Government backbenches empty for duration of disability sector debate

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin says FG empty benches ‘speaks volumes’ about party attitude

No Government backbenchers attended a Dáil debate into the funding and staff shortage crisis in the disability sector.

Minister of State for Disability Finian McGrath was the lone Government representative on the Fine Gael benches for much of the almost two-hour debate.

Minister of State for Older People Jim Daly then replaced his colleague but after he contributed to the debate he sat alone for the remainder of the private member's motion.

Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghin Ó Caolain who introduced the debate said the “Fine Gael empty benches have spoken volumes” about the party’s attitude.

The party’s motion calls on the Government to deliver full pay restoration to employees in the not-for-profit sector in line with all other public sector workers, and for the Taoiseach’s department to engage with the sector to develop a long-term strategy for properly funded integrated services.

Staff of some 2,000 organisations part-funded by the State faced the same pay cuts as other public servants during the economic crisis but their pay was not restored in the aftermath of the recovery.

Disability Action Coalition

Members of the newly formed Disability Action Coalition, representing the organisations which provide services for some 65,000 adults and children with special needs, observed the debate from the public gallery.

Mr Ó Caolain said some 9,000 workers were affected by the cuts and they “carry out vital work and provide key services in areas where the State has failed to provide”.

He said there should be no differential in pay and conditions between them and other workers in the public sector “doing essentially the same work”.

A forum established by Department of Health to be chaired by former trade union leader Peter Cassells has been established to deal with the issue but Mr Ó Caolain warned that it should not be a “fig-leaf exercise”.

Sinn Féin health spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly said the HSE was heavily reliant on these organisations which were established “because there were no statutory services”.

She said the funding cuts from the recession had caused huge damage and left service providers unable to meet demand.

The Dublin Fingal TD said that because of the cuts to these organisations they could not pay the same rates or pensions as the rest of the public service and there were significant staff shortages.

“It is not fair to say to them that they are regarded as public servants for the purposes of cutting their wages and cutting their funding but they are not regarded as public servants for the purposes of pay restoration,” she said.

Oppose

The Government opposes the motion and Mr McGrath said that those employed by the sector “are not public servants and are not subject to the terms of the public service stability agreements”.

But he said that in some cases, pay restoration was underway. He pointed to the 43 organisations employing about 12,000 people who had been paid almost €7 million as part of the agreement reached in the Workplace Relations Commission for 50 pilot organisations.

A further 250 organisations have not yet received pay restoration under this agreement. But “there will be a phase two of pay restoration to look at these bodies”.

Fianna Fáil health spokesman Stephen Donnelly, whose party supported the Sinn Féin motion said that given the importance of hospices, of supporting people with disabilities and of supporting families battling with cancer, "we would think that a single Fine Gael Teachta would have come into the House to show a bit of support".

He said Mr McGrath “cuts a lonely figure” on the Government benches.

The Dáil will vote on Wednesday on the Sinn Féin motion.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is a parliamentary reporter with The Irish Times