complex roles involved, is frankly an insult to the workers concerned.

Here we have a fully funded public body under the remit of the Department of Social Protection refusing to implement a Labour Court recommendation to bring a small element of pay decency to these crucial roles. There really is no hiding place for the Government. The Department of Social Protection, which has attended talks at the Workplace Relations Commission with former Labour Court chairperson Kevin Duffy, has point blank refused to date to implement this recommendation. This is not just a slap in the face for these vital workers but a slap in the face for the industrial relations machinery of the State and the Labour Court.

The Department of Social Protection ultimately funds the National Advocacy Service and many other community organisations. Its refusal to fund the implementation of the Labour Court recommendation undermines all workers rights to a fair implementation of the independent decisions of the Labour Court. The approach of the Government towards these community workers, in refusing to assist with the implementation of a Labour Court recommendations, is in stark to the Minister’s calls for the Labour Court to be respected in the Aer Lingus pilots' dispute. It is time this Government stood up for the community sector and gave these workers the respect they deserve. The position adopted by the Government and Department, in refusing to adequately fund community organisations, indicates contempt for all community workers in funded organisations. It is time to respect the community sector, its workers and service users and the families who rely on these vital services.

These workers are on strike. Some are outside the gates of Leinster House as we speak. I was standing with them before I came in here. For every day that they are on strike, the most vulnerable people in the State have nobody to advocate for them. The reason they have gone on strike is that the Government has failed to fund the service properly and, worse still, has refused to implement a Labour Court recommendation. The cost of implementing it is absolutely minuscule. I cannot begin to express the anger that those workers feel. They have been represented brilliantly by their union SIPTU, but they have been let down by the Government and, in particular, the Department of Social Protection. I am hoping the Minister of State will give me a positive response. I urge her, after this discussion, to go and meet the workers, who will be outside until 2 p.m., and listen first-hand to just how hard their lives are, how hard the struggle they have to endure is and the failure of the Government to address this issue.

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I commend him on the passion he has shown for the provision of advocacy services. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, acknowledges the value of the important services the National Advocacy Service, NAS, provides to adults with disabilities throughout the country, as the Senator articulated so well. I, too, value them.

The Senator may be aware that the National Advocacy Service was established in 2010, originally as part of the Citizens Information Service. NAS was then established as a service delivery company of the Citizens Information Board and as an independent company, limited by guarantee, and a registered charity in 2014. It is one of the Citizens Information Board’s 22 service delivery companies, with services delivered under a service-level agreement with the Citizens Information Board.In 2023, just last year, NAS attended a WRC conciliation conference with SIPTU over a dispute concerning pay, as the Senator has said. Following this, the dispute was referred to the Labour Court in October and the case was heard in January this year. Neither the Citizens Information Board nor the Department of Social Protection was party to the WRC process and that is because NAS staff members are not employees of the Citizens Information Board or of the Department. They are employees of an independent company that provides important services on behalf of the Citizens Information Board.

SIPTU, on behalf of NAS staff, submitted to the Labour Court that in the period since the establishment of NAS in 2010, there has been a significant divergence between the pay and the other terms and conditions of workers versus those applicable to comparable grades employed in the citizens information services, which are also funded by CIB. The Labour Court felt the claim was well founded and requested that NAS submit a business case to the Citizens Information Board seeking to address divergences in pay with comparable workers in companies under the CIB umbrella. The business case was submitted to the CIB on 10 May 2024 and while the CIB agrees with the Labour Court recommendation regarding addressing divergences that have developed in NAS since 2010, the CIB's review of the business case has identified difficulties with the comparator grades used in the submission. I understand the board of NAS, CIB and the Department of Social Protection have agreed to implement the Labour Court recommendation in order to address pay divergences and to ensure the staff in NAS are paid the same as comparable grades in the citizens information services. However, the Labour Court recommendation did not specify which grades within the Citizens Information Services should be used as benchmark for this purpose. On 24 June, talks led by former Labour Court chair, Kevin Duffy, commenced. The purposes of the talks were to discuss how to implement the Labour Court recommendation in these circumstances and to ensure any pay agreement using Exchequer funds is based on the principle that employees who undertake demonstrable comparable work receive comparable pay.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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I know the Minister of State is just here reading a script and while I have some sympathies for her in that respect that is an absolutely appalling answer and anyone reading it will see that. The Labour Court recommendation needs to be implemented. Regarding the level of excuses here and being unclear what comparable grades there are, I can tell the Minister of State that whatever comparable grade was suggested by the union, the employer and the Department of Social Protection rejected it. It is completely disingenuous to somehow say there are still some things to be worked out here. There are not. What we need to do is implement a recommendation and get these workers back to work so that they can provide the incredibly valuable services to the most vulnerable people in the State. It is not happening because of the resistance of the Government and the Department of Social Protection. Honestly, I appeal to the Minister of State after this to come out to meet the workers outside the gates of Leinster House. They should not have to spend one more day on strike. The reason they are on strike is because of the Government's refusal to implement a Labour Court recommendation, even as it calls on the Aer Lingus pilots to respect the Labour Court recommendation they have been given. The hypocrisy here is horrendous. I am not accusing the Minister of State but I am accusing the Minister for Social Protection of a gross failure to respect these workers and actually ensure they get the pay and conditions they deserve.

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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As the Senator will be aware, talks which were led by Kevin Duffy broke down on Friday without agreement and strike action has now recommenced. That is the reason for that. It is deeply unfortunate and will undoubtedly impact people with disabilities. We do not want that to happen and we do not want that to continue. I understand a number of offers were made over the course of the four-day talks-----

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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They were worthless offers.

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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-----but that all were rejected.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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Worthless.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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Let the Minister of State continue.

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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Offers included measures to immediately address pay divergences with NAS, an immediate pay increase for all NAS employees, and an independent assessment to establish the grades within CIS to which the NAS staff would be benchmarked. Significantly, the immediate pay increase for staff went beyond the Labour Court's recommendations, which was limited, as the Senator has said earlier, to four grades of NAS. Offers were also made whereby relevant NAS employes in the four grades covered by the Labour Court recommendation would receive the majority of the increased pay they sought immediately, based on SIPTU's submission regarding which grades are comparable, with any balance to be paid once the independent assessment of grade comparability was completed. I understand SIPTU has rejected this and all other offers on the basis of balance of the increased pay being contingent on the outcome of an independent process. This is regrettable as it is important that any pay agreement using Exchequer funds is based on the principle that employees who undertake demonstrable comparable work receive comparable pay.No industrial relations dispute is ever solved in isolation or without compromise on all sides. I strongly urge all parties to return to talks to reach agreement and reduce any unnecessary impacts on NAS's service users who, as the Senator has pointed out, are suffering as a result. The focus of all parties should be on the people using these critical services and working to minimise any impact on them by reaching an agreement. CIB and the Department of Social Protection remain available to assist in reaching an agreement to this dispute should SIPTU with to re-engage in talks.