Tuesday, 14 October 2003
Dáil Eireann Debate
–the cutbacks devastating community employment schemes throughout the country, undermining resource centres, crèches, after-school projects, services for the elderly and disabled, and voluntary groups working with the disadvantaged;
I unreservedly condemn the inappropriate and harsh prison sentences imposed on Deputy Joe Higgins, councillor Clare Daly and the 13 law-abiding citizens, including two mothers of babies and a grandmother, as a result of a peaceful protest in opposition to the bin tax which they regard as double taxation which disproportionately hurts lower income groups and against the inflammatory policy of non-collection of household waste from compliant PAYE taxpayers. I join the Dublin Council of Trade Unions in calling for an end to this inequitable tax and for the release of all peaceful protesters from Mountjoy Prison.
While working class communities are being disproportionately hit by new stealth taxes, progressive measures like community employment schemes, jobs initiative and child care allowances for second chance education are being removed by this Government in a concerted and unfair attack on the most disadvantaged people. So far this year  more than 300 full-time jobs from the whole-time jobs initiative providing essential public services to local communities have been deliberately removed by this Government. These are real jobs providing services to the elderly, the disabled and in the area of child care in disadvantaged urban areas. We now know and have documentary evidence that the Cabinet committee on social inclusion and drugs chaired by the Taoiseach has decided to remove the remaining 2,200 JI jobs and a further 2,500 jobs from the social economy programme over the next 12 months. That is a scandalous decision by a sub-committee supposedly set up to tackle social disadvantage. Many of these workers who had been unemployed for more than five years and who had overcome great obstacles in their social circumstances to take on a full-time position, having worked successfully for more than six years are now told by this Government that they must go back on the dole.
The manner in which these jobs have been and are being terminated is in many instances in breach of labour law and workers' rights, a matter which the Irish Congress of Trade Unions would do well to investigate. Added to the 5,000 CE workers removed from their jobs, this Government is shamefully putting 10,000 people back on the dole.
I am glad of the opportunity to put on the record of this House the glaring fact that the cuts in community employment schemes are being implemented for one reason and one reason only, so that the books can be balanced, making the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, happy. There is no humanity involved in the decision to cut back CE schemes. No consideration is being given to the vulnerability of those involved or to the valuable work being done.
In taking the decision to cut back CE schemes, the Government has identified vulnerable groups engaged in community work, sporting organisations and disability groups as easy targets. They have a poor voice and even if they protest, they will not be heard. That modus operandi reflects badly on a Government that likes to give the impression it is a caring Government. It could be more accurately described as a “don't care Government” on this issue.
The Government does not care that those being hit by its cutbacks are in many cases disabled, lone parents or unemployed. It does not care that many of those laid off CE schemes are unlikely to be employed in the open market. It does not care that the work being carried out by the schemes under threat contributes enormously to towns and villages throughout the country. It does not care that sporting, disability and com munity groups will be severely affected by the cutbacks.
Some regions have been cut back by 20% year-on-year for the past two years. That is a fact, not a figment of my imagination. What has that percentage cutback meant for Government? It means each vulnerable person laid off the community employment scheme has contributed €24.40 towards balancing the books of Government. A single person on CE receives €149.20. A person no longer participating in a CE scheme returns to the live register and receives €124.80 – a saving of €24.40 per person. Is €24.40 too much for the Government to spend to provide people with a sense of worth and dignity? Is it too much to spend so that disadvantaged communities can benefit from the labour of somebody otherwise unemployed? Is it too much to spend to enable voluntary organisations to continue their work? Is it too much to spend on an individual so that groups providing services to the disabled and others can continue their work?
Ms Harkin: This Private Members' motion is centred on the issue of equity and fairness in Irish society. I will concentrate on the failure of this Government to honour its commitment to mainstream health projects delivered under FÁS community employment schemes.
Community employment has been used for many years as a stop-gap measure to deliver services to those with disabilities, special needs and the elderly. The Centres for Independent Living in Sligo and Leitrim and CLASP in Lough Arrow are just some examples of the projects affected in my constituency. Community employment schemes are now an integral part of service provision and communities and individuals in rural and urban areas rely heavily on them for the provision of basic services.
However, the primary purpose of CE schemes is to progress participants into the open labour market. While CE was and still is a valuable support to local groups in the delivery of services, the proposal to mainstream those services through, for example, local health boards was a logical progression and was a reasonable mechanism whereby these valuable and vitally necessary services could be maintained in the local community. The services provided by CE schemes never made the headlines but they made a real difference to the lives of many people in all our communities. These services, including transport to visit a doctor or attend a clinic, meals on wheels, somebody to light the fire, respite care so that a carer could get a well-earned break, a personal assistant for a person with disability, peace of mind for a son or daughter who knew an elderly parent was visited when he or she was at work and independence for that elderly person, have contributed hugely to the quality of life of those who received them. Friendships were  made, trust was built and relationships were formed between those providing and those receiving the services.
I have spoken to many people who expressed satisfaction with this service and who felt the Government was getting it right. In a quiet way some people's lives were changing for the better. Communities were supporting their own with full back-up from FÁS. Indeed, many communities have spoken highly of the efforts made by FÁS to support them and to be as flexible as possible within the parameters of the scheme. However, mainstreaming seems to have disappeared from the agenda. All of the high hopes and expectations have been dashed because the Department totally underestimated the cost of the move, which aside from anything else, indicates its ignorance about the value of the services provided.
Last week, the Comptroller and Auditor General detailed the unbelievable waste of public money – in excess of tens of millions of euro – in just one year. Yet, the plug was pulled on investing money in health related projects and supplying a service for those who need it. We were told it could not be done because it would cost too much. However, it can be done and it is not too late for the Government to do the right thing. It should put in place an interim arrangement where this type of community employment scheme can maintain its status as of 1 January 2003. That does not mean ring-fencing numbers, but personnel. People are what matter. While this interim arrangement is in place, the Government should re-negotiate and honour its commitments.
Dr. Twomey: Only last night, large numbers of adults and children received certificates for computer training in my local parish of Tagoat, County Wexford. The training was provided by a supervisor on one of the local community employment schemes in her spare time. The presentations were made at a place called Yola farm, on the side of the N25, which is a local tourism attraction. It would not have been possible without three vital ingredients – funding from the Government, a massive local voluntary effort and the continuation of community employment and FÁS schemes.
Many communities across the country are driving these schemes, which have greatly contributed to people's quality of life, forward. While we have all benefited from these schemes, the elderly, disabled and disadvantaged have benefited most. It is difficult to put a figure on the social capital of the schemes, while the physical environment of many villages and towns have been altered for the better.
Many of the participants in these schemes have been given a chance they might not otherwise have had. Many have been long-term unemployed and some had mental health problems, which resulted in employers deeming them to be unemployable. It has often been the case that participants on such schemes, be they FÁS or community employment, have acquired the confidence and courage to get a job. Many have been successful and we must recognise and encourage this.
Many Deputies express concern about issues such as health, education and crime. The schemes are an important part of the social fabric and they help to contribute to social equality. Successful economic and business policies are needed to fund aspects of them.
It is important we all recognise how much the schemes contribute to every parish in the country. Last night, the Taoiseach said Fianna Fáil has a presence in 3,000 parishes across the country. These schemes are also present in these parishes. They have made a massive contribution and we must ensure their essential elements are maintained so that they continue to help those in need.
Mr. Connolly: I support the motion. The Government introduced the social employment schemes in the early 1990s to facilitate the reintroduction of the unemployed to the workforce. Initially, people may have been sceptical about participating in a jobs or FÁS scheme and may have worried about the impact on their sense of status. However, these schemes removed people from the black economy and allowed them to work with dignity and pursue training.
At the request of FÁS, the local authorities sponsored these schemes and saw their sponsorship as an extension of their community development role. The guiding principle of their involvement was that of empowerment of local groups, helping them to take responsibility and have pride in their areas. That has largely worked successfully. Some groups benefited enormously from taking control and responsibility and for running their own schemes, both developmentally and financially. They were good for their areas.
Regrettably, in recent years there have been drastic cutbacks in the funding of these schemes. Participation rates have dropped from a high of 35,000 to approximately 20,000. This was done ostensibly on the basis that, as the Celtic tiger economy was taking care of everything, there was no longer a need for community employment schemes. The Celtic tiger economy is well gone and it must also be asked if it had any impact on certain parts of rural Ireland. While that is another debate, it is no longer valid to offer the excuse of the Celtic tiger economy for implementing cutbacks in this area.
Last weekend, suggestions were made about restructuring the funding for these schemes. I hope this means the Government is quietly acknowledging the folly of its action in cutting them. I ask it to reconsider the benefits they have brought to rural Ireland, which are evident in local communities, local housing developments, schools, graveyards and across local services, such as meals on wheels and learning disability services. Such has been their success that people have received invaluable training and become an indispensable part of the community and the workforce.
The present difficulties have arisen more from lack of foresight than scarcity of money. There are no major savings from implementing cutbacks in this area. Furthermore, it is impossible to put a price on personal dignity. Providing people with a job at a cost of €25 per week gives dignity to them and the society of which we are all part. The cutbacks to these schemes will place people at a higher risk of exclusion from society. When people are out of the jobs market, it is much more difficult for them to return to employment. They have no stepping stone back into society. Job applicants who indicate they are unemployed will suffer discrimination.
The Government is in breach of its commitment under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness that it would not reduce the numbers on community employment schemes below 25,000. When it reneged on its commitment there was no consultation with the social partners. The cutbacks impact on people and their local communities, especially those who are unemployed. They are the victims. In addition, many of the services provided by local communities and organisations depend on community employment sponsorship. Cutbacks tear the hearts out of communities. I hope they have stopped and the schemes will be rebuilt.
The Government is more concerned with looking after the well-off than taking action to ensure there is a more just society. The community employment schemes were instrumental in gainfully engaging people while instilling in them a sense of self-worth and belief. This loss to the community will have catastrophic effects and it will be replaced by anger, frustration and despair, which breed violence and anti-social behaviour and lead to fragmentation of the community. I ask the Government to take on board restructuring so that people can be given their lives back and communities can be given jobs back.
Mr. Sargent: On behalf of the Green Party I support the motion. We have our differences with the Socialist Party but the jailing of members of the anti-bin tax campaign has been completely over the top. This also highlights the Government's regrettable double standards whereby the threat to flout a court order is met with a prison  sentence for Deputy Joe Higgins and even calls for his resignation by Government parties, whereas when Deputy Parlon threatened to flout a court order relating to meat factories when he was leader of the IFA, he was not jailed and subsequently was appointed Minister of State. This is quite a contrast in terms of judicial equity and social justice.
Mr. Sargent: The bin tax protests have taken a nasty turn following a horrific incident earlier. The life of an anti-bin tax campaigner was endangered by a waste truck driver. I urge the Government to intervene to restore calm on this issue.
The Green Party supports a reasonable fiscal incentive to avoid waste and misuse of resources. We oppose a flat charge for waste collection as it is inequitable and offers no incentive. I was the first Member to call for a levy on plastic bags in 1994. It took a long time for such a levy to be introduced but it has worked because it involves a reasonable cost and alternatives are available. I do not support Repak's work as it is not tackling the main waste problem. As a result, waste volumes are increasing with bottle banks and bring centres overflowing. The general feeling is the Government does not care or is not using its power.
Sections 28 and 29 of the Waste Management Act 1996 state that the Minister can specify requirements to be complied with in respect of the nature, composition and design of packaging and the use of packaging, the prohibition of waste and the limitation and control in a specified manner of the importation, distribution, supply or sale of packaging. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government chooses not to use many powers in the Act and, as a result, there is a laissez-faire attitude to waste. All of us face a crisis because of Government inaction.
The failure to grasp basic social and environmental equity issues is evident in the Government's belief in the trickle down effect in the economy. Since 1960 the gap between rich and poor has widened worldwide. The top 20% of the world's population was 20 times richer than the bottom 20% in 1960 while it is now 75 times richer according to the UN. In 1994 15% of our population lived in relative poverty but that has increased to 22%. Social inequity has worsened and it has been exacerbated by cutbacks of between 4% and 5% over two years on CE schemes, for example. That is having an enormous knock-on effect in terms of alienation and social inequity. However, it is a false economy.
Sonairte, the ecology centre, ironically located in the Minister for Education and Science's con stituency, was in an ideal position, running 70 CE schemes. The centre was progressing well from an educational point of view but it has had the legs cut from under it. Ringcommon sports centre in Balbriggan is the only sports facility in the area and it is facing closure because of CE cutbacks. Wages for CE participants at the Bremore Castle scheme run by Fingal County Council were also cut and FÁS has been unable to support the scheme because of cutbacks. These will have short-term as well as long-term effects on the local economy. The cutbacks should be reversed.
Mr. Boyle: My employment prior to being elected was as a community employment supervisor of a number of arts based groups in Cork city. I witnessed, even at that remove, the beginning of the campaign of cutbacks and the effects they were having on many organisations in the Cork region. I pointed out in my maiden speech on the opening day of this Dáil that the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment was in error in continuing with these cuts. I am disappointed she has maintained that policy and remains oblivious to the effects these cuts are having.
I have come into possession of a report by senior officials to the Cabinet committee on social inclusion, which is not available to Members. However, the report should be made available because it outlines Government thinking in this area and provides a useful overview of who is involved in community employment schemes and why. For instance, almost 30% of participants are aged over 50 while lone parents comprise the largest category of participants, almost 25% of the total. The Minister's concern for lone parents is on record. More than 50% of participants – 12,500 – are engaged in community work while almost 5,000 people are engaged in environmental projects. These categories of work do not fit the Minister's agenda and that is one of the motivations behind reducing the number of participants from 30,000 to 20,000.
The report of the senior officials proposes that the 8,000 places on the jobs initiative and social employment schemes should be phased out and 20,000 CE places should be maintained. Two options are available in this regard. A total of 18,000 places will be available, with an additional 2,000 for those aged over 55, or 20,000 places together with the extra 2,000 places. The report also proposes that not only should numbers be restricted to this level, but the hours worked should be extended from 19.5 to 30. CE participants who receive a similar payment to social welfare recipients will be asked to work 75% of the average working week. I would be surprised if the social partners support such a proposal but if this defines Government thinking, we face serious problems.
Previous speakers have mentioned the physical effects of the changes in CE. Participants fill the gap created by a lack of voluntary activity in society because of changes in family and working lives. CE gives people satisfaction and dignity and it provides a pay-off to community and society, which the Government does not acknowledge because it does not recognise the concept of society as much as Margaret Thatcher did.
These false economies will result in additional costs to the health service and local government services and ultimately a saving of €8 million for every 6,000 places lost, according to the report. It is a cost that will be far higher to our economy because the value added to society and the economy by those who participate in community employment, job initiative and social employment schemes is not being measured at present. I ask the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, to indicate that this does not constitute Government policy. The Government should be prepared not only to reverse the CE cuts that have been made, but also to increase the number of CE places. The fact that Irish society needs an army of people to provide social services should be recognised. The Government is unable and unwilling to provide such services.
I will conclude by pointing out that Denmark, a country with a similar population to that of Ireland, provides €1.5 billion for active labour measures each year. The Government spends €332 million on community employment at present, but it wants to reduce that figure to €275 million. It is a damning indictment of the Government's consideration of community employment, as well as its view of what it can become.
Mr. Morgan: Sinn Féin condemns the imprisonment of all protesters against the bin taxes and calls for their immediate release. All 15 protesters who are in jail, including two elected representatives, two mothers, a baby and even a grandmother, should be released immediately. They have been imprisoned because they engaged in a peaceful protest of civil disobedience. I understood that peaceful protest was the hallmark of a civilised society.
Sinn Féin is entirely opposed to the introduction of bin taxes because they are inequitable. This mess came about because local democracy was overturned. When a number of councillors refused to adopt unjust taxes, the law was changed to allow county managers to provide for such taxes.
The destruction of local democracy can also be seen in the introduction of development plans and waste management plans that will allow for the introduction of incinerators across the State. When a host of local authorities refused to adopt waste management plans because they included the option of incineration, the Statute Book was  reached for and the law was changed. Local democracy was stood on its head. We have been told that local democracy is fine as long as local representatives vote in the right way and do the right thing. When local representatives exercised their democratic rights regarding waste management, this Government and its immediate predecessor reached for the Statute Book.
It is important to point out that the opposition to what is seen as an unfair and inequitable tax is very sincere. The protests should not be seen as negative, as the protesters are defending public services and opposing the privatisation agenda. The refuse collection service has been privatised in many parts of the State. One should not doubt that all elements of the public service at local government level, including sewerage and water services and road maintenance and construction, will be privatised as well. Is that what we want for the State? Is that how we want to proceed? How can one expect people to comply with bad laws that are made by politicians who say one thing while doing another? If one examines places where charges have been introduced, one sees that the privatisation of refuse collection has resulted in all cases.
I condemn the suspension of workers who refuse to pass pickets. Sinn Féin supports those bin workers who have taken the decision to collect all waste. The campaign is not directed at decent workers who deserve and will receive our respect. Managers who behave as if they are back in 1913 by suspending workers will get us nowhere. There has been direct contact between my party and unions and workers, many of whom feel that their jobs are threatened by the privatisation agenda, which is what this project is really about.
What is the reason for the reductions in community employment schemes, which are also mentioned in this motion? They will push people into low-paid jobs where they will be more easy cannon fodder for multinational companies. Those on CE schemes had the comradeship of their peers and the comfort of some caring colleagues. This was essential for people with significant literacy and other difficulties. Essential services in communities, including child care, support for the elderly, youth services and services for disabled people, are being devastated. The Government should be providing such services, but it has abdicated its responsibilities in that regard. Communities have taken on such duties. The role of the Government in providing essential services that should be provided by the State has been done by the community and voluntary sector for far too long. The pittance that is Government assistance to such vital organisations is being reduced.
Many people who have moved successfully from community employment to full-time employment have made an invaluable contribution to the economy. I do not doubt that many  Members are personally acquainted with such people. I know many of them and I am sure my colleagues could give similar testimony to my own. The promised mainstreaming of many services, which was due to commence in the second quarter of last year, has not materialised. I ask the Minister to clarify whether the promised mainstreaming of services, especially those for the disabled and the elderly, will proceed. If it will go ahead, when will it happen? We all know that elderly people are managing badly in many cases. Many of them are suffering greatly as a result of the harsh cutbacks. Sinn Féin agrees that the mechanism for providing many of these services is not the best. We agree that many of them should be mainstreamed. However, there should be no reduction in services until mainstreaming has been put in place. The Government's reductions in support services for unemployed people, who are trying to get back into the labour market, are completely inappropriate in light of the increasing numbers of redundancies in the last year.
Mr. Crowe: The communities of many Deputies who will speak on this motion are being savaged by the cuts in community employment. I spoke yesterday to someone in Bawnogue community centre in the Dublin Mid-West constituency, which was recently opened by the Minister. I was told that it looks like the community centre might close as a result of cutbacks in community employment services. The Minister might be familiar with that example, but other speakers have mentioned the reductions in meals on wheels, services for the elderly, community training, disabled and women's groups, youth groups, carer's services, etc. When their backs are to the wall, members of Fianna Fáil resort to blaming the cutbacks on the Progressive Democrats element of the Government. We are told that the situation is under review, so that when one tries to explain the effect of the reductions on one's group, one is told that the matter is being looked after. The reality, however, is that something that is “under review” is something that has been put on hold. Nothing seems to be happening and services and schemes are closing down in the meantime.
Many people who have worked on a voluntary basis in their own communities for many years have witnessed the devastation of services in the last two years. A number of issues were highlighted at a recent meeting in Tallaght, to which elected representatives were invited. The fact that the unemployment level in the area is above average was mentioned. A number of long-term employers in the area have closed down. It is bizarre that training schemes are closing down at the same time. The Ciscom group, which has trained thousands of people, depended on CE to get its training programmes up and running. It will close as a consequence of the cutbacks in ser vices. A community centre that employed 17 people at one time now employs one person on JI and one person on CE. This is seen as an attack on the community itself. More than 16,500 community employment places have been cut since 1999.
–notes that a number of reviews in relation to community employment and the job initiative programme are currently nearing completion and that a decision on the future funding and structure of these programmes will be taken in the context of the Estimates provision for 2004, having regard to the outcome of the current review process; and
I thank the Independent Deputies for tabling this motion. Many aspects of the motion refer to legitimate policy issues but it has another aspect to which I was surprised to see so many Members of this House were prepared to sign their names. I will deal with that in a moment. The motion  clearly has the support of Sinn Féin and the Green Party.
The motion is wide ranging. The community employment programme, which figures strongly in the motion and in the contributions made by most of the Deputies who have spoken, falls within the remit of my Department. I begin by knocking a myth on the head. Since 1997, when I was given responsibility for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the budget for FÁS has doubled. Almost the only option for people who were unemployed, lone parents and others in the 1990s, when the economy was growing, was a community employment scheme. They had no option of being trained for anything that could give them a decent standard of living. It is untrue to say that less money is being spent on labour market intervention. This year we will spend close to €850 million on labour market interventions through community employment and training. That is a substantial resource in an economy which has an employment rate of 4.4%.
Community employment, which succeeded social employment, was introduced at a time when the economy had 17% unemployment, mass emigration and no opportunities. It was introduced to provide opportunities for the huge numbers of people who were long-term unemployed and to provide transitional arrangements to help people to move from unemployment into work. When community employment was first introduced there was one CE place for every six long-term unemployed people. In 1997, when I took over at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, we had 40,000 on community employment schemes and more than 90,000 long-term unemployed. Today, long-term unemployment is down to 26,000. One has to respond to circumstances as they change and it would irresponsible of the Government not to respond to the situation that has emerged. Community employment was set up to deal with a problem which has almost been solved.
Notwithstanding the fact that the unemployment situtation has changed substantially, we remain committed to supporting community employment, both as a measure to help people progress from unemployment into work and as an essential support for community services and social services on the ground. That is why, this year, there will be an average of 25,000 people on community employment and job initiative schemes. While, in some circumstances, the additional amount of money someone receives by going from unemployment benefit to an employment scheme is as little as €20, the average payment to people on community employment is €12,000 and not the sum of money mentioned earlier.
More than 6,000 of the people on community employment are lone parents and for them the payment is substantially higher. Because of initiatives introduced in recent years different people receive different rates. The average payment to someone on the job initiative scheme is in the region of €19,000. That scheme was introduced by the rainbow Government between 1994 and 1997. It was recognised that many long-term unemployed people were not moving into work, nothwithstanding the jobs that were being created in the economy, and this was introduced as a more intensive employment scheme for a three year period. Many people have been on the scheme for eight years because I made the decision some years ago not to enforce the three year limit strictly. That, too, has its implications because when one does not enforce a limit one does not provide the opportunities for others to move in and move on.
Notwithstanding what has been happening in the economy we have prioritised certain areas for community employment. There are approximately 5,000 CE schemes in RAPID areas, for example. Child care, health care services, personal assistants and others have been priorities. Recently we introduced more flexibility in relation to personal assistants because I recognise that someone who has had a personal assistant for a couple of years forms a close relationship with that person and may find it difficult to develop a relationship with someone else. We need flexibility in relation to those matters. We have also prioritised drugs task force activities. These areas have been prioritised because they are priorities in our communities. One can never have enough money to do everything. I seek to ensure that we chose strategic priorities that can help the country.
I am conscious that a large number of people come to work in Ireland. It is estimated that 100,000 foreign workers are working in our economy. Almost 40,000 permits have been granted this year to people from outside the European Economic Area. Others, such as nurses, have come on work authorisations and many others come from the European Economic Area where no authorisation is required. The economy is generating the kind of employment opportunities of which many of us never dreamed. Ten years ago did any Member think we would ever be importing so much labour into this economy and that it could generate the kind of opportunities that would attract so many to our shores?
A review of the community employment programme is under way. It was restructured in 1999 with the support of the Government in light of the changing circumstances and the priority areas I mentioned were earmarked at that time. We are looking further at the programme to see how we can make it more attractive as a measure to progress people into real jobs in the economy. We  all acknowledge that people, particularly young people, have better opportunities in real jobs. That is always a challenge. Many argue that we should keep the existing cohort of individuals on community employment and we have made exceptions in particular circumstances where the strict deadline has not always been applied. However, where we do that fewer opportunities are provided for others to move in.
Discussions on the Estimates are currently under way with the Department of Finance and they will be published in November. Although next year will be another tough year I am confident that we will be in a position to have a substantial and comprehensive community employment programme. At the end of this year almost 25,000 people will be employed on community employment schemes, the social economy and the job initiative programme and we will have had an average of 25,000 on job initiative and community employment schemes for the entire year. That is a huge resource in addition to all the other community supports.
We have mainstreamed positions in schools. It was unsatisfactory that as the beginning of the school year approached schools did not know if they would have caretakers, teaching assistants and so on. Initially mainstreaming was more expensive for schools but, more significantly, when given the choice schools generally did not employ those who had been involved in community employment schemes but made other choices. Concerns were expressed about that from Deputies from all sides of the House. Only today an Opposition Deputy spoke to me about this very matter. Sometimes when one mainstreams the people one wishes to help do not necessarily get the positions but, for a host of reasons, others are chosen. It is also much more expensive to mainstream activities which had previously been provided through community employment.
The Opposition motion commends Deputy Joe Higgins for “his unswerving stand in the pursuit of equity in Irish society”. I notice that a majority of those who signed the motion represent constituencies where people have been paying refuse collection charges for a considerable time. Charges appear to have become a big issue only when they were applied in Dublin. I say this as a Dublin Deputy. People in Cavan, Monaghan, Wexford and many other places have been paying these charges for a considerable time. I salute Deputy Gregory and others from the Dublin wing of the Independent group for managing to get their rural colleagues to protest against something their own constituents have been paying for a long time. Is it any wonder people in other parts of the country say things are unfair?
Ms Harney: What are the sponsors of the motion asking us to do? They are asking us to commend Deputy Higgins's activity in encouraging people in Fingal not to pay their refuse collection charges, which were approved by the democratically elected local council.
Deputy Higgins tried to prevent council workers from going about their legal duties and sought to prevent householders who had paid their charges from having their refuse collected. When ordered by the High Court to desist from these activities, he defied it. I see little to commend in anybody who engages in this kind of behaviour. We are all legislators in this House and we are put here by the people to enact laws and expected by them to abide by those laws. Nobody has been imprisoned for peaceful protest. Clearly, they have been imprisoned for defying High Court orders.
Democracy is not an à la carte menu. One cannot decide to pay the taxes and charges one likes and to evade the ones one does not like. What if Deputy Higgins takes a dislike to other public charges and levies or decides that people should not pay their television licence fee? What if he decides that people should not pay their gas or electricity bills? If we were to go down this road we would be writing a recipe for anarchy. As elected politicians, it behoves all of us to act responsibly and to be honest with those we represent. Public services have to be paid for. To pretend otherwise is nothing but political opportunism and grandstanding of the worst kind.
I have no doubt that Deputy Higgins has his own good reasons for taking the action which has landed him in his present predicament. His fans have been following me for the past few weeks. They were in UCD yesterday and in Bawnogue a few weeks ago. They are very committed to the Deputy and maybe he is very lucky to have them because they travel further than most of our pol itical fans. Furthermore, they are louder than most when making their point. I have no problem with this in the main as they are engaging in peaceful protest.
The State is governed by majority vote in a democratically elected Parliament, not by the views of a single Deputy. If one substituted the phrase “income tax” for “bin tax” in this debate, I wonder how many Deputies would be cheerleading for Joe Higgins and his campaign.
Ms Harney: I did not realise community employment was a training ground for budding politicians or that Deputy Boyle had been a former community employment supervisor. I commend him for his capacity to be able to transfer from that into politics.
Ms Harney: It has taken a long time to promote a compliant taxation culture. It is ironic that an organisation that calls itself the Socialist Party now seeks to undermine the very concept of civic responsibility at local level. The refuse charges campaign has for long sought political cover as some form of tax reform movement. Its slogan has been, “No double taxation”. This is entirely spurious. The tax system has been transformed. The PAYE sector has enjoyed very significant tax relief over the past six budgets. Statistics show that, after the last budget, some 680,000 earners are entirely exempt from income tax, which represents 36% of all the people on the tax file.
This brings me to the charges in the motion regarding fairness and equity and the impact of Government policies on the lower paid. There is a notion that the coalition Government took power back in 1997 with the intention of robbing the poor in order to give to the rich. In this simple world of cartoon-strip politics, there are good guys and bad guys. The good guys – they are all on the left – are the only ones who care about the lower paid and the less well-off. The bad guys – they are all on the Government side – do not care at all about the lower paid and devote all their energies to helping the rich.
If the simple world of cartoon-strip politics I described was accurate, it would mean the Government was not just bad but mad. It is difficult to see how any administration in a functioning democracy could ever hope to succeed with such a policy.
They say one should never let the facts get in the way of a good argument but I intend to give the House some facts. I intend to show what has been achieved in terms of tax equity over the past six years. We sometimes tend to live in a little world of our own in this country, blissfully unaware of what is happening elsewhere in Europe or of how other people see us. EUROSTAT recently published a comprehensive analysis of the tax treatment of lower-paid workers across the European Union. Specifically, it compared the tax rates for single persons earning two thirds of the average production wage in each country for the year 2001. The findings were interesting. The tax rate was 45% in Germany, 47% in Sweden and a whopping 49% in Belgium. These states are often held up as role models in social equity by left-wing commentators. The country that came out best in the EUROSTAT analysis was Ireland. We had the lowest rate of taxation for lower-paid workers of any country in the Union. With a tax rate of just 17%, we were way below every other member state. I prefer to regard this as evidence of Ireland being way ahead in its commitment to tax reform, lower-paid workers and real social justice. Some marvel at why, despite the international downturn, Ireland remains at or near full employment while other countries struggle with the effects of mass  unemployment. The EUROSTAT figures answer this.
A similar picture is painted in a comparative study by the OECD which examined the direct tax burden of typical industrial workers with families. The tax burden was over 20% in Sweden, Belgium and Germany and was as high as 30% in Denmark. The direct tax burden on the average industrial worker with a family was lowest of all in Ireland. In fact, it was negative. In other words, when our very generous child benefit payments are taken into account, the typical industrial worker with a family is actually a net recipient of cash from the State.
These are very significant achievements. They put us at the right end of the international league tables and show that the reform measures introduced by the Government over the past six years have had real effect. As leader of the Progressive Democrats and as deputy leader of the Government, I assure the House that my party and the Administration yield to no one in their commitment to social justice and fair taxation. It is a sad reflection on the left that its main political campaign is to ensure that the people of Castleknock do not have to pay refuse charges.
Ms Harney: The polluter pays principle is widely accepted not just around Europe but around Ireland. People recognise that waste collection is an essential public service and that it has to be paid for. They also recognise they should pay in line with the amount of waste they produce.
Politics is essentially about the interplay of ideas, the competition between differing views of the world and different approaches to economic management. Throughout the developed world, the great battle of ideas is essentially between leftism and liberalism. Leftism is losing that battle all over the free world now and it is certainly doing so in Ireland.
Irish success has been built almost entirely on the application of sound liberal values. We have reduced taxes on enterprise, investment and employment. We have opened markets to competition and reduced the role of the State in the economy. The net effect of these policies has been spectacularly positive. We have ended emigration, moved to full employment and achieved the effective elimination of long-term joblessness. We have used the proceeds of this economic growth to invest in new infrastructure, to fund better public services and to pay for huge increases in social supports for the less well-off in Irish society.
We take it for granted that the old-age pension is worth €157 per week and it is hard to believe it was worth only €99 six years ago. We take it for granted that child benefit is worth €125 per month, although it was worth only €38 when the  Government took office. We also take it for granted that the respite grant for carers stands at €735 per year and it is hard to believe it did not exist some years ago. This success was achieved by giving the people the freedom to achieve their full potential and live and work in their own country.
This progress was not achieved by taking the country up the political cul-de-sacs favoured by left-wing parties. We did not achieve success by nationalising companies, setting up hare-brained ventures such as the National Development Corporation or raising taxes to penalise personal progress. It is difficult to find any left-wing idea which has contributed anything to our social and economic prosperity in recent times. While left-wing politicians may have contributed something, left-wing politics has contributed nothing.
Deputy Joe Higgins seeks to lead the left into the wilderness of waste charge campaigning. Deputy Rabbitte, on the other hand, seeks to lead the left in the opposite direction and I wish him well in that regard. Social justice is about lifting people out of poverty and giving people opportunities and a real stake in society, which we have done. We have successfully tackled the problem of mass unemployment and moved tens of thousands of people out of long-term unemployment and into new and worthwhile jobs.
The key to this has been the low tax model of economic management pursued by this Government since 1997. Our approach is working for the people. It will keep the country at full employment, secure our future and do more to promote real social justice than any amount of opportunistic grandstanding by publicity-hungry politicians in relation to charges which have been democratically—
Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. T. O'Malley): I do not claim to be able to understand Deputy Joe Higgins's policy on waste management. I have tried but it is difficult. Although he has made several speeches on the topic in recent years inside and outside this House, it is difficult to make any coherent sense of them. He is opposed to landfills  on the basis that local communities do not like them, incinerators on the grounds that they are unhealthy, private waste collection because it is profiteering and domestic waste charges because he regards them as double taxation. He has also voiced his opposition to the introduction of a 15 cent tax on plastic bags on the basis that it was, in his words, an unimaginative proposal.
Mr. T. O'Malley: In a debate in the House in June 2001 he described the plastic bag levy as inequitable. I fail to understand how anybody could regard a simple 15 cent levy on a plastic bag as inequitable. Perhaps the Opposition Deputies could explain. The approach adopted by Deputy Joe Higgins offers no basis for the formation of a sound public policy in the area of waste management. I do not believe he was ever interested in making any serious contribution to the waste management debate. Rather, the whole campaign he and his allies in the Socialist Party have mounted has a great deal more to do with vote management than waste management.
Democracy is all about rights and responsibilities. All of us in politics have the right to put our policies before the people, seek support for them and, if successful, implement them in Government. Equally, we have responsibilities, above all, to respect the view of the majority and abide by it, as it is reflected in legislation passed by the Oireachtas and financial motions passed by duly elected local authorities. All of us who hold elected office have to bite our lips from time to time when the Government of the day or the local council makes a decision with which we do not agree. Democracy works on the basis that we accept such decisions whether or not we like them, but breaks down if elected politicians refuse to abide by the basic rules of the game and set out deliberately to obstruct the implementation of democratic decisions, which is what Deputy Joe Higgins is doing. It is wrong and indefensible and I am surprised his actions should merit any support in the House, not to speak of the tabling of a full-scale motion of commendation.
The House will be aware that the anti-charges campaign earlier today mounted pickets on council depots in the Dublin area and stopped refuse collection crews from going about their business. As a result, some 12,000 households in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Council area had no waste collection service today. This is nothing less than a deliberate attempt by the Socialist Party to prevent ordinary working people from doing their jobs, householders from having their waste  collected and democratically made decisions from being implemented. I ask the Deputies who tabled this motion to think seriously about the action they are taking.
Deputy Joe Higgins was booted out of the Labour Party because it could no longer stand him and his tactics. Like any decent political party it was not prepared to be dictated to by one idiosyncratic individual. All the parties in this House aspire to be in Government at some stage, to influence public policy and have their say in how the country should be run. Even the Independent Deputies, as recent experience has shown, can have an influence on Government formation and direction. What is the point of it all if a single Deputy can walk out of the House, turn up his nose at the rest of us and attempt to force his views on everybody?
Deputy Joe Higgins and his supporters will not bring waste collection to a halt in this city or State. This simply cannot be allowed to happen and, as democrats, all Members should be giving clear leadership to the people. We all accept the polluter pays principle, that services have to be paid for and that special measures have to be put in place to help the less well-off. We cannot abandon all this in the face of bully-boy tactics from a single Deputy. It is hardly surprising that Deputy Joe Higgins is supported in his campaign by Sinn Féin, a party which has not been noted for its respect for the institutions of the State, its courts or police force.
Refuse charges are collected by every council and there is fairly widespread public acceptance of the need for them, a reflection of the growing level of environmental awareness. There is an increasing movement towards pay-by-weight and pay-per-bag systems, which is a positive development as it gives much better effect to the polluter pays principle than the flat charge systems operated until now by most local authorities. Our waste management policy is moving in the right direction. While we are a long way behind the rest of Europe in terms of recycling and reuse, we are making progress. In my county, Limerick, we have made considerable progress in recent years. The same is true to varying degrees in most other areas.
The future direction of public policy is clear. Recycling will increase, waste volumes going for final disposal will decrease and we will gradually fall into line with standard practice on the Continent, which is a long way ahead of us in the area of waste management. What we cannot afford is to reverse course at this stage. It has taken us several years to progress to the point where we have waste management plans and a coherent national waste management strategy. We cannot tell people that we are abandoning the polluter pays principle and they can produce as much waste as they like without any penalty as it would  throw our waste management policy into chaos and cause major difficulties for local authorities.
There are now about 1.3 million households and the number is increasing with 50,000 to 60,000 new houses being built each year. The vast majority of households are complying with the law and paying the proper charges to have their waste collected. If collection charges are abandoned, we will see waste volumes rise and waste collection and disposal costs increase. Central government will be left with a hole of several hundred million euro a year to plug. Neither Deputy Joe Higgins nor his Socialist Party friends have come forward with any workable proposals as to how such a revenue shortfall might be met. If he is serious about his politics, he should level with people and say from where this money will come.
No self respecting Member of the House can support this motion. It is fair enough for Opposition Deputies to attack the Government for its economic policies; that is part of the normal cut and thrust of politics. However, it is different for the House publicly and formally to commend one of its Members for defying the High Court in pursuit of political advantage.
Mr. Murphy: I will discuss the community employment aspect of this motion. Community employment schemes have in the past made a huge contribution to people's lives through a wide range of services in health, education and the environment. The cuts in the past 18 months have had a devastating effect on the participants who lost their places on these schemes as well as making it impossible for voluntary groups to deliver services such as child care, care for the elderly and community environmental works.
The Minister continually claims that many of the services provided through community employment schemes in the education sector have been mainstreamed into the education budget. The budget has been transferred from FÁS and some semblance of a similar service is provided. However, the new system is not as effective or flexible as when it was administered by the community in co-operation with the schools. Similarly, the mainstreaming of CE schemes into health and child care services is far from satisfactory. The money transferred from FÁS is lost in an already underfunded health and child care service. The value for money concept was better served by community employment schemes in these areas. Far from costing money, with a little restructuring they could have continued to offer worthwhile employment while providing excellent social services cost effectively.
The Minister argued, correctly, that retraining for full-time employment should be the primary concern and objective of CE schemes. This should continue to be the main focus, particularly for young participants. However, regardless of whether the Minister acknowledges it, a substantial number of current and former participants will find it impossible to obtain positions in mainstream employment. Most of the people affected are over 50 years of age or are lone parents, people with disabilities or widows. The vast majority of the people in these categories find themselves back on the live register. All of them would be willing to participate in some type of social community scheme that would give them the dignity of a job and give their communities and neighbours invaluable support and services.
Fine Gael has constantly advocated the establishment of a type of social employment scheme in conjunction with the community employment schemes which would be more suitable for both the participants and the communities they serve. We are told by the Minister that FÁS has been carrying out a review for the last 18 months. At our meetings with FÁS we have advocated this dual approach: community employment schemes which continue to focus on training and social employment schemes which are employment orientated towards the needs of community groups.
In reply to a parliamentary question earlier this year, the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, assured me that an appraisal of the active labour market programme was under way and would re-orientate these programmes to target more effectively the needs of the disadvantaged groups, such as older groups, pensioners and people with disabilities. He said he had begun discussions with the Minister for Social and Family Affairs on future options for older workers on the employment schemes. He assured the House that the labour market programmes would no longer be the only policy area, as this review would for the first time examine the potential for community employment schemes to provide a proper community service on a long-term basis.
When pressed as to when this review would be completed and when there would be decisions and results, the Minister assured the House that by the time of the Estimates he expected to be in a position to have a new and effective community employment scheme in place. We are fast approaching that time. Will the Minister honour the commitments made to the House or are they just a continuing deception of the electorate, such as this Government practised during and since the last election?
The major area that has never been addressed properly is the work being done by CE schemes in environmental projects in towns and villages, in Tidy Towns projects and in leisure facilities. Over the last ten years enormous amounts of  money were given to community councils to develop badly needed facilities. These projects are now at risk of falling into decay and ruin because there is no longer the possibility of servicing them adequately through community employment schemes. The Government has failed to set up any alternative.
The Tánaiste said in a speech to the House earlier this year that the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, had been given responsibility for community services and that she shortly hoped to discuss with him the role that mainstreaming CE could play in supporting worthwhile activities. Nine months later one must ask what is meant by “shortly” and when the Minister's commitment will materialise. While the commitment by the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, might be possible to fulfil during the Estimates process, it is impossible for the Tánaiste to honour her commitment to mainstream the environmental schemes into any worthwhile organisation.
The only organisation that could cope with this is local government, but we are well aware of its financial situation at present. As a result of the activities of this Government, its inaction, its refusal to finance local government properly and to compensate local authorities for benchmarking, every local authority is bankrupt. Mainstreaming the small amount of money from FÁS into local authorities to develop environmental schemes at this point would be ludicrous.
The scheme is a shambles. Not only did the Ministers deceive the electorate before the last election but they blatantly continue to do so and to ignore clear commitments given over the last 18 months in the House.
Mr. Ring: I will start with the lecture we were given by the Progressive Democrats a short time ago. The Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, failed to tell the House about the fastest growing industry in Ireland, which is the consultancy industry. One million euro per week or €200,000 per day is spent on consultants and consultants' reports. The Department of Agriculture and Food last year spent €13,700,000. It was €3 million over budget. That is just the Departments. Look at the county councils and one will find another layer of consultants. It is the fastest growing industry. It is no wonder people are sick and tired of what is happening.
I do not support anybody breaking the law. However, I understand Deputy Joe Higgins's sentiments about refuse charges. In this country refuse must be paid for. We all know that, but €43 million of taxpayers' money has been squandered to pay consultants who are friends of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats. Those consultants get €200,000 per day.
I listened to the Minister lecturing us regarding what old age pensioners get per week. She told  us that they were on €157. However, she did not tell us that, since last year, ESB bills have gone up three times, amounting to a total increase of 17%. She did not tell us that motor tax had gone up by 12%, hospital charges by 26%, the threshold for the drug refund scheme by 31%, VHI by 18%, cigarettes and alcohol by 15%, bank charges by 108% or bin charges by 30%. She did not tell us that college fees have gone up by 69%, with another proposal to raise them further in coming weeks. She did not tell us that parking fees, bus fares and the television licence had gone up by 40%. She forgot that. There is a major difference between someone on €157 per week being able to pay those charges and a consultant in the €43 million bracket getting €1 million a week, or €200,000 per day. It is easy for them to pay their charges for services from the county councils.
In a month's time, the people of this country will realise that they have been conned by this Government since last year. The Book of Estimates will shortly be published for every single council in the country. I will give the Minister an example. In a small place in the west of Ireland called Aughagower there are three graveyards, three pubs, one shop and one post office. The pub incorporates the post office and the shop. Recently the owner applied for planning permission. First, the authorities wanted further information to deal with it. Then he was told that he had to withdraw the existing plan and come up with a new one. He had already spent about €10,000 on fees. I will tell Members what happened to him when he lodged the new application. When he got the planning decision last week, there was a bill of €16,500 for a community charge, with a further €8,500 for services. Living in a rural area, he does not have sewerage services and has to provide his own water from a group scheme. Yet the county council was looking for €25,000 before he had laid a single brick. Is that equality or fair play?
We have people on €157 a week paying the same for their refuse as people who send out 20 tonnes, two tonnes or one tonne. It is wrong, and the councils are saying that they must now charge what the refuse service is costing them. Of course they must do that, as in some parts of the country we have inefficient local authorities. We have more high salaried engineers to be paid for as none of them works for less than €50,000 a year. In Newport we have a full-time engineer, I suppose on about €50,000 a year. Of course we, the people of Mayo, must pay him. People on social welfare must pay for him.
This is all about equality and fair play. Someone on €100,000 or €200,000 a year can well afford to pay, but someone on social welfare of €157 a week cannot. The Minister will tell us that there are waivers. The county councils are very loath to grant waivers. I will give another  example. I had someone in my constituency office yesterday whose car was in a minor accident, having run down a hill. No one was injured, and nothing happened, but someone telephoned the fire service. Lo and behold, the following week, out came the bill. The man did not contact his insurance company, since no damage had been done to his car, yet the bill from Mayo County Council was for €1,000 for the fire service, which had been called out. The Minister tells us that we are getting better value for money and that it is good for democracy that services must be paid for. Of course they must be paid for, but it must be at a reasonable price.
I would not mind if there were private sector services along with the public sector service in the area of refuse services, thereby creating fair play, but there is not. If the county manager decides in the next few weeks that the service in my county will cost €1,000 per week for every household, how do we evaluate that and secure value for money? How can we be sure that it is costing that much? Of course it costs that much when there is an engineer sitting there and ten or 11 people on the refuse service being paid for five days per week. It is not fair to expect the general public to pay that. We were told many years ago that the Government was increasing PRSI and that there would be no more service charges. People are absolutely prepared to pay if they get value for money and are told the truth. However, they were not told the truth last May or during the last year and they are sick and tired.
In this country in the next few weeks, every county manager will be told by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government that he or she must have a proposal before him by March 2004, but I can assure the people of this country that that will not happen until after June 2004, when the local elections are over. The county managers must now devise a way of collecting extra revenue. They are now proposing that for every new building, and every young person starting off in life applying for planning, buying a site and building a house, there will be a new service charge of €5,000 or €6,000. That is the new plan. They are also examining other ways of charging people money that they simply cannot afford to pay. That is why Deputy Joe Higgins and the people of Dublin are marching; they cannot afford to pay. They do not mind paying a fair price for services, but what is going on now is a rip-off.
Mr. Ring: I bloody know that, as the Progressive Democrats do not represent many FÁS  workers. What is the difference between giving people a social welfare payment and an additional €25 on a FÁS scheme? It is great value for the State. The FÁS schemes have done more work and given us better value than any county council in this country through such initiatives as tidy towns and cleaning up graveyards and rural areas. They substituted for special needs services, home helps and carers when there was no help from the State and it reneged on what it should have been doing. It should have been providing money to the health boards and spending on education, but it reneged.
Vocational training opportunities scheme courses are designed to get people back into the education system. Yet this year the Government did not cut back on the €43 million for the consultants or last week when we had the charade with the President. How many people went out? I intend to table a question under the Freedom of Information Act to find out how much that trip cost last week, as nothing is spared on State occasions, and there will be nothing spared for the next six months when this country holds the EU Presidency. There will be wining and dining and nothing but police cars flying up and down this city. They are not seen when they are needed, for example, when one's car is being broken into.
I am reminded of the clampers. One sees them flying around the city morning, noon and night. They have cameras up on some offices in Dublin, and the minute one's ticket expires, one's car is clamped. Perhaps the Minister will tell me how those same cameras cannot be used when citizens' cars are being broken into or stolen. Why can we not use the same resources of the State to try to protect their cars? If there were revenue to be made out of them, by God, they would be protected. It is easier now to get a clamper than a taxi or a garda, but people are getting angry.
The people are lying in wait for this Government. I warn the people to ask the serious questions of Fianna Fáil before the local elections, as major bombshells are coming in July 2004 when those elections are over. The Taoiseach said last week in Killarney that we had the best economy in the world. I believe that it was off the record, but that is how he was quoted. It might be the best economy for the super-rich, but not for the poor of society. The rich are getting richer, and those are the people whom the Minister represents. The poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is being squeezed. Remember one thing, however – they are waiting. On the last occasion, they felt that there was no choice, but on this occasion, there will be a choice.
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