Tuesday, 16 May 2000
Dáil Eireann Debate
1. Mr. J. Bruton asked the Taoiseach if he will elaborate on the views he expressed at the Irish Management Institute conference in Killarney, County Kerry, on 7 April 2000; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11346/00]
3. Mr. J. Bruton asked the Taoiseach the consideration, if any, given to the application of the women in the home movement for inclusion in the structure of future social partnership discussions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11474/00]
4. Mr. J. Bruton asked the Taoiseach when he will make a decision on the application of the Irish Senior Citizens Parliament for inclusion in future partnership discussions; and if he will make a statement on the matter [11475/00]
5. Mr. J. Bruton asked the Taoiseach when he will make a decision on the application of the United Farmers Association for inclusion in future partnership talks; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11476/00]
9. Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on the meeting with the social partners on 26 April 2000; his views on the concerns expressed by trade unions at the current rate of inflation and the potential consequences for the implementation of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12754/00]
My keynote address to the annual conference of the Irish Management Institute on 7 April focused on the main challenges facing the Irish economy and society in the years ahead, principally, globalisation, EU enlargement and rapid technological change. In particular, I emphasised the need to invest heavily so as to position Ireland to become a world class leader in the global, knowledge-based, digital economy; to build on that through the pursuit of top class policies on connectivity, education, regulation and partnership; and to deliver, through social partnership, the potential inherent in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. That will require all sides to adhere to both the letter and the spirit of the programme.
Through the provisions set out in the Government's programme, the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness and the national development plan, we are well positioned to ensure the long-term sustainability of economic and social progress. I made the point in my address, however, that the enormous potential of these highly ambitious programmes can be realised fully only if we maintain the level of discipline which has served us so well in the past.
My address to the Institute of Directors on 20 April was focused on similar themes though, naturally, I gave particular prominence as well to the strong economic relationship between Ireland and Britain. Copies of both my speeches are available in the Oireachtas Library for further reference.
With regard to the first plenary meeting under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness on 26 April, the primary focus was on agreeing the detailed arrangements to secure full implemen tation of the new programme. In that context, it was agreed to convene in the immediate future the Housing Forum and the Public Transport Forum, together with addressing a number of other priority issues affecting quality of life and social inclusion.
Consideration was also given to the current inflationary pressures in the economy and the meeting was satisfied there are solid grounds for expecting inflation to have fallen significantly by the end of the year. However, the vigorous implementation of all the terms of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness will be necessary to maintain a low inflationary environment. In addition, it was agreed that the Government and the social partners will monitor developments and discuss the options which are available to secure the low inflationary conditions provided for in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness.
On the issue of widening representation in the social partnership process, I indicated in the House last month that the spirit within which the four pillars have operated over recent years suggests the desirability that any organisation wishing to become part of the process should secure the agreement of the appropriate social partner pillar. In the event of a positive response, the Government would consider such applications sympathetically, taking due account of such factors as continuance of a fair balance in representation as between the four pillars.
Regarding the inclusion of the organisations specified in the questions, it is my understanding that none of them have yet sought formal agreement for inclusion under the appropriate pillar. With regard to the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, obviously only those organisations involved in its negotiation will be involved in its implementation.
Mr. J. Bruton: Has the Taoiseach any regrets about the fact that he described people who are concerned about the risk of inflation to the Irish economy and the possibility that the Irish economy is overheating as “creeping Jesus”?
The Taoiseach: They are not the people I was talking about when I used that term. I was talking about people who continually talk down and knock the economy. On the issue of inflation, as the Minister for Finance has said in the House many times, up until mid year it is expected that inflation will edge upwards. Today's figures show that that continues to be the trend and it is higher than anyone would like as we move to the second half of the year. It is projected that eased pressure on oil prices and other issues in the economy will lead to a reduction to an average of 3%.
Mr. J. Bruton: Who are the people the Taoiseach has in mind who are knocking the economy? The Taoiseach referred to the options he wants to discuss with the social partners to secure  low inflationary conditions in the economy. What are those options?
The Taoiseach: Deputy Bruton will recall I said that people, particularly in the financial sector in London, who have predicted for five years in a row that Ireland will go back into a recessionary position have been proved incorrect. I also referred to these people in my speech to the Institute of Directors when I was in London. One financial house in particular has made such predictions from the start. This House disputed the term Celtic tiger, which was introduced by an American magazine when I was Minister for Finance. It continued to make such references and it is a source of annoyance not only to me, but also to many Irish economists. These are the people about whom I was speaking in particular.
The Taoiseach: We are discussing English offices which continually give negative accounts of the Irish economy. My point was that they might be proved right some day, but they, particularly one house to which I referred, have been consistently wrong to date.
Regarding inflationary pressures, price stability has always been and will continue to be a key element. The Government has policies on housing and has introduced initiatives on land usage and the servicing of land. My colleague, the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, is driving forward a number of issues to try to deal with the current difficulties and that must continue.
We cannot control the position in relation to oil prices, but the recent OPEC deal should help in that regard. As was well predicted, the minimum wage is a factor in the April figures. My view is that that will not be a big problem in the future. However, there have been increases in many industries. I do not understand why that is  the case, but I am now carrying out the examination on it. Some industries and service sectors have increased amounts by 20% to cover what appears to be a 6% increase. Arms of the State will consider that situation and also the position in the licensed trade where there have been substantial increases for what do not appear to be good reasons.
Mr. Quinn: The Taoiseach made a comprehensive speech in Killarney and a number of questions understandably arise. On the first page of the print-out from the Internet of the Taoiseach's speech, he refers to four components of policy and states, among other things, that for the first time the Government has “an immigration policy”. On the second last page of the speech the Taoiseach states that the Government has a clear transport policy. If the Government has an immigration policy, where is it and how can we get access to it so we can understand it before we might criticise it? Has it been printed or published? I refer to an immigration policy as distinct from the refugee policy which is mentioned in the same clause.
The Taoiseach referred to the Government's clear transport policy. Is he referring to mark 3, mark 4 or mark 5 of the Luas policy for Dublin, or did we miss something? Where, if anywhere, is the clear transport policy?
The Taoiseach: I know but the Deputy could cite two more. On a number of occasions recently the Tánaiste made changes and spelt out our immigration policy. As the Deputy knows, we are talking about non-asylum seekers. The position is clear for Europeans and the mechanisms used to bring people from outside the EU into this country are working satisfactorily. I opened Xerox last week where 54% of a large workforce are not Irish. The system is working well. Filipinos have started working in the nursing area.
Mr. Quinn: The policy has not changed. The same work permit system has been in place for the past 25 years. The Taoiseach told the IMI managers in Killarney that we have an immi gration policy. Is that written somewhere in a coherent form?
As regards transport, the Minister responsible and the Minister for the Environment and Local Government are following a coherent strategy within the national development plan of putting in place the necessary resources to deal with an underfunded transport system. That covers the one item Deputy Quinn mentioned, light rail, and the National Roads Authority's extended plan. We will spend at least more than one and a half times the amount of money we have spent to date on the roads structure.
Mr. Quinn: I am trying to assist the Taoiseach. We lost five minutes as you, a Cheann Comhairle, were late coming into the Chamber. Perhaps the Taoiseach could indicate to me or to anyone else who might read the speech where in Government Information Services we can access the clear transport policy to which he referred.
The Taoiseach: Every time there is a question on transport, the Minister for Public Enterprise comes into the House. The Deputy asked about one aspect. There are several publications on Luas which have not only been circulated to Members but have been circulated to the constituencies.
An Ceann Comhairle: I want to clarify one matter referred to by Deputy Quinn. There is 45 minutes allocated to Taoiseach's questions on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and no time is lost if we start a few minutes late.
Mr. J. Bruton: Will the Taoiseach confirm that when he talked about creeping Jesuses he was talking about an entirely different set of people from the left wing pinkos the Minister for Finance was talking about as criticising his policy or were they talking about the same people? Was the Taoiseach, therefore, talking about left wing pinkos in the city of London?
Mr. J. Bruton: Will the Taoiseach advise the Minister for Finance and himself that the use of pejorative terms, such as “creeping Jesus” or “left wing pinko”, to describe people who make intelligent and constructive criticism, whether at home or abroad, of economic management in any country suggests a degree of defensiveness on the part of people who use such terms? That in itself is a cause of public insecurity. Will the Taoiseach accept the following advice from me: that he should not use such language to describe legitimate criticism of economic policy because it  shows insecurity on his part and on the part of the Minister for Finance?
The Taoiseach: I do not accept that as good advice. Any member of a Government worth his or her salt has a right and an obligation to correct someone when that person is persistently and consistently wrong about major matters of fundamental economic policy in a country, regardless of whether that person is within or outside the country. That is what I did and that is my job.
Mr. J. Bruton: Regarding the involvement of other organisations in the social partnership process, does the Taoiseach agree that there is a good case for including senior citizens given that, because of labour market problems, the Government wishes to attract back to the workforce people who may have retired, and that a discussion with representatives of senior citizens would be useful in a social partnership context? Furthermore, does he agree, given that the Government is discussing tax arrangements with the social partners which could discriminate against families where one spouse remains at home to care for children or a sick or elderly relative, that the inclusion in social partnership of the representative organisation of women in the home would make sense?
The Taoiseach: I do not have a problem with that organisation or other organisations being a part of social partnership. A process exists whereby they can make their case. I addressed the Senior Citizens' Parliament in the past year. It is a good organisation. I am not as familiar with the other organisation which I understand to be a new one. A process exists whereby organisations can apply to be included in the pillars and it is a matter for them to process the application.
Mr. Gormley: The Taoiseach in his speech in Killarney mentioned quality of life. Does he accept that the Government does not understand the fundamental difference between standard of living and quality of life? Is it the case that as economic growth has increased, quality of life has deteriorated, especially as regards the environment?
The Taoiseach: I reject the suggestion that we do not understand the difference. They are two different things and I have emphasised that quality of life is very important. Economic growth, which has doubled in little more than a decade, has created pressure, and it is for that reason that numerous measures have been passed by the House and a great deal of effort has been made to protect our environment. We must continue to do that. We must be vigilant about our environment in all its aspects, be it dealing with roads, waste, refuse or waste water management. All these issues must be carefully monitored and regulatory systems must be in place and funded to ensure we do not undermine our quality of life.
Mr. Quinn: I wish to turn to a separate but related matter to which the Taoiseach's speech in Killarney referred. He stated that Ireland will have to go some way towards bringing personal taxes in line with other developed, English-speaking countries which compete for skilled labour. Will the Taoiseach indicate to which countries he was referring? A guess would not go amiss. Will he indicate what action, if any, he is taking to prevent health personnel trained in Irish institutions from going to Australia?
The Taoiseach: We want to attract Irish people back to all sectors of the economy. In terms of tax rates, one need look no further than the UK, although other countries have similar rates. My speech also highlighted other issues. Although we are considered to be more advanced than most countries in terms of share options and similar areas, advantages exist in other countries, such as the United States where many Irish workers are employed, especially in the software and technological industries, which should be examined. The Minister for Finance has already indicated he will do so. In relation to health, the practice has developed here over recent years that when people qualify – particularly nurses – they go to Australia for a year or two. A large number return home, but I do not consider there is anything we can do about people doing this when their courses finish. We must ensure that as many as possible remain and factors such as low taxes and affordable houses will attract them.
The Taoiseach: I accept that. One can now see that city centre hospitals find it far harder to get staff than rural or regional hospitals. People are anxious to move to the regional hospitals; that is very prevalent. That is one reason we are advertising to bring people from outside the country to this city in particular.
Mr. Quinn: On that point, does the Taoiseach think the St. Vincent's Hospital proposal to knock down accommodation for 250 nurses at Ballsbridge makes sense now? I do not expect him to be familiar with this as it is in my constituency, but the project will be funded by the taxpayer in order to make way for a car park and a rather elegant facade on to Merrion Road. Does that make sense in the present climate and is he aware of it?
The Taoiseach: —but accommodation on-site is a very valuable resource nowadays. Some private companies now include that in their packages to attract people, which is sensible. It is very attractive to young people in particular to have accommodation on-site.
Mr. Yates: Arising out of the Taoiseach's reply to transport questions earlier, will he clarify how the Government intends to proceed with the £500 million contingency fund provision for three projects in the national plan? They are an airport rail link, a Luas tunnel and a Navan rail link. They will cost £500 million each. Will the Taoiseach explain how this Mitsui metro proposal for an underground system from Ranelagh to Blanchardstown, costing £4 billion, is to be paid for? We have all these aspiration wish lists, but each week 1,000 extra cars are being registered in Dublin and we now face the inevitable prospect of peak hour traffic being reduced to eight kilometres per hour, which is walking pace. Does the Taoiseach agree that if the Government had pressed ahead with the Luas project it inherited from the last Government it would be on stream this year?
Mr. Gormley: The Taoiseach did not answer my question. Does he accept that we now need a quality of life index and using the criteria for quality of life, does he not accept that quality of life has deteriorated during the reign of this Government? The Taoiseach will be aware that quality of life is measured in a different way – in terms of how long it takes to commute and in terms of education, for example. In both those areas services have deteriorated while the standard of living has apparently gone up.
The Taoiseach: Quality of life issues are very important and as I have said in numerous speeches, there are different indices for it. I accept that in some parts of the country very high economic growth has put pressure on quality of life. In other ways the Deputy will agree with me that bigger and better housing, better facilities and higher incomes bring about a better quality of life. In some ways people have suffered while in others people have gained a great deal. I consider it an important issue.
The Taoiseach: Nobody really follows OECD figures because they are different in every coun try. We should monitor quality of life as it is a key issue, particularly given that the economy has doubled in size in the past ten years.
Mr. J. Bruton: Does the Taoiseach agree that we live in an era where if something cannot be quantified it does not count and that therefore we need an index of the quality of life? Otherwise, because GDP is counted, it will be the only thing to matter while quality of life will not be taken into account as it cannot be statistically measured. Does the Taoiseach further agree that the UN has done a great amount of work on the preparation of a quality of life index and that the statistical groundwork has been done for the introduction of such an index here? Does he agree that the most recent report by the UN body which carries out the quality of life indexation has been particularly bad as far as Ireland is concerned, criticising the deterioration in the comparative quality of life in Ireland principally because this is an even more unequal society than Britain, the most unequal society in terms of the distribution of resources in western Europe, and that this inequality contributes directly to a deterioration in the quality of life? For example, the poorer a man is the more likely he is to have a heart attack after the age of 50. These indices of quality of life, such as proneness to a heart condition caused by income inequality, are things we should measure and to which we should give as much thought as to GDP about which the current and previous Governments have been so willing to congratulate themselves.
The Taoiseach: I have answered Deputy Gormley's question. Deputy Bruton will accept that when one looks at the indices of the Combat Poverty Agency, or at the indices in terms of homelessness and the Traveller community, it will be found that we are doing more than ever before.
The Taoiseach: I am honoured to have represented for 23 years large areas where the quality of life used to be appalling, where people lived in tenements with one toilet to 24 flats and where there was no hot water. That was the situation in my area when I entered this House, while now we have some of the best and highest quality housing and some of the lowest pupil-teacher ratios in schools. Some of the best facilities in the country are for people on the margins. Therefore, I do not accept what Deputy Bruton says. Our health service is better than the health service in most countries, as are our library and other excellent facilities.
Deputy Gormley is correct when he says we should monitor things and look at indices, but let us not try to say that everything has become worse as that is not the case. I drive all over the country and see houses which previously one  would not have seen anywhere in Europe. Yes, we have problems, but the picture painted by Deputy Bruton is not the one I see around me.
Mr. J. Bruton: Does the Taoiseach agree that as long as we do not have an index this subject will be discussed using the type of misleading rhetoric we have just heard from him? Does he agree that the national anti-poverty strategy objectives do not include an element concerning health status and that, therefore, we do not measure health as an index of poverty? Does he agree that we should have a comprehensive quality of life index which takes due account of health status, which will show that an Irish person aged 65 years has the lowest life expectancy in the EU even though we are financially one of the better off countries? Life expectancy is related to quality of life, and the fact that 65 year olds in Ireland have the lowest life expectancy tells us there is something wrong with the Celtic tiger.
The Taoiseach: This is not to say there are not any problems. During the discussions on the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness the social partners agreed they would look not just at national economic indicators in gross domestic product or gross national product, but that they would look at all the other indices. I stated 15 minutes ago in reply to Deputy Gormley that I agreed with that. We can look at quality of life issues now because we do not have 18% unemployment, people are getting a decent education and we have reached a stage where people continue on to third level education and resources are available to address homelessness, problems among the Traveller community and the drugs issue.
Deputy Bruton can accuse me of misplaced rhetoric. He and I seem to differ in regard to which country we live in, because as far as I am concerned, things have improved dramatically and rapidly and this has been sustained throughout the past ten or 20 years.
Mr. Quinn: Does the Taoiseach agree that, while great progress has been made in many fields for which various Administrations, the social partners and the education system can collectively take credit—
Mr. Quinn: —there is a fear that because the headline rate of inflation is almost three times the European average, at just under 5% as against 1.9% in the rest of the EU, much of the solidarity built into the PPF will begin to unravel, particularly for pensioners and people dependent on social welfare, and that even that measure of  increase, i.e. inflation on basic social welfare payments, is no longer adequate when one examines other increases in whatever way one wishes to measure them? Does he agree it would be desirable in order to consolidate the PPF, to which the Labour Party gives its full support, that rather than inviting the social partners to look at the measures to which Deputies Bruton and Gormley have referred, the Government might take the lead for a change and propose a quality of life index not based on the minimalist internationally available statistics to which the United Nations can refer, which is infant mortality and literacy along with per capita income, but some other agreed indices for which we have statistical evidence? Much of that data is available to the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs. We should collectively agree that there is a desirability in constructing such an index, which would have the support of the social partners and the political parties inside and outside this House, to measure in absolute and comparative terms whether all of us are moving together at the same speed. We are not moving together at the same speed, and while things have undoubtedly speeded up, does the Taoiseach agree that the gap between the vanguard and the rearguard has widened to an unacceptable level and that is the point about this issue?
The Taoiseach: What Deputy Quinn is stating is what is envisaged. The Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs is involved in this and all the indices referred to, child poverty, child health and all related matters, are being examined under the NAPS programme.
The Taoiseach: They are all central to what is happening. I assure the Deputy that the Government will drive that policy forward. Even in comparison with five years ago the NAPS programmes have reached their baseline targets, which I accept are not great. I do not say everybody is wonderfully well off because we know they are not. However, the NAPS programmes are trying to examine all the issues. I, along with some other Members, attended the launch of the Combat Poverty Agency report last week, which highlighted where it thinks we should go over the next three, five and seven years. I gave Government support in my speech to a number of initiatives in which the agency is involved but it would be useful to include those in the social partnership process because they do not just refer to pay and related issues which tend to take up all the discussion. It is good that the social partners will address these issues and that they agree that they are equally or perhaps more important.
Mr. Quinn: Do I take it from the Taoiseach's  reply that in principle he is prepared to request or lead a debate within the social partnership structure that would arrive at some agreed form of objective statistically-based quality of life index, without any further commitment? Is he prepared to examine this issue with a view to compiling an index based on data available in our society?
The Taoiseach: As Deputy Quinn knows, benchmarks are used for everything under the national anti-poverty strategy. Only in that way can it be seen from research whether successive budgets or estimate campaigns are delivering what they aim to achieve. Therefore, we can do the same. Last week, I had discussions about some of the international indices in this area. The first item on that list concerns child mortality rates, of which Ireland has one of the best.
The Taoiseach: Sorry, I will rephrase that. It refers to babies because it concerns infants under 15 months old. Ireland has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world. One must take realistic indices, however, and it is no good just picking a number. We have to address matters such as social housing, homelessness and Travellers, which requires resources. That is what we are doing. Recently, the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, produced a report on homelessness and we have launched a report on the Traveller community also. We are trying to put resources into these areas, many of which have not attracted sufficient funding in the past. Deputy Bruton mentioned statistics concerning the adult population, but only 5% of the Traveller community live beyond 55 years of age. If we are talking about quality of life in the true sense, we must include such people as well as the people on drugs in my own constituency and in Deputy Quinn's. That is the issue and I do not particularly want to get into a semblance of figures from Burtonport to Schull. We know where the problems are and we should progressively put resources into those areas of need, of which there are about six major ones in the country. When we have done that perhaps we can examine other areas. Those are the real quality of life issues.
Mr. Quinn: Does the Government now accept that today's inflation rate is a point on a rising graph or that it is the highest point, as was previously indicated? If the Taoiseach regards it as the highest point, given the current revenue surplus, does the Government have any intention of compensating pensioners who will now get an increase that will be less than the rate of inflation this year?
The Taoiseach: It was based on 3%, but the answer to the Deputy's question is no, not at this stage. The Minister for Finance has already told the House that inflation will peak in mid year. Today's figures are based on April. I think the Minister for Finance would say that the inflation rate could still drift upwards in May. Thereafter, he believes it will come back down. There is general agreement that towards the end of the year we will get back to an average of 3%.
Mr. Gormley: Is the Taoiseach giving the House a firm commitment to introduce a quality of life index? Is he aware that the World Bank economist, Herman Daly, has done quite a good deal of work on an index of sustainable economic welfare, which could perhaps provide the sort of model we ought to examine? The Taoiseach still seems to be using the terms “quality of life” and “standard of living” as if they are interchangeable. Does he recognise that there is a fundamental difference between them? That is the problem. Is the Taoiseach aware that when indices of sustainable economic welfare were introduced in other countries they showed quite clearly that a threshold is always reached, beyond which economic growth actually leads to a deterioration in the quality of life?
The Taoiseach: I have said how the Government intends to proceed and that is within the national anti-povery strategy and other programmes. In conjunction with the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and his colleagues, we want to see if we can develop such a scheme with the social partners. That is the commitment in the programme for Government and I am merely restating it. I am aware of the numerous models to which Deputy Gormley referred. Other countries rarely take much cognisance of their own figures in these areas. That is a fact. I do not want to sign up to a system that nobody takes seriously because that would be of no value to us. What I am saying is that in the work that is going on and in line with what the Combat Poverty Agency would want to do, we should benchmark our selves against whatever criteria they come up with. That is a good idea but I will not predetermine those discussions.
Mr. Rabbitte: In terms of the widening gap between those at the bottom and those at the top, is the Taoiseach familiar with a conference held yesterday in my constituency where, for example, the county council advised that 1,210 cars were taken out of the stream of the Dodder in the Tallaght area between January and April? Will the Taoiseach agree that only a massive transfer of resources to tackle the multi-deprivation that is producing that kind of joyriding mayhem in certain parts of Dublin, where his constituency and mine are afflicted by the problem, will deal with it? Will the Taoiseach say if there are plans, either in the investment plan or otherwise in Government, to deal with that level of multi-deprivation?
The Taoiseach: In terms of the multi-deprivation referred to by Deputy Rabbitte, we must put resources into education, training and lifelong learning, particularly for young people who drop out of the education system, and give them proper training for the jobs that are available. Those who are young should be given proper remedial education at a young age, whether on literacy, numeracy or whatever. That is happening in great parts of this city and other cities where the problems are enormous and we can see the benefits of that, but it requires resources which it is getting now. The Minister for Education, Deputy Woods, said recently, following on from the former Minister, Deputy Martin, in his period as Minister, that schemes like Breaking the Cycle, bringing down the PTR numbers and providing home liaison teachers is the way to deal with those problems. We have to progressively and continually do that and put in the resources.
I note what the Deputy said about joyriding. Five times in the past ten years we gave additional powers to deal with this problem and we are now back in a cycle again. A legislative issue will not stop the problem but it is a—
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