Wednesday, 31 May 2006
Dáil Eireann Debate
The Lisbon Agenda remains of strategic importance to the Irish and European economies and the quality of life of our citizens. The Government is fully committed to the Lisbon Agenda and has been supportive of the process from the outset. Last year, following a mid-term review of the Lisbon Agenda, the European Council decided to focus on the urgent priorities of growth and jobs. Each member state was required to prepare a national reform programme to address an integrated package comprising macroeconomic, microeconomic and employment policies. All member states are working together to address the key challenges, such as the need for greater research and innovation, creating a favourable environment for small business and jobs.
This approach is operating in tandem with a Europe-wide social partnership process, with all the main stakeholders working together to achieve the necessary pace of reform and progress. Member states are conscious of the need to keep an eye on the global picture. The European Union now competes directly with other regions of the world for mobile investment in knowledge and research and the external dimension of competitiveness must acknowledge this reality.
Ireland prepared its national reform programme in autumn 2005. The programme covers a three-year period to 2008 and will be reviewed annually. It recognises that the overall challenge is to sustain and improve Ireland’s recent good economic performance. The programme includes a range of measures to ensure sound public finances, enhance our competitiveness and deliver sustainable employment. The various measures are drawn from the existing policy framework, including the programme for Government and the current social partnership agreement, Sustaining Progress. Implementation of Ireland’s NRP is under way and the Departments of Finance and Enterprise, Trade and Employment have lead responsibility for the macroeconomic, microeconomic and employment guidelines, respectively.
Our social partnership process is a significant element of our overall strategy to sustain growth and job creation in accordance with the Lisbon Agenda. Negotiations on a new social partnership agreement are under way and any new policy directions or initiatives arising from these negotiations will be incorporated in the national reform programme over the three year timeframe.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: A key element of the Lisbon strategy is the commitment to tackle gender inequality and ensure that a greater number of women are facilitated to take up their place in the workforce. Is the Minister of State aware that there is a pay gap between men and women’s earnings across the European Union of 15%, a figure also reflected in the Irish experience? Is he aware that the Taoiseach, in his report on the Lisbon Agenda, stated that the ESRI had been commissioned to do a report on the graduate gender pay gap in Ireland? Will the Minister of State indicate the current status of the report? Has it been completed and presented?
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: In the Taoiseach’s report on the Lisbon Agenda he stated that the ESRI had been commissioned to do a report on the graduate gender pay gap in Ireland. If the Minister of State has the information to hand and is in a position to answer my questions, that is well and good, but if not, I ask him to furnish the details subsequently. Has the report been completed and presented, and what are its findings?
The low paid and part-time employment sectors already show a pronounced imbalance between the sexes, with women predominating in both areas. Does the Minister of State agree that increasing the number of women employed in these areas is not an adequate response? Does he accept that the key in many cases is address of the child care issue and that additional measures need to be introduced to improve child care provision? I make no apology for saying that such measures, initially at least, must be biased in favour of families dependent on low incomes. A key needs to be produced that will open the poverty trap which denies women in such circumstances an opportunity to participate in the workforce if that is their choice.
Mr. Treacy: Ireland’s priorities regarding the Lisbon Agenda are to maintain a stable macroeconomic environment and sound public finances, enhancing our competitiveness through investment in knowledge and innovation and continuing to deliver more and better jobs, including full employment opportunities for men and women alike.
The Deputy asked a number of questions pertaining to the ESRI report on gender equality. I am not aware that the report has been presented but I will pursue the matter and provide the Deputy with up-to-date information as quickly as possible.
I am pleased with the changes we have made in different sectors of the economy, including in taxation. These have given opportunities to women of all ages to choose whether to enter the workforce, the sector in which they wish to work and whether to take permanent or part-time employment. It is critical for all citizens, including women and specifically highly qualified and skilled mothers in the home who have completed rearing their families, that the new system in place, notably in the area of taxation, allows them to re-enter the workforce and offer the economy the benefit of their experience and skills.
Child care is a key issue in the modern economy. I am somewhat disappointed, however, that every decision to provide generous support for child care in recent budgets has resulted in an immediate increase in the cost of child care. In handling this situation through the creation of facilities across the country to distribute resources, we must be careful to avoid creating an inflationary spiral that would impede people from accessing existing opportunities, including their child care requirements. That balance must be carefully measured. I am pleased that we have been able to deliver child care services in urban and rural areas, which has not been the position in other services. Such services have been of major benefit to young mothers but there is still much more to be done as the economy grows and opportunities arise. Given the requirements of the economy, it is critically important that we continuously address the need to provide adequate child care. In that way, young people can meet their own responsibilities and have the choice to work in mainstream economic activities while being guaranteed a good, efficient, modern, professional and caring child care service. That is very important.
Mr. Sargent: As it was not clear from the Minister of State’s reply, I would like to know if the Lisbon Agenda has reported any progress on various aspects, including, belatedly, sustainability. Notwithstanding the objectives of competitiveness and improved technology referred to in the Lisbon Agenda, the impact of food transport in terms of climate change rose by 12% from 1992 to 2002. In the overall context, if one was to discuss competitiveness without sustainability we would be heading down a pretty ruinous cul-de-sac. I wonder whether the implementation of sustainability has been measured by the Lisbon Agenda and whether the Minister of State has anything to report on that score.
Mr. Treacy: Ireland welcomes the decision of Ministers to reach political agreement on the draft directive at the Competitiveness Council meeting on Monday, 29 May. The Council will formally adopt its common position at one of its forthcoming meetings and will forward the dossier to the European Parliament for a Second Reading. As regards the questions raised by Deputy Sargent, each member state is expected to submit a progress report by 15 October 2006. The EU Commission has issued guidance on the format of the progress reports and will hold bilateral discussions with officials in each member state over the coming weeks and months.
Overall, it is envisaged that the preparation of the progress report will mirror that of the national reform programme itself with the Department of the Taoiseach leading the co-ordination. The Department of Finance and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment will have primary responsibility for the various policy areas, while other Departments will feed in material as appropriate. Initiatives emerging from current negotiations with the social partners will be reflected in the progress report.
A number of issues referred to by the Deputy were raised in this House earlier this year during the debate on the reform programme and in the Seanad debate also. They were incorporated into our final document which we submitted to Brussels as part of our national reform programme.
The Deputy raised the issue of food transport but I do not have information on it. I will pursue the matter and revert to the Deputy later. The issues raised here will certainly be taken up in the progress report. It will be my responsibility to take into account what the Oireachtas says on such issues, which I will include in the document to be considered for the progress report in October.
Mr. Costello: The Lisbon Agenda is very much a citizens’ charter for employment, social cohesion, sustainable development and growth. From that point of view it is at the core of where the European Union is trying to go. Since it has been agreed, however, we have had the rejection of the Nice treaty in this country, and the second vote. In addition, France and the Netherlands have rejected the European Constitution, so there is a strong level of disillusionment concerning how the citizens of Europe are treated. There is a perception that they are not getting a fair deal and that in many cases Europe is somewhat irrelevant in the manner in which it is progressing, and is not responding to bread and butter issues of public concern. We have responded by establishing a national forum on Europe.
Mr. Costello: We are trying to find out what has gone wrong at the heart of that. How will we get the message out to people that Europe is good for them unless we implement the Lisbon Agenda in a macro sense? When Ireland held the EU Presidency in 2004, we had a review which found that the outcomes of implementing the Lisbon Agenda were disappointing across all 25 EU countries.
It is also disappointing in terms of social cohesion and what Mr. McCreevy was trying to do with his services directive, in addition to low incomes. The review also found that people had to rely on rent subsidies rather than having their own homes, and that there was a 15% gender gap between working men and women. The absolute inadequacy of child care and the lack of a proper energy policy were other elements of the review.
Mr. Costello: These are the questions concerning the Lisbon Agenda, including social cohesion and sustainable development, which are needed domestically. Where is all this happening? Nothing the Minister of State has said so far shows that there is any priority on the Government’s part regarding any of these issues.
Mr. Treacy: Having watched RTE last night, I was pleased with its detailed survey carried out by consultants into the attitudes of changing Ireland over the past 20 years. A strong, conclusive figure in excess of 70% of those polled, said we should be deeply involved in and fully engaged with Europe and all its activities. The results of that survey were positive for the country. More than 80% of those polled were satisfied with Europe’s contribution, which is good from a national viewpoint. Obviously, there have been some difficulties on the European scene, including the rejection of the European Constitution by France and the Netherlands. While elements of the European impression on citizens had a contribution to make to those decisions, other domestic issues were concerned also, which the research showed had a serious bearing on the outcome of those constitutional referenda. The fact that 15 EU countries have already sanctioned the European constitution, either by referenda or parliamentary decision, shows that there is a majority in Europe in favour of how we are progressing.
There is no doubt that there are challenges ahead. Ireland’s economic success to date, includes the measure of employment and mainstream economic activities here. Foreign direct investment has added to direct jobs through sub-supply sectors that have been able to feed into the situation. These are all benefits stemming from Ireland’s membership of the European Union.
Mr. Treacy: In all fairness, I must say that Commissioner McCreevy inherited the services directive. He saw the need for changing it and he did so. He called it very quickly. Within three weeks of taking office, he said it would not work. He set about changing it. He brought forward the changes and following the outcome of the European Parliament vote, the European Commission came forward with a revised proposal on the services directive on 4 April last. The proposal was discussed initially at an informal meeting of the Competitiveness Council on 22 April last. It was agreed last Monday and will go before the Council.
At the end of the day, the Lisbon Agenda, Ireland’s national economic policies and the Government programme are very much at one with regard to equality of opportunity, greater investment across all sectors, ensuring gender balance and mainstream engagement for all of our people, and ensuring we maintain a competitive economy and control inflation. All of that can sustain existing jobs and create more.
At present 70% of jobs across Europe come from the services sector. It is crucially important that we are aware of this and do not get left behind, and that we maintain our economic operations in a way that will take full account of the opportunities that this presents for us. We have the capacity as a people, the skills, the educational base and the economic and professional track record to be able to take advantage of these professional services and deliver them to Europe and other parts of the world. We must maintain an economy that will allow us to do this.
Mr. M. Higgins: There is a crisis in regard to the implementation of the Lisbon Agenda. Does the Minister of State agree that the following is the basis of that crisis? In every country, particularly France and Germany, where it has come to the fore, there is a perception that the Lisbon Agenda — adopted in 2000, at its mid-term point in 2005 and due to be completed in 2010 — was a text carefully balanced between the two concepts of competitiveness and cohesion. There is dissatisfaction in many European countries with regard to the virtual abandonment of the cohesion element.
In the Taoiseach’s speech to the Dáil and in the press release from the Department of the Taoiseach on 23 May, the word “competitiveness” occurs several times while the word “cohesion” occurs once. What is the significance of the two elements of cohesion and sustainability? They are regarded in the Taoiseach’s text as complementary to the major issue of competitiveness, defined in the revised programme in terms of growth and jobs.
Is the Minister of State aware of the grave disappointment among the citizens of Europe at the abandonment of the cohesion element? Does he agree that in the statements made at the mid-term review and those made as late as last week, not a single coherent figure is given for the attainment of any of the cohesion elements, be it leaving school early, differences in income, differences in regard to the housing market and so forth?
The stress on competitiveness for inter-regional competition in a global economy is an attempt to deliver to the employers’ side cheap labour and is at the same time a comprehensive betrayal of practically every element of cohesion aimed at reducing inequality, and also a betrayal of sustainability, which was aimed at ecological and environmental responsibility with regard to growth. In several countries across Europe, the cause of dissatisfaction is the tearing up of the cohesion element in the Lisbon accord. I say this as one who would support the Lisbon accord because of its balanced text.
Mr. Treacy: As always, Deputy Higgins raises a number of interesting issues. Competitiveness and cohesion are linked in that if we do not have one element, we will not have the other. It is critically important that we maintain our competitive edge while being able to have a cohesive operation. The Lisbon Agenda is of critical importance to citizens throughout the European Union. It was reviewed last year and has been successfully relaunched with a focus on growth and jobs.
Mr. Treacy: This has resulted in each member state preparing a national reform programme. The Heads of Government are fully committed to delivering over a three-year period on the range of actions set out in the programmes, including competitiveness and cohesion.
Mr. Treacy: We have a social partnership agreement. We are in negotiation to ensure there is a balance between the requirements of that which is good for the Government, citizens and nation, the requirements and rights of employees and the responsibilities of employers. We want to find a consensus that mirrors the situation in Europe. Most European countries, including the smaller countries who have joined, want to model Europe and themselves on the success we have achieved through our cohesive polices, taking into account the importance of the social charter, the social capital that is so important for——
Mr. Treacy: That is a relative statement. From my 24 years in public life, I believe there has been a huge elimination of poverty. The number of people in poverty who visit me in my office or in my weekly clinics is much lower now than ever before.
Mr. Treacy: When I first came into office, poverty was a serious problem. The two serious issues when I entered politics 24 years ago were young people without hope looking for jobs. We were giving them very low——
Mr. Treacy: Deputy Neville is as usual throwing in a red herring. There are a few people in his city who have a major responsibility in that field for the whole western area, including for Deputy Michael D. Higgins’s area and my area. Deputy Neville might have a word with them to tell them they changed the goalposts and changed the games, and that we would like it to go back to the old game to make sure we get equity in the delivery of the resources allocated to us. That is important and a few well-paid people should have a look at that situation.
Mr. Treacy: To return to Deputy Higgins’s point, it is critically important that we work in a way that takes into account the value, independence, rights and choice of each citizen, that we run a competitive economy and that we take into account not alone the contribution that all citizens can make to developing that economy but also the role they can play in developing social capital. This social capital is traditional to this country, vital to our value system and critical to the economy as an add-on to the delivery of public services by whatever Government is in office. We must mirror that and work to enhance it across the European stage through the Lisbon Agenda to ensure we have a competitive Europe and that we are able to maximise its capacity to grow resources for redistribution across all regions and member states, to take into account the disparities within the regions and provide a greater transfer of resources to bring everybody up to an equal base.
Mr. Durkan: Will the Minister of State offer an opinion as to whether the Lisbon Agenda is travelling in accord with the European project in terms of cohesion and integration? Is the Lisbon Agenda trailing behind or is the European project running ahead? Which is the better of the two? Are they likely to converge or will we have a situation where one runs ahead of the other indefinitely?
Mr. Stagg: The Minister of State seems to be suffering from a delusion that there are universal, high standard child care facilities throughout the State. Is he aware of the normal cost of child care facilities, which runs at €8,500 per year per child?
Mr. Stagg: It arises directly from the Minister of State’s response and from the Lisbon Agenda, which aims to provide these facilities. Is the Minister of State aware that if a parent on the minimum wage has two children, the cost of child care facilities is equal to the total income of the family? Will the Minister of State tell us where the facilities are located or has he provided——
Mr. Treacy: The Deputy did not refer to what I also said. I said that the generosity of Government in successive budgets in delivering to child care has led to inflationary prices in child care services.
Mr. Treacy: I cannot understand that and do not know the reasons for it. Moving on to Deputy Durkan’s position, in all fairness we lodged our national reform programme with the European Commission on 28 October 2005. The first year of progress will be reviewed between now and next October which is a short time span. Within the whole European project the Lisbon Agenda is critically important to creating the fiscal, financial and revenue resources necessary for a solid, cohesive Europe where the resources generated can be redistributed and transferred on a equitable basis to the different regions of Europe and the member states who require them, taking into account the different disparities to ensure equity for all and fairness in the system. From a competitor's and a cohesion point of view, the Lisbon Agenda has the economic instruments that will help deliver it into the future.
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