In the Dail

In the Dail

What follows are excerpts from Joan’s addresses to the Dail and motions put down by members of the United Left Alliance.


ULA motion on health cuts

The following motion was moved by Deputy Joe Higgins on Tuesday, 25 October 2011:

That Dáil Éireann:

noting that:  the ‘FairCare’ health reform plan of the Minister for Health, James Reilly T.D., is in chaos as a result of health cuts and that as a result there is a spiralling crisis in health service delivery and accident and emergency (A&E) services across the country;

— this crisis in our public health system is particularly manifest in the following areas:

— Limerick: The closures in 2009 of 24 hour A&E departments in Nenagh, Ennis and St. John’s hospitals have resulted in acute overcrowding in Limerick Regional Hospital and promises that additional resources would be made available have not materialised;

— Loughlinstown: The plan to downgrade A&E in St. Colmcille’s will inevitably put pressure on St. Vincent’s Hospital which is already overcrowded and has had to go ‘off call’ on a number of occasions over the last weeks;

— Blanchardstown: The funding cut from €104 million in 2009 to €84 million in 2011 while there is an almost 10% increase in both the local population and the amount of patients treated during this period will inevitably affect patient safety. Twelve beds in Laurel Ward and 16 in the inpatient surgical day ward are set to close. A costing for running the A&E on a 12 hour basis has been performed. This is causing grave concern among residents in the hospital catchment area of 330,000;

— Cork: Planned cutbacks to emergency services in Cork, which include closing Victoria South Infirmary A&E in April, Bantry minor injury assessment unit and unspecified dates for downgrading Mallow and Youghal, will put unacceptable pressure on Cork University Hospital and Mercy Hospital. The downgrading of Skibbereen Ambulance Service to an 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. service leaves west Cork with a wholly inadequate ambulance service: it is already a regular occurrence on weekend nights for no ambulances to be available. West Cork will be dependent on the ambulance in Clonakilty (which serves Rosscarbery to Kinsale) which can take 30 minutes on blue lights to reach Skibbereen and 90 minutes to Castletownbere;

— Roscommon: The downgrading of A&E services in Roscommon represents an unacceptable cut in the level of health services for the people of Roscommon/Leitrim, putting additional pressure on Galway University Hospital where, on 20th October, 37 people were on trolleys;

— South Tipperary: The recent announcement of the closure of the acute psychiatric unit in South Tipperary Hospital;

— Letterkenny: The recruitment embargo means that staff have to be pulled in from other essential services to ensure that the hospital can function as an essential healthcare facility, adversely affecting community and other services; and

— Tallaght: Tallaght Hospital has been historically underfunded. It is the busiest hospital in the State but ranks lowest of the top five hospitals in Dublin for funding. Its catchment area has been expanded from 350,000 to 500,000. The Health Service Executive has identified the need for step down beds and improved primary care as major contributors to increasing pressure on the acute hospitals; recently, however it announced the closing of the Crooksling nursing home in Brittas. Tallaght and Clondalkin have twice the average number of people per general practitioner in Ireland and three times the average in France and Germany;

— the loss of almost 5,000 beds since 1980 and the more recent closure of more than 1,700 beds due to budget cuts and the recruitment embargo means there is a crisis of capacity in our public hospitals that is the immediate cause of the problems in A&Es. There are fewer than 3 acute hospital beds per 1,000 population in Ireland compared to an EU average of 4 beds per 1,000; and

— since 2008 there are 6,000 fewer health-workers in the health service because of the recruitment embargo. These are overwhelmingly frontline staff including 1,000 nurses. The Chief Executive Officer of the Health Service Executive, Mr. Cathal Magee, admits there will be 7,000 more staff lost by 2014, a total loss of 13,000 or 11.7% (2008:111,000; 2011:105,000; 2014:98,000); and

resolves to:

— lift the embargo on recruitment to the health service and to reverse the policy of closing hospital beds – reopening, as a matter of urgency, the 1,700 recently cut beds;

— abandon the policy of closing or downgrading local and regional hospitals;

— safeguard the 24 hour A&E of Blanchardstown Hospital and reverse the bed closures in the Laurel and day surgical wards;

— reverse the downgrading of 24 hour A&E in Nenagh and Ennis to relieve pressure on Limerick Regional Hospital;

— reverse the plan to downgrade the A&E in St. Colmcille’s in Loughlinstown preventing further

— reverse the downgrading of 24 hour A&E in Roscommon relieving pressure on Galway University Hospital;

— reverse the announcement of the closure of the acute psychiatric unit of South Tipperary General Hospital;

— abandon planned cutbacks or downgrading in emergency services in the Cork area specifically, at Victoria South Infirmary, Bantry, Mallow, Youghal or the downgrading of the Skibbereen ambulance service;

— lift the embargo at Letterkenny Hospital to ensure that the hospital can function as an essential healthcare facility; and

— impose no further cuts in the health budget 2012.

Save Our Hospitals

Speaking to the motion, Joan collins said,

“On 15 February this year the Minister gave an interview in which he said that health service managers who do not achieve targets for reducing waiting lists and trolley numbers would be fired under the Fine Gael Government. On 15 February, the figure from the INMO trolley watch was 461. The figure for today is 429. I have not heard of any firing from the media. The Minister also stated that anybody who did not meet the target given to them would be shown the door, but that has not happened. These were strong words from the Minister, but should they not apply to him now? The special delivery unit has been set up, but what targets have been set for it? Have those targets been achieved? Has anybody been fired and will anybody be fired if those targets are not achieved …

I see extraordinary complacency in the Government amendment to the motion – which carries the full backing of the Labour Party. In September of this year, there was a very interesting article in the health supplement of The Irish Times by Dr. Jacky Jones. She pointed out that it is estimated that health services determine 10% of wealth status and the other 90% is due to factors such as education, social status, employment and income. Mortality rates for Irish adults almost halved between 1979 and 2005. This means that Ireland went from having the highest mortality rate among 19 western countries to ranking seventh and achieved this while, despite the comments of our Fine Gael colleagues, spending the least on our health services. This follows not because of a big improvement in health services but because of a reduction in the percentage of people without a second level education. Between 1979 and 2005, this fell from 64% to 15%, while unemployment fell from 14% in 1983 to 4% in 2005. The situation has reversed dramatically with 500,000 people on the dole and tens of thousands under huge stress because of the mortgage crisis, wage cuts, the universal social charge and unnecessarily long waiting times for medical cards. These are things people need to survive in the economy. Dr. Jones said health services treat the ill-health caused by inequality and poverty.

If we accept this premise, which I do, our health service will now come under enormous strain and increased demands because of the economic collapse and the austerity programme following the IMF-ECB-EU bailout. The evidence for this includes the annual health index report for 2010, which found that visits to GPs have fallen from 75% to 71% since 2008. The survey found that the decline in use of medical services was most pronounced among the lower income groups. Those with the least access to health care, those without private health insurance and medical cards, cannot afford the fee of €45 to €60 for a GP visit. Some 87% of GPs said that in the past two years visits from patients had decreased due to financial problems… Our shambolic two-tier health service cannot take the cuts. By international standards, we have a low-level of acute beds, with 2.7 beds per 1,000 population where the OECD average is 3.8. A study by PA Consulting Group estimated that, based on our high current utilisation levels, some 8,000 more beds will be needed by 2020. The only alternative is a major increase in resources for community care, including free access to GP services and the provision of well-staffed public health centres. This will also mean confronting vested interests in the medical profession, and private health care and insurance companies.

Joan speaks on the mortgage crisis

I am a member of the Defend Our Homes League set up in July in response to the crisis people are facing in respect of repossessions and evictions. The membership of the league includes New Beginning, Irish Homeowners Unite and many Independent Members. The league was formed because everyone knew a crisis was developing in respect of mortgage arrears and because people are under massive financial pressure… The steering group of the Defend Our Homes League … were absolutely appalled by the report…[which] should never have been published without the people who are affected by the problem of mortgage arrears first being consulted. MABS and FLAC should also have been consulted.

The discussion document before the House has been warmly welcomed by the banks [because] it does not call on them to do anything more than they are doing at present… The so-called recommendations contained in this document are mere guidelines. The two main issues relating to the matter of mortgage arrears are keeping people in their homes and negative equity. Neither of these is properly dealt with in the discussion document, which is completely dismissive in the context of negative equity and states that the write-down would be too expensive. In whose interest is it too expensive?

The first point I made was related to keeping people in their homes. The report disgracefully accepts that repossessions will happen and that after a bank has taken possession of a person’s home, it may be possible for that person to rent the property from it, with the debt remaining as a heavy weight on his or her shoulders. That is outrageous. The Government should ensure that if a debtor engages with a lender and is prepared to pay a reasonable amount of net income – to be decided by an independent agency not the banks – there should be no question of a person losing his or her home. People could make interest-only payments or park the mortgage so that interest does not accrue while there is a chance to pay down some of the principal. A person in the Defend Our Homes group has paid up to €100,000 in interest alone on his home because he cannot pay his mortgage.

We have all heard the proposal from New Beginning, which is very sensible. It proposes that 35% of net income could be used to pay down debt and that in the early years the principal would be paid down, with the interest being parked. This is a practical proposal. If a family cannot sustain a mortgage, there should be an option for it to be housed by the local authority, although the debt would have to be written off and the bank would have to buy the property.

There is a figure from the Department of Finance of €14 billion to reduce mortgages in line with actual value, but this is nothing compared to the cost of NAMA and the bank bailout. Independent economists question this figure. If the write-down was restricted to the average family home or apartments and buy-to-let examples and trophy homes were excluded, the figure could be reduced to €7-€8 billion. Some of this has already been built into the recapitalisation of the banks against potential mortgage default.

I will make a point about bankruptcy and personal insolvency laws which should be introduced before Christmas… the report does not deal with sub-prime lenders which do not even need a licence to operate here. They work under no regulation and are here to make a quick buck before they pull out. Many face eviction because these companies just want to sell a house and get money whatever way they can… The debt write-down must form part of the mortgage process. Society must move on. However, we cannot kick the can down the road all the time while playing games with people.

Joan on bus cuts

In 2000, the then Department of Public Enterprise produced a report on subvention. Dublin was ranked third lowest by comparison with other cities in terms of what it received. Its percentage was 4% while that for Bergen in Norway was 1.5% and that for Belfast was 2%. In Belfast 98% of revenue came from fares and in Dublin 96% of revenue came from fares.

Dublin is the biggest city in Ireland and is supposed to be competing with the modern cities in Europe, yet its subvention is one of the lowest in Europe. [It] has experienced cuts of €60-€70 million over recent years…

Buses will be key to transport in Dublin in the coming years. Some 120 buses are gone… I cannot accept that we must accept the Troika’s decisions that we cannot invest in our bus and transport services. Investment is crucial because services are at full capacity at peak times and we cannot make further cuts. The next cuts will affect wages and staff. Does the Minister of State believe this will be the case?

Joan on HIV ward in Cherry Orchard Hospital, Ballyfermot

… [A]ccording to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre website there are about 7,000 reported cases of HIV in Ireland, including 331 new HIV diagnoses in 2010, comprising 240 males and 89 females. There were 134 new HIV diagnoses among the category of men who have sex with men. There were 123 new cases among the heterosexual category, 54 male and 69 female, in 2010. One of the saddest findings is that 136 babies were born with HIV in Ireland last year.

[Many] people might not know that the 18-bed Rowan Ward in Cherry Orchard Hospital in Ballyfermot is the only public HIV unit in the country, to the best of our knowledge… That in itself is wrong. We should not have only one public HIV respite unit in the country. We have begun to hear rumblings from the HSE …that this ward could be closed.

This ward is a safety net for the thousands of people with HIV… Many people who access the ward are homeless and need Cherry Orchard Hospital … The service it provides is both socially and economically necessary. Rumours abound that [it] will be closed. On Monday, 12 September, the word was out that the staff were instructed not to allow any more admissions into the ward. That in itself amounts to nearly the closure of the ward and is an alarming development for those who [need] this service.

Three men have been in the ward for up to 14 years; [it] is their home at this stage. They are fearful of what will happen to them. When asked where they would go, they were told they would be probably moved into one of the elderly units that cater for elderly people with Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions. This is not acceptable. What we want to hear today is a categorical announcement from the Minister of State that this ward will remain open.

Joan opposing privatisation

“The privatisation of Eircom in 1999 must rank as the biggest single economic mistake made by an Irish Government – until the disastrous blanket bank guarantee of September 2008,” according to the Communications Workers Union. There have been six changes of ownership in Eircom since 1999 and handsome profits have been made each time, with the Valentia group making €1 billion… Eircom was a successful public company… but it has lost over 50% of its value and 50% of its workforce, investment has collapsed and this has left the State a decade behind in the provision of fast broadband while huge profits have been made by the asset strippers.

The Eircom privatisation … was ideologically driven, the self-same ideology that has led to the crisis of the world economy and the crisis in Ireland. The Government is now proposing more of the same in regard to this proposal. The Government will point out it is retaining the majority stake in ESB and not privatising it but simply selling a minority shareholding. I regard this as the thin end of the wedge. The proposal to sell €2 billion worth of State assets is criminal. Some €2 billion represents 50% of the €3.8 billion the Government is putting into the black hole of Anglo Irish Bank by July and will continue to do every year for the next ten years.

This is what Deputy Eamon Gilmore when in Opposition called “economic treason” but it [is] now “okay treason”. It must be stopped. I fully support the workers if they decide to take strike action in this regard. I call on the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to co-ordinate a campaign to protect jobs, conditions and services in the public sector.

On the household tax

When the Minister announced the proposed household tax in August, there was a huge uproar. People said they could not afford it. Therefore, the proposal needs to be reconsidered by the Minister. We have just discussed the issues of mortgage debt, credit debt and the burden on families as they try to stay in their homes. People are facing an austerity package of a minimum of €10 billion – it could be up to €14 billion – in the next three years. As Mr. John FitzGerald of the ESRI has said, it is likely that the tax will increase to €1,400. Therefore, the Minister should be honest with the people. He has said the household tax will be €2 a week, but if it is €1,400, it will be €20-€25 a week. That is the austerity the people are facing. I, therefore, ask the Minister to reconsider this proposal

On special needs assistants

I listened to Government backbenchers speak on this motion and laud the fact that the amount of special needs assistants (SNAs) has been increased to 350 and capped at 10,572. This is a nonsense argument and they know it. The number of hours allocated to each school to support children with special needs has been cut by 10%. The Department of Education and Skills has made provision for only 9,950 learning support resource posts this year. This will not meet the demand.

Capping the number of SNAs at 10,572 means children with a wide range of special needs will at best have to share the services of an SNA whereas previously they would have had exclusive access. At worst, children will lose their SNA. The reality is not what the Government is saying. The school on Mourne Road, which is a DEIS band 2 school, has lost 1.33 SNAs as the number has reduced from 6.33 to five to cover seven classes. Is this not a cut? The number of SNAs at Drimnagh Castle boys school has been cut from 9.5 to six. Is this not a cut? The number of SNAs at Scoil Bhri­de in Dublin 6 has been cut from two to one to cover an autistic child and a child with very special needs. Is this not a cut? The number of SNAs at St. Gabriel’s in Ballyfermot has been reduced from six to five to cover seven children with two more children with special needs due to attend the school. Is this not a cut? The school has also lost a resource teacher for Travellers and between ten and 12 Traveller children attend the school. Is this not a cut? The visiting teacher service for Travellers is to be abolished in September. Is this not a cut?

Deputies on this side have been accused of not offering choices. The cost of reversing the proposed cut, after taking into account the reduction in social welfare costs and increase in taxation revenue generated by SNAs would be €20 million. Where can this sum be sourced? Choices are always available. I am not proposing a revolutionary cut in the IMF-EU bailout fund. Every year, €100 million is paid to elitist, fee-paying schools. Why is this money not invested in educational resources for those who need them? This is a clear choice facing the Government. Where does the Labour Party stand on it?

ULA motion on Joint Labour Committees/Employment Regulation Orders

Deputy Clare Daly moves that:

Dáil Éireann noting that:

  • the Report of Independent Review of Employment Regulation Orders and Registered Employment Agreement Wage Settling Mechanisms by Mr. Kevin Duffy and Dr. Frank Walsh to the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, concludes inter alia: “We have concluded that lowering the basic JLC rates to the level of the minimum wage rate is unlikely to have a substantial effect on employment” and “we conclude that it is not accurate to suggest that the body of primary employment rights legislation currently in force adequately covers matters dealt with by EROs and REAs”;
  • according to the OECD, Ireland suffers from some of the highest levels of low pay; over 21% of full-time employees are low paid, compared to a Eurozone average of 14.7% and European Commission data show that labour costs, including wages and employers’ contributions, in the food and accommodation sector in Ireland are 6% below the EU 15 average;
  • very many people covered by Joint Labour Committee-Employment Regulation Orders, JLC/EROs, and Registered Employment Agreements, REAs, are vulnerable people such as immigrants and young people and those working in small employments not amenable to trade unionisation;
  • the majority of workers covered by the JLC-EROs and REAs system are women and that any reduction in remuneration in this sector will widen the gender income gap contrary to national and EU policy;
  • due to the serious and disproportionate reduction in male employment, female workers form a higher proportion of primary bread winners and that reduction in female earnings would have a major impact on household and child poverty contrary to national and EU policy;
  • reduction in the remuneration of already lowly paid employees will result in a reduction in revenue to the State through PAYE and VAT and will lead to an increase in claims for family income supplement payments;
  • any reduction in remuneration to employees covered by JLCs and REAs will transfer income from the lowly paid to employers and-or investors, including some large multinational companies;
  • any reduction in remuneration to affected employees who spend their entire income in Ireland will reduce demand in the economy and accelerate the elimination of jobs caused by the policies of the previous Government and the support by the current Government for the measures contained in budget 2011;
  • it is this reduction in demand in the economy that is destroying jobs, not JLC-ERO rates; and
  • any provision for derogation from JLC-ERO and REA rates of remuneration in individual employments is likely to lead to a collapse of the system as a whole and the reduction of already low wages generally, further reduction in demand and increased job elimination in the economy as a whole;
  • deplores any proposal of the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to enact any of the following measures:
  • reduction of JLC and-or REA rates;
  • reduction or abolition of extra pay for working unsocial hours such as on a Sunday;
  • allow employers to claim “an inability to pay”;
  • reduction in overtime rates;
  • removal of protection for young workers under 18 years of age;
  • removal of annual increases for years of service;
  • removal of recognition of craft grades;
  • reduction of the number of EROs and end coverage of working conditions such as sick pay; and
  • allowing employers not to keep proper employment records, which would make it easier to evade the law; and
  • calls on the Government as a whole to abandon these measures and believes that if Labour Party Deputies in particular vote against this motion, they will be in breach of the principle of solidarity with the lower paid and the best traditions of Larkin and Connolly.

Speaking to the motion, Joan said,

“I support the motion 110%, says Deputy Joan Collins. This is a red line issue for the Labour Party. As Deputy Clare Daly said, it will be down to the Labour Party to show its support for this motion and its support for the workers in these industries.

It may surprise some Deputies and others that the first legislation in this area was introduced by Winston Churchill in 1909. This was a recognition that in certain areas, sweat-shop conditions and the undercutting of wages were a significant problem at that time. In Ireland these trade boards were incorporated into industrial relations law as joint labour committees, JLCs, in 1946. There has long been a recognition, even by people not friends of the labour movement, such as Churchill, of the need for effective legislation and regulation for vulnerable workers. The proposals by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, would, in effect, dismantle this protection. It would declare open season by unscrupulous employers on those who are the poorest, most vulnerable and least able to stand up for their rights.

Some of the employer groups pushing for these changes to the JLCs are the Irish Hotels Federation and the Quick Service Food Alliance. The so-called hospitality industry includes hotels and restaurants and employs 130,000 workers. A total of 35% of these are migrant workers. Wages in this sector are the lowest of any sector in the country. A survey of more than 800 catering businesses by the National Employment Rights Authority in 2008 showed that 53% earned below the minimum legal wage, 51% did not receive a payslip, 84% did not receive a contract or any terms of employment, 44% did not get any breaks and 85% received no overtime pay or Sunday premium. One third of all complaints to the Migrant Rights Centre came from workers in the hospitality sector. Brutal exploitation and denial of the most basic legal entitlements are rampant and this is even with the JLCs in place. What is needed is not the Minister’s new charter for exploitation but instead, Labour Party Deputies should demand that the employment law (compliance) Bill is given real teeth and brought before this House for urgent attention. Will the Labour Party Deputies do this? This legislation was promised after the Gama and the Irish Ferries disputes. It has since been buried. Workers in the hospitality sector need greater, not less, protection. The National Employment Rights Authority must be beefed up with extra staff and the power to impose on-the-spot fines on employers.

In the main, workers covered by the JLCs are women, young people and migrant workers. Driving down wages in this sector, which is the purpose of these proposed reforms, will increase inequality and widen the gap between male and female earnings. Such proposals will increase levels of poverty. Many cleaners are part-time workers and their wages are crucial to family income. We already have the highest rate of poverty out of 17 developed countries and only the United States is worse than us. A total of 100,000 children live in persistent poverty. A total of 23,000 people work in the contract cleaning industry and these are women in the main. The JLC rate is €9.50 an hour. This job involves working outside office hours, from 5 a.m. and after 7 p.m. or later in the evening. Putting the boot into people working unsocial hours on extremely low pay is criminal, while the people who destroyed our economy have walked away with huge pensions or are still in place on obscene salaries.

I refer to what a Fine Gael Minister said, post the election regarding the protection of the vulnerable in society: “These are the women who clean the offices in the morning; these are the women who serve food at weddings or hotel functions, who do the washing up but who go home to their families before the dancing begins.” That Minister is the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan. The women to whom he refers are women whose income is set by the JLCs and whose families will be the most affected by any dismantling of JLCs.

I remind Labour Party Deputies that they are in very strange company on this issue. I note there are none of them in the Chamber: they seem to have disappeared. Wage councils, the equivalent of JLCs in the United Kingdom, were first reformed by Thatcher in the 1980s and given the coup de grace by Major in the 1990s. Therefore, the Labour Party will be standing shoulder to shoulder with the right-wing policies of Thatcher of the 1980s which destroyed the workers’ movement in Britain at the time of the miners’ strikes and were against women workers throughout Britain.

We call on the Labour Party to support these low paid, vulnerable and often abused workers. The best way to do this is to support this motion. I refer to recommendation number 17 of the Duffy Walsh report which recommends that statutory provision be made to allow for derogation from the terms of either an ERO or an REA on economic grounds. Any Labour Party Deputy hiding behind that should be ashamed of themselves. They either support this motion or they do not. If they support the Duffy Walsh so-called report, they are supporting the fact that the ability to pay clause is embedded in it.

The Labour Party Deputies should come out from wherever they are. We would like to see them in the Chamber and eyeball them on this issue. We want to know their stance. In 1981 the then Department of Labour said any inability to pay element would affect and undermine the whole system. It was very critical of the inability to pay proposition, saying: “Any proposal which would allow for a fallback position weakens the principle in such a serious way as to make a nonsense of the entire concept.”

It is an important and serious issue for the thousands of workers affected by JLCs. Any Labour Party Deputy who supports the proposal of the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to change JLCs should be ashamed of themselves. We ask them to come into the Chamber and discuss and debate the matter in a true and honest fashion. They should look us in the eye, as they should the 250,000 workers who are waiting desperately for some sort of certainty on this issue. They are fearful for their jobs, families, incomes and futures. The Labour Party Deputies can either back this motion or deny the workers what they deserve, which is decent pay for a decent day’s work.Other elements of the proposals will depress demand. The contention that existing employees will not be affected by the proposals is grossly misleading. The proposal to discontinue annual increments of service pay or craft pay is a major attack on low-paid workers. It will depress demand, as well as causing unemployment and the closure of businesses.

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