Thursday, 23 October 2008
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy Pat Breen: Last night I spoke on the cuts affecting the elderly and today I will concentrate on the education cutbacks and how we have failed our children. Yesterday we saw a large protest against third-level fees, with 10,000 students assembling outside Leinster House. Every level of education has been affected by the budget, including second-level and primary education.
To be parochial for a moment, we all know the problems in Ennis national school, where there are 14 prefabricated buildings. A new school has been promised for a long time and yet there is no movement on it. We are at the stage now where both primary and secondary school students are reduced to packing bags in shops in order to fund much-needed facilities in schools throughout the country, despite the fact we have had ten years of unprecedented wealth. Our education system is surviving on a shoestring.
The significant decision to increase the pupil-teacher ratio adds further pressure. Yesterday and today I have been inundated with e-mails and telephone calls from concerned parents whose children are in Tulla national school. It is one of eight schools in east Clare where the pupil-teacher ratio has been increased; in September 2008 it had 261 pupils with ten teachers and in September 2009 it will have 270 pupils with nine teachers, a ratio of 30:1. The same can be said for St. Flannan’s College in Ennis, where they are operating with a reduction of five teachers and Coláiste Muire in Ennis, where the Oireachtas Members in Clare will have a meeting tomorrow. It has seen a reduction of four teachers. Every school in Clare will suffer.
The children struggling at school who need additional help will be particularly affected and left behind. In west Clare there is a primary school with temporary accommodation for children with autism which has six pupils. I have had a number of phone calls from parents who are concerned about follow-up education for those students because facilities are not there in secondary schools.
The Minister claims the pupil-teacher ratio is only increasing by one pupil but the Government must understand that many of these schools are operating above the optimum level anyway. Not alone are we facing an increase in class sizes but we are also being hit by children’s needs in other areas. The 32 cuts were highlighted by our own spokesperson, Deputy Brian Hayes. In times of economic slowdown, we should be investing in our children’s future.
I will turn to the failure of Government to meet the concerns of the needy. With the 1% income levy, the original proposal was to target all sections of society, including pensioners, the lower paid and those on the minimum wage. Fortunately, after a meeting with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and in an effort to save the national wage agreement, the Minister rolled back on the issue and excluded those on the minimum wage, up to €17,540 a year.
Many people on the minimum wage must work overtime because they are on such low wages. They will have to pay the levy if they work overtime. Many small businesses depend on the level of overtime being worked by employees and under this proposal, workers will be penalised. This will also result in a loss of production.
I have limited time on the issue but I will speak about the failure of the Government with regard to the regions. In particular, this relates to the €10 travel tax, which will affect passengers travelling through Shannon Airport. It is an unfair tax which was clearly put in with an agenda for Dublin. As far as I can see, other Irish airports do not appear on the radar. The tax is inequitable and unfair and I hope the Minister will withdraw it. Ryanair has issued a warning that it will reduce services through Shannon.
Shannon Development got a grant each year of €3 million, which has now been reduced to €700,000. In other words, Shannon Development will now have to take a sum out of its own budget. I know it is a self-financing company but will its marketing be affected or will there be job losses? What restructuring will go on in Shannon Development? This is a blow to regions which have already experienced a number of blows and job losses.
I wish to talk about farmers before I conclude because the farming community has been badly hit in respect of installation aid and the farm retirement and suckler cow schemes. A huge problem exists in this regard and farmers will rebel like the students and old age pensioners did yesterday. As my time has expired, I will revert to this issue at some other time. However this budget is both bad and failed and will affect all sectors of society, the middle classes and businesses.
Deputy Charlie O’Connor: I almost was going to ask who told the Ceann Comhairle I was from Tallaght. First, I thank him for giving me the opportunity to make my brief contribution to this important debate. I am mindful that Members and the Ceann Comhairle have had a long morning. School groups from Athboy, Tipperary, Blackrock and Ringsend have been visiting the Gallery this morning and I am sure they all have been fascinated by what is going on. While I am sorry there were no visitors from Tallaght, it is good to have young people in the Gallery to witness the business of the House.
Other colleagues have spoken of the different political times in which we find ourselves. It occurred to me yesterday that I have been around these streets for a long time. I sometimes remark that I am not from where people assume, as I was born around these parts, attended school in Clarendon Street and lived in Stephen Street. I am not afraid to admit the streets of Dublin yesterday were a different place. This morning, I reflected that Members often have seen groups on the streets such as teachers, nurses, doctors, farmers and anti-war protesters. I am a proud Dubliner but to my knowledge, the kind of scenes witnessed yesterday were unprecedented. While the students’ protest was to be expected, the number of elderly people was not. I am not afraid to make this point from the Fianna Fáil benches as my mother and grandmother, who came from these parts, would wish it.
Members should reflect on what happened over the past week. This morning, instead of coming in on the Luas, as I often try to do, I drove in for other reasons. The Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Noel Ahern, who is present, will be pleased to hear it did not take me very long. While so doing, I had the opportunity to listen to “The Tubridy Show” on RTE Radio 1, as I often do. Ryan Tubridy conducted an excellent interview for more than half an hour with the great Frank Kelly, who is known for his work on “Wanderly Wagon”, “Father Ted” and so on. It was an amazing, up-to-date and relevant discussion on the times we are in. I am sure Frank Kelly will not object to me stating that he made the point that he would have hoped those politicians who went out to address the protestors would have been allowed to speak. While I merely repeat his remarks, and not in a demeaning way, he made a fair point in this regard. I listened carefully to the interview, in which highly relevant points were made about the kind of day that was experienced in Dublin yesterday and on the reasons people were out on the streets to protest.
I always have been strongly in favour of the citizenship model. Without being flippant, I often have observed that I was not born a politician. I became involved in politics through becoming upset and agitated about different issues that affected my community when I moved to Tallaght. People encouraged me, which is how I became involved in politics. I will not forget where I am from and will not forget the issues that are of concern to my community. The Ceann Comhairle is aware that, in so far as is possible, I spend all day, every day in my constituency. Over the past week, I certainly have not hidden away. I have been out on the streets and in the shopping centres, including the Square, as well as outside the schools in my constituency.
Deputy Charlie O’Connor: It is important that politicians should get out and listen to the serious concerns of and upset felt by people, who have been frustrated and confused. Father Frank Herron will not object to me stating that he was in my presence on Saturday when a man accused me of taking away his medical card. However, I knew from his circumstances that this was not true and that he will not lose his medical card. While I do not suggest there are no political issues to be dealt with, as there are, there was much confusion, which drew the frustration, anger and upset. People genuinely believed, having listened to the hype, that they would lose their medical cards. As Members now know, many of them will not. However, that was the perception and politics is about perception.
One must get across the message and try to be more positive. I certainly will continue to listen to people in my constituency, which is the reason I spend so much time in Tallaght, Firhouse, Greenhills, Templeogue, Brittas and Bohernabreena. Having listened to the debate in recent days, it is clear all my other colleagues also listen to what people have to say. Incidentally, although people are positive about some matters, there has been much upset in the past week. Together with other colleagues, I am not afraid to apologise for the upset that has been caused to people in my constituency and the wider Dublin region, because it is important to do so. I am glad the Government, of which I am a member and supporter, recognised the mistake that was made.
In common with other colleagues, I acknowledge the many messages I have received in the form of personal calls, e-mails and letters from throughout the region and from further afield. Together with other colleagues, I received many e-mails from counties Donegal, Sligo, Kildare, Waterford and Kerry, which is fair enough. I heard a colleague observe this morning that this issue has put much pressure on our offices. To be fair, my staff, in so far as possible, has tried to respond rapidly, although there always will be those who tell one that one failed to get back to them.
Like Deputy Crawford, I was a delegate to the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly over the weekend, which was an amazing experience about which I will talk on another occasion.  However, I took a call from RTE in Newcastle, appeared on the “Today with Pat Kenny” radio programme presented by Myles Dungan and made the points I now am reiterating in this contribution. People rang me to thank me for at least responding to and recognising the upset created by this episode. While I will not get into the argument raised by Deputy Gallagher last night about who said what to the Government, I certainly took my role as a backbencher very seriously. I conveyed to the party leadership, the Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen, and my colleagues the issues that were being brought to my attention. Arising from that listening experience, I hope the decisions taken over the weekend and beyond in respect of the medical card and income levy issues were in response to what people were saying to Members. Everyone has a role to play in this regard and I am satisfied to have taken that role.
I am a Dáil Deputy and like everyone else, I was asked whether I would walk out of the party and resign. I was gratified when many of my constituents told me they concurred with my view in this regard. I stated that when I was elected in 2002 and 2007, people obviously voted for me for all sorts of reasons, including personal ones, although I am not as popular as many other Members. They certainly voted for me because of my community endeavours. However, as I stated on George Hook’s radio programme, those who voted for me were clear that I was a Fianna Fáil Deputy who was under the Fianna Fáil banner and that is my position. While I am not commenting on any other colleague, I strongly believe that one sticks to one’s tasks and focuses on the issues. One should have the courage to bring matters to the attention of one’s party leadership, both before the parliamentary party and in other conversations, and one tries to correct things that were done wrongly. I am glad we have made progress in that regard in the past week. Without being flippant, one could state, “a lot done, more to do”, but I will continue to represent the issues that are brought to my attention and that is important work for me.
Although the budget announced last week triggered all sorts of reactions, it included items such as the announcement by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, of an increase in benefits, as well as ideas and proposals for protecting young homeowners. He spoke about caring for families and children and keeping Ireland working. It is fair enough for the Opposition to claim that the current financial crisis is all the Government’s fault, but Sky News in England puts the blame on the UK Government and CNN in America blames the US Government. I will not argue with those claims except to point out that a global crisis clearly exists. It is important we demonstrate that Ireland remains open for business. We must continue to go about our business in terms of using public transport as much as possible, visiting places of entertainment and eating and drinking in various premises. Last Sunday, I took some stick in my local pub, Molloys in Tallaght village. The place was packed, which was a good sign in these difficult financial times. Somebody asked why people were giving out to me, given that I visited the pub every Sunday at lunchtime to buy a Lotto ticket and drink a mineral. It is important that we get across that positive message.
The budget set out strong policies to ensure Ireland keeps working. I have often discussed the need for job creation. Each of the 166 Members of this House can speak about the need for job creation in his or her constituency. I am not afraid to speak up for my area of Tallaght, which is the third largest population centre in the State after Dublin and Cork. The area has a very young population and has great educational facilities, including an institute of technology, which are turning out people who are looking for jobs. We have always faced challenges in Tallaght in terms of job creation. I was a founder member, in 1984, of the Get Tallaght Working Co-operative, which has become Partas enterprise group, which promotes job creation through the enterprise centres in Killinarden, Brookfield and Bolbrook. I have stressed the importance of job creation with Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland, and I will continue to do so. Happily, my town has made progress in that regard but we are now facing into challenging times and unemployment is growing in all regions. This morning over breakfast, I read an article in the Tallaght Echo on unemployment and the challenges it brings. I can bring to my politics the experience of being made redundant on three separate occasions and I know what it is like to tell one’s wife and children that one has lost a job.
It is important, however, not only to look ahead for other employment opportunities but also to provide help and support. Even in tight times, the Department of Social and Family Affairs must continue to respond to these challenges. My colleagues spoke to newspapers about delays in the Department and I articulated similar concerns on behalf of my constituents. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs should send a positive message by ensuring that her Department deals with claims promptly and sympathetically. Constituents express concern that their claims are being delayed. Many young people find the back to education allowance and other schemes somewhat restrictive given the pressures they are facing. A balance must be struck in considering people who are under pressure and the current economic difficulties. The best way to look after people who are facing financial difficulties is to find them employment and I will continue to do that in respect of my town.
Good times are coming to Tallaght with the extension of the Luas, which has been a great success, to the west Tallaght estates of Fettercairn, Brookfield and Ardmore, and on to
Citywest. This project will help people to access jobs and services.
The opening next February of the Tallaght stadium will also create employment. We are looking forward to the relocation of Shamrock Rovers to Tallaght. This season I have followed the team at every opportunity and when I attended Tolka Park last week I had an opportunity while walking along Drumcondra Road to speak with my good friend, Deputy Bertie Ahern. He calmed me down regarding the issues that have arisen. I was delighted to see him in the House last night and I wish him well. The role played by the Ceann Comhairle in developing the new stadium is widely recognised in Tallaght. During a recent function at which Shamrock Rovers won a special award from the South Dublin Chamber of Commerce for the work it is doing with Brookfield school, his efforts were acknowledged. I look forward to his visit to the stadium at some point in the future.
I am glad we made progress on medical cards and dealt with the concerns that arose regarding the income levy. I welcome the announcement by the Taoiseach that people earning less than the minimum wage of €17,542 will be exempt from the 1% levy. It was important for the Government to heed ICTU and those politicians, particularly on the Fianna Fáil and Green Party backbenches, who brought these issues to its attention.
Some say the next focus for the Government will be on education. I will not wait until next week before I suddenly start highlighting the need for Government investment in and support for education. I raise this issue constantly. Yesterday, I put down parliamentary questions on the need for a building programme in Our Lady’s secondary school, Templeogue, further accommodation in Holy Rosary primary school in Ballycraugh, Tallaght, and the need to staff the physical education halls in Killinarden and Firhouse. I speak about education on a regular basis and try to represent all the schools in my area. St. Mark’s primary school in my parish of Springfield has 1,000 pupils, 500 of whom come from 44 international communities. I am sure my colleague, Deputy Rabbitte, will join me in stressing the importance of educational facilities. In Springfield, where I live, I can make a special case. As this debate develops and teachers, parents and school communities make the case, it is important that all of us listen to what people say. When I am invited to meetings, I will attend. When I am invited to listen to parents, teachers and pupils, I will be there. It is important that we do that. It has been a difficult week politically but politics is not about the good times. I did not come into politics to enjoy myself, I came in to take the knocks and focus on issues of interest to my community.
There is always time for party politics. I am not looking at Deputy Rabbitte when I say that, but while communities respect that we must play politics, they hope we can work together on issues of concern. As we work through the issues arising from the budget and the campaigns that will arise on educational issues, people will expect us to make political points but also to work together, and it is important that we do so.
I refer to the Age Action Ireland campaign on fuel poverty. I am the Vice Chairman of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs. I chaired a session that was rather timely last Wednesday when we welcomed Age Action Ireland. The delegation spoke about medical cards but I have already mentioned that a number of times. The delegation focused on fuel poverty. At a time of difficulty, it is important that we make the case, and there is a case to be addressed and to be answered on this matter. Age Action Ireland would want me to do that and there was all-party support for the points made in that regard.
There has been much media focus on the issues mentioned over the past week. Medical cards struck the imagination and people also talked about the income levy and education — party leaders have said that this will be the next issue on the agenda. From the Government benches, I hope that in the midst of all this we do not forget other interest groups and issues of concern. In a particular way I support the case made by the Disability Federation of Ireland, a strong lobby. There has been much lobbying by many groups and many pre-budget submissions, including by groups in Tallaght in my constituency, such as the Tallaght Welfare Society. The society had strong views on the issues mentioned and on pensions, which have been parked in the midst of other issues. We should do our utmost to support the points of view expressed on disability and mental health services. The Disability Federation of Ireland needs to maintain its lobby, ensuring that as far as possible in difficult times account is taken of its needs. I expect that will continue to be a matter we will focus on for some time.
Deputy Kieran O’Donnell: The Government is not doing it. A commitment was made to the disabled on 1 July by the Minister of State with responsibility for disability. Three months later the funding has not been paid to St. Vincent’s in Lisnagry, County Limerick.
The presence of my colleague, Deputy Rabbitte, reminds me of another issue, that everyone has an issue, every community group and lobby group, and I do not hide from them. They are all on my desk, in the basket, and I am not afraid to speak up from the Government benches on the issues that are of concern to me. I hope Deputy Rabbitte does not think I am patronising him when I refer to my presence at St. Dominic’s Church, Tallaght, where he gave a fine address to the annual hope commemoration for those who have been affected by drugs.
There is a danger that while some issues grab the headlines — we have had a week of media hype about issues that are of concern to people — others are unmentioned. That includes the point about disability and drugs difficulties and abuse, an issue that affects many groups. In my constituency, the Swan Family Support Group and the Tallaght Rehabilitation Project, whose boards I am on, have made the point that they cannot be forgotten in the midst of everything else. I am a member of the Tallaght drugs task force, with Deputies Rabbitte and Brian Hayes. We are entitled to our politics but it is important that the community sees we are fighting the cause on these issues and are not afraid to raise them. I spoke to every Minister I could find this week and discussed with the Minister of State with responsibility for drugs, Deputy John Curran, the concerns we are trying to articulate. It is important to give attention to the issues that are not getting attention.
Deputy Charlie O’Connor: I apologise, I am not as experienced as the rest of the Deputies and I have a little to learn from the more astute. I do not know if Deputy O’Donnell was here when I made this point so I will repeat that politics is not just for the good times. One must learn to deal with the bad times.
I have said it more than once in this contribution that I bring my life experiences to politics. This includes living through difficult times. I lived through the late 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s and so on. I had to look for a job, I had to emigrate and I might be living in London today were it not for the fact that I got homesick. Deputy O’Donnell would not have the opportunity to have a go at me if I was across in London doing something completely different. I came home, got a job in difficult times and each time I lost my job through no fault of my own, which might happen again, I kept my head down and focused on what I was doing and what I wanted to achieve.
Deputy Charlie O’Connor: The position is no different today. I am clear about the upset, frustration and anger that exists in my community. I have been talking to and listening to people. When they wanted to have a go at me, I took it because that is important. I am not afraid to represent the concerns that people bring to my attention. It is important that we are having this debate.
As far as my difficult work schedule has allowed, I have listened to as much of the debate as possible. I accept, as the nice Deputy across the House said, that I am sitting on the Government benches and that is where I will stay because I do not believe that being outside the tent is the way to get the job done. I will continue to represent bravely all the issues that are brought to me by all my constituents and community groups. If people are looking for me over the next couple days or over the bank holiday weekend, they should come out to Tallaght, Templeogue, Greenhills and Firhouse and they will find me easily enough.
It is difficult to reply to this budget because it is a moving target. The remarks of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, who introduced it, ought to be mentioned as a starting point. He said that it was “no less than a call to patriotic action”. If ever there was a more inappropriate call to the flag, I cannot recall it. To summon in this cavalier fashion people who paid their taxes all their working lives and ask them to surrender their medical cards in the name of patriotic action was a colossal act of misjudgment. The people affected have done their patriotic duty by the State in good times and bad. Now the Government repays them by taking away the peace of mind provided by the medical card in their twilight years. It will not be forgotten for a long time that the response of every man and woman of the Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government to the exhortation of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, was to rise in their seats to applaud this callous misjudgment.
Prominent among them were the two Green Party Ministers who boasted before and after publication of the Budget Statement of their input into the decision making and of how proud they were of solidarity in Government. However, after Deputy Joe Behan jumped ship and the revolt by the Fianna Fáil backbenchers began, the Green Party tried to get in on the act. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, told RTE last Sunday that he was happy to wait and see what solution the Taoiseach would come up with before the Green Party would give it their blessing. He sounded like the Queen at Balmoral, summoning her Prime Minister for a scolding. The Taoiseach might be forgiven if he gave the Minister, Deputy Gormley, a black eye.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: Nobody denies that the country is facing the worst economic circumstances in a generation and only the most partisan would deny that the crisis is of the Government’s own making. Time and again the Minister for Finance pledged, in his speech and beforehand, that his guiding principle would be the protection of the vulnerable and what he called “the little people”. It is a cause for concern if the Minister believes that his budget protects the weak, the poor and the vulnerable.
Following are some of the ways the budget impacts on the weakest in our society. Those aged over 70 are to be divested of their medical card and the working poor must pay a 1 % levy. Language support teachers are to be capped at two, irrespective of the number of migrant children and the pupil-teacher ratio is to go back to 28:1. DIRT for small savers will rise to 23% to 26%. There will be reduced grants for adult education, reductions in the provision for people with disabilities and cutbacks in education provision for Traveller children. There will be no increase in child benefit and the third level registration fee will go up from €900 to €1,500. The fuel poverty issue will be addressed by an increase of €2 in fuel allowance. It is cynical in the extreme for any Government to claim that these are the actions of a Government trying to protect the little people.
My good friend, Deputy Charlie O’Connor, has raised an example as if he were on the Opposition benches. A school in the heart of my constituency, in Springfield, has 536 pupils, 258 of whom do not speak English. Apart from the obvious necessity to bring these children up to speed in the language, we can imagine the impact on the indigenous children if the newcomers are not assisted. What is the outcome of the budget for this school which is typical of so many? It is to experience the loss of five teachers, four language support teachers and one other teacher because the retention levels will not measure up next September.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte: How can anyone argue that a cap of two support teachers is justified, irrespective of the size of the school or the number of non-national children? The decision to abandon the effort to improve the pupil-teacher ratio and to take a significant step backwards has properly provoked strenuous protests from teacher leaders who have tended heretofore to be supportive of the Government. Far from protecting the little people, this decision literally makes the children pay for the recession.
I feel especially angry at the savage increase in the third level registration fee from €900 to €1,500, which will kill off the ambition to go to third level in many working-class homes that are not recipients of grants. It appears that the campaign to reintroduce fees is determined to succeed.
In this regard it is instructive to look again at the Minister’s words on budget day. He made it perfectly plain that the Government is rethinking such universal provision as we now enjoy when he stated: “Universal entitlement irrespective of means does not target those in greatest need..... I am proposing in the budget this year to initiate action in this directionin some areas.”
It is clear that the Government is not satisfied to abolish automatic entitlement to the medical card. It seems to be the intention, for example, that once again third level education will become mainly the preserve of those who can afford it. The Minister made clear that he intends to tackle universal provision and this was the point picked up by Deputy Behan. There are very few areas in our society where there is universal provision and it seems that third level tuition fees will be the next call.
The Minister went out of his way to put on the record that he “expects that the Commission on Taxation will examine options relating to the tax treatment of universal child benefit payments”. There is a great deal in this budget that requires to be teased out, that, because of the understandable protests about the Government removing the medical card from pensioners, has been hidden away. He stated very plainly, and I quote him again, that he “expects that the Commission on Taxation will examine options relating to the tax treatment of universal child benefit payments”.
With respect to the medical card, if it is true that there are 20,000 millionaires aged over 70, an extraordinary number given that there are supposed to be 33,000 millionaires in the population as a whole, it will cost almost as much to administer the agreement the Government has put in place, or believes it has put in place, than it would to permit the universal provision of access to primary care on the basis of need rather than on the basis that people can afford it.
One has to keep an eye on the monitor. The first proposal was that we would have a four-tier system, the first category being old age pensioners with the medical card, the second those with the GP-only card, the third those with the €400 and the fourth those with no entitlement. Can anybody imagine the means test nightmare that system will involve for a Health Service Executive that cannot administer what it is charged with as it stands? After the climb-down what the Government proposes is a means test that will cost as much as the €16 million odd it will save.
How did we get into this mess? We know that the medical card fiasco is another Mícheál Martin special. This is the Minister who negotiated the contract with GPs that is now deemed unaffordable, the same Minister who could have saved €111 million on the nursing home over-payments scandal if only he had read his brief, the same Minister who put hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money into the health service without any reforms or value for money considerations. In which other democratic country would this man still be a Minister?
I sought to raise the following matter with the Tánaiste this morning but she coyly stepped away from it. I understand from some doctors that the agreement the former Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Micheál Martin, signed with general practitioners in respect of medical cards for those aged over 70 years includes a term which disallows the Government from changing the contract without the express permission of the Irish Medical Organisation. I have never heard of a government ceding its sovereign right to act as it sees fit. Despite signing this term in the contract, the Minister for Foreign Affairs is still swanning around the place making eyes at higher office.
No one who knows anything about Irish history and politics will have been surprised that the doctors triumphed at the expense of the taxpayer because they have done so on previous occasions. It was, however, the duty of the then Minister, Deputy Martin, to protect the taxpayer. Instead, on the basis that money was no object, he approved an ignominious gain for short-term electoral advantage.
I recall evidence on the decision on medical cards for those aged over 70 years given before the Committee of Public Accounts by the Secretary General of the Department of Health and Children. The Department, which was not consulted until 36 hours before the decision was announced, underestimated the numbers involved in the scheme and its cost and did not have an opportunity to consult general practitioners. Whereas the then Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, estimated the scheme would cost approximately €19 million, it cost €59 million and the cost has since escalated. This was typical of the kind of decision making in the Governments led by former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern. If votes could be garnered, money was not a problem.
We are told protracted discussions took place at Cabinet level before the Government decided to impose a 1% levy on the working poor, worsen the pupil-teacher ratio and snatch the medical card from the pensioners. The two Green Party Ministers, who were participants throughout the process, did not shout “Stop”. If Fianna Fáil Ministers have long grown out of touch, what is the excuse for the Green Party Ministers? Cycling to Cabinet meetings for the cameras does not butter parsnips. We can picture the domestic scene on the eve of Cabinet meetings as the Ministers for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputies Gormley and Ryan, respectively, dismiss their drivers and ask their spouses to leave out their bicycle helmets in the morning as the cameras might be present when they go to the Cabinet meeting. While the novelty may not have worn off for the Green Party Ministers, it has well and truly worn off for the people who are the victims of this budget. There is more to Cabinet decision making than cycling to Government Buildings for photo opportunities.
Last night, I listened to the contribution of Deputy Gogarty who, while in opposition, constantly taunted other Opposition parties about the superiority of his education policies. We should look at the state of his education policies in the context of the 20 page letter the Deputy sent to the Minister for Education and Science in Beijing and which he read out in the House last night. The Deputy’s party is in government. While we do not know what Batt of Beijing thinks of the 20 page missive, did Deputy Gogarty indicate he would walk if the agenda he has set out for the Minister is not met?
Deputy Gogarty also stated on a radio programme that he would raise cuts in education at the Joint Committee on Education and Science. He might as well raise the issue in a book club. He should ask the two Ministers from his party to deal with the issue. Deputy Gogarty prevented the Green Party conference from discussing the highlights of the party’s time in government, an understandable decision given the absence of any such highlights. The only highlights I have seen since the Green Party entered government are those in Deputy Gogarty’s hair and they seem to have disappeared since the crisis started.
This is a budget which hurts the old, children and the working poor. It has attempted to grapple with the yawning hole in the public finances by taxing everything that moves, imposing savings on medical cards for the old and cutting teachers for the young. If one does not have a medical card, one will pay €100 to present at accident and emergency. If one is a small saver, one will pay more DIRT and if one is on social welfare, one will receive €2 extra in the fuel allowance. Meanwhile, there is no sign of any programme to return the economy to growth.
Senior citizens have taken to the streets in their thousands, while students are protesting in a manner not seen for a generation, teachers and parents are on their way to Kildare Street and farmers are revving up in Claremorris. There is a danger that bad government will make the country ungovernable. The people will respond to leadership at a time of economic crisis but decision making which is unfair, ad hoc and not sure-footed will make the crisis worse.
Deputy Jack Wall: In speaking on budget 2009 I ask Government Members, individually or collectively, what are their lasting impressions of the election of 2007 or any house calls and canvassing they have carried out since the election. I wonder what impressions they had of the rented accommodation sector. For me, the large and obvious gap between the rich and very poor in society is a most sobering thought.
According to information given to the House last week by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, rent and mortgage subsidies are paid to approximately 72,000 people. While the majority of this group receive rent subsidy, I understand an increasing number of people are applying for mortgage interest supplement, largely due to the substantial increase in unemployment in recent months.
While canvassing and making house calls, it is easy to pinpoint dwellings in the rented accommodation sector. They often have broken gates or damaged gate piers and in many cases wall capping has fallen down or been removed, gardens are not tended and doors and windows are unpainted and in poor condition. Despite the best efforts of the tenant, interiors are usually damp and have poor ventilation and plumbing and other problems in need of repair. In most instances, oil or gas fired central heating is the only means of heat and in practically all cases the heating system is unusable due to the cost of fuel. This week another application was made to increase gas prices. Tenants will point out that landlords are not easily accessible because they tend to use agents who seldom want to hear complaints by occupiers.
Thus, the lot of the private rented tenant is not a happy one. Given the declining number of local authority houses and large waiting lists for such houses, the position will remain unchanged for some time. From my knowledge of local authority housing, most residents are old age pensioners, single parents and young couples seeking to get on to the first rung of the home ownership ladder. All of them receive social welfare payments.
Under the heading “Considerations to bear in mind” in Annex B of the Minister for Finance’s budget booklet, it is stated: “The Social Welfare measures in Budget 2009 will accrue mostly to those at the lower end of the income distribution who, without such measures, would experience a significant deterioration of their income in relative terms.” This assessment does not correspond with the fact that while the Minister gave the groups to which I referred €7, he clawed back €5 of this sum by increasing the rent supplement contribution. How can the Government stand over this measure which will have tragic consequences for those seeking to cope with increases in the cost of living?
It is difficult to understand the Green Party’s approach given its previous vocal support for tenants in the private rental sector. Yesterday, I listened to Deputy Cuffe offer his party’s full support to senior citizens. Where does the Green Party stand on the rent subsidy? Will it support the provision increasing the subsidy by only €2 from 1 January 2009? Will the party bring that to the attention of the Minister for Finance? How in God’s name could it be so cold, callous and uncaring of a sector that obviously cannot stand up for itself, due to fear of recrimination by the landlord? It is unforgivable of the Green Party because there are guidelines appropriate to this case. I was glad to receive them recently from the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, when I had an issue with a local authority that had increased rent payments for those in receipt of social welfare payments over and above that specified in the Department’s guidelines. The guidelines are included in circular letter HRT3/2002 “Rents of Local Authority Dwellings”, section 4 and it is fair to assume that a common line can be taken to the effect that if a Department issues such a circular, a sister Department, especially the Department of Social and Family Affairs will adhere to such a directive, given that it is specific to persons in receipt of social welfare payments. The guidelines state:
In this budget the Minister for Social and Family Affairs has thrown out the window any referral to such guidelines. In fact she has increased the rent by 71%, leaving the recipient with a weekly increase of just €2. She gave €7 with one hand and took back €5 with the other. How does this fit in with the guidelines I have just quoted from and how does it fit with the Minister for Finance’s statement on the very first page, second paragraph, that the budget aimed to protect those who were most vulnerable? Surely there are some within Fianna Fáil, and especially in the Green Party as well as the two Independents who support the Government, who see this proposal for those in rented accommodation is totally unacceptable, and will not support it in the social welfare Bill soon to come before the House. The Labour Party will fight this issue tooth and nail, at every available level, both in and outside the House. I ask the Green Party and the two Independent Deputies to take the matter on board and make it an issue before the social welfare Bill comes before the House.
In looking at other aspects of the budget, I am disappointed with the decision to put the decentralisation programme for Kildare on hold. The decision to stop, halt, review or whatever means that 560 employment opportunities through the placement of the Revenue Commissioners offices in Athy and Kildare in my constituency are stopped. My disappointment is increased by the fact the IDA has publicly stated in recent local newspaper reports that it is having major difficulties in attracting industry to the constituency. Unfortunately, it is not too difficult to see why, when the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment informs me that only two itineraries have been arranged by the IDA to my constituency in five years. If the Government wants to commence an upturn in employment, it will have to put in place incentives for SMEs, to increase employment and ensure that new SMEs are given seed capital to create employment in areas such as Kildare, where there has been an enormous increase in the unemployment figures. The increase in the live register is up 70% in Newbridge, 56% in Athy and 65% in Maynooth.
The budget does nothing to create optimism in this area, with a reduction in capital expenditure for indigenous industry to Enterprise Ireland of 29%. The State agencies, in agreement with the local authorities, should and must provide incubation units on an organised basis, with seed capital being provided through the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, to kickstart local initiatives, to ensure employment growth in such areas. In a constituency where there have been high levels of unemployment, obviously there will be delays in processing claims, as in the local central office in Newbridge. Yesterday, I listened to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs agreeing with this. I ask the Minister to address this matter and ensure extra people are enlisted to assist the overworked staff who are seeking to meet demands under such duress.
I note Deputy Nolan from Carlow is in the House. In the area of Carlow and south Kildare there has been a huge employment haemorrhage over the past couple of years. We have seen Låpple and Irish Sugar close and Shuttleworth in Athy move on. A whole raft of companies has gone among them some replacement industries that have moved on to other locations. With this in mind I say to the IDA and Enterprise Ireland that they have failed badly as regards providing alternatives or new employment in that particular area.
Cuts in the Department of Education and Science budget will affect a constituency where there are children from many nations. I visited a school recently where there were 27 different nationalities, putting enormous pressure on the education system. The Minister must revise this position to ensure class sizes are reduced, as promised before the general election of 2007, to ensure every child, whatever his or her nationality, gets an equal opportunity to receive a proper education.
The medical card debacle is something no caring Government should have allowed itself to become involved in. The Government did not do the ground work to establish such changes were needed beforehand. The four-word adage, “Think before you ink” was never more relevant than in this instance. Recent press statements from Mr. Maurice Ahern, brother of the former Taoiseach, are relevant in this regard. It is obvious that over a long period the Department of Finance wanted the Government to come to grips with the universality of the health system. In fairness to the previous Taoiseach, he repelled such approaches every time.
I have never had so many calls from concerned senior citizens and family members seeking information, advice and general assurances with regard to the totally unacceptable withdrawal of medical cards. Even people not directly affected, but who wanted to lend support to a neighbour or a friend, contacted me. The universality of the health service, education and the social welfare system is a corner stone of Labour Party policy, and we will not relent in fighting for their protection. Among the letters I got over the past few days was one from a person in north Kildare. He said not enough had been said about the mental impact on those over 70 who were now being forced to worry about, and fill in even more forms. This, in itself, would prevent many older folk, who qualified from applying for what had been an automatic entitlement, he said:
It was a further stealth tax being added to the many others that old age pensioners on fixed incomes have to face, he added, before going on to quote the great 19th century leader Daniel O’Connell, who said, “Nothing is politically right that is morally wrong, and this is morally wrong”. That sums it all up as regards the medical card system.
Those two letters are very relevant in the current climate. The senior citizen is worried beyond belief. As that man rightly said, nothing is politically right that is morally wrong. The same is said by a class of three and four year olds.
The Labour Party will continue to fight tooth and nail to ensure those least well-off in society, such as those on rent subsidy, senior citizens and those in schools, are not left behind and forgotten by the Government.
I am pleased to speak in this budget debate. It is an opportunity for us all to have our say on what is going on in our economy and our country. Recent days have been overshadowed by the issue of medical cards for the over 70s. The matter has been resolved and some clarity has come into the debate. I was concerned from the outset that the news was that all over 70s would lose their medical cards, which clearly was not the case. I am glad the Ministers and the Taoiseach have amended that and brought forward a scheme that is more acceptable to the over 70s.
When speaking to over 70s in my clinics, on the telephone and in e-mails, the majority of them were of the view that all those over 70 years would lose their medical cards. There was much confusion which, to a large extent, was fuelled by vested interests who wanted to ensure there was uproar among a certain section of the community in regard to a budget proposal, and they succeeded in that. That debate has taken place and we now have clarity. I am glad 95% of over 70s will receive medical cards. Those who do not receive them will, by and large, be more than capable of paying for general practitioner visits.
We should now focus our attention on the scale of the economic challenge facing us and which is only becoming clear. I encourage the Government to outline at every possible opportunity the serious financial and economic situation in which this country finds itself. We are not unique in this regard. There is a serious global downturn of which we are part. We are fortunate in so far as we are part of the European monetary union and, to a large extent, some of the impact of that downturn is being felt by fellow members of the EMU. We have been cushioned somewhat by that.
If the economic downturn stops next year or, indeed, the year after, we will be very fortunate. Some commentators have said this economic downturn could go on for four years. It will result in serious difficulties for every sector of Irish society.
For the past two years, we have seen the impact that has had on our construction industry with the serious slowdown in that area. Apart from all those directly involved, there has been a knock-on effect. We have seen job losses in the legal area and among the professions such as architects, engineers, quantity surveyors and estate agents. My local newspapers have seen a huge shortfall in advertising revenue. We have been told this will continue until the number of housing units and apartments currently surplus to requirement — we have been told there are roughly 42,000 — are washed through the system. We will then see the construction industry start again. That is causing problems in the employment sector. Many brickies, electricians and painters are looking for jobs. For the past 15 years, it was difficult to get some of those tradesmen to do work. Now there is pressure on them and prices are being cut.
We have seen non-nationals, in particular from Poland and some of the new accession states to the European Union, return home. In a way, that is good because it lessens the impact of this slowdown on the Irish workforce.
However, in dealing with that, there is one aspect on which I urge caution and which has been brought to my attention over the past few weeks. People from other EU member states who come here to work are entitled to child benefit. However, I understand there are instances where they have not notified the authorities of the fact that they have returned to their home country and they are still drawing social welfare benefits from this State. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs and her officials will have to be mindful of this abuse of the system and put in place some scheme whereby they are notified by the home country of the return of individuals. When people return home, the country in which they have previously worked should be notified of that fact. Any social welfare payments should cease and revert to the host country. I was recently made aware of a case where individuals claiming what was disability benefit have returned to their home country but continue to send certification to the Department to claim this benefit. We must look at these issues.
I would like to see some changes in the planning process. I can only speak for my constituency but I know of a number of individuals who seem to make a career out of objecting to planning applications and are available to negotiate a solution to the problem with the applicant. That is grossly unfair and uncalled for. Now that we are in a slowdown, perhaps it is an issue which the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government might consider.
I refer to redundancies and job losses. Perhaps it is time for the question of the public sector versus the private sector to be examined. The private sector is the production sector which generates the revenue for the Government to function and which is being most severely hit. The Government is putting in place a redundancy programme for sections of the HSE. Perhaps this redundancy programme should be extended to other areas of the public sector where over-manning is evident. It would be easy enough for Ministers and their officials to identify over-manning.
Most of the functions of the health service have been given to the HSE but there are still more than 500 employees in the Department of Health and Children in Hawkins House. I am not picking on the Department of Health and Children; I am sure there are other examples of that in the public service which could be examined.
Previously, I spoke about and commended the Government on acting so swiftly, effectively and efficiently when the banking sector was under serious threat. The Government action then has been recognised and acclaimed internationally. At a time when the banks are being hammered by many commentators, it is important to acknowledge the role a strong banking and financial sector has in a strong economy. If we lose the support of our financial sector, we will not attract inward investment. We have been singularly successful in attracting that investment over the past 20 or 30 years and must continue to do so. In order to do that, we need a strong, robust and healthy financial sector. I urge the Government to keep this in mind.
Now there is a slowdown in the economy, it is time to look again at the service sector for job creation. Tourism has been the poor relation, with regard to commitments from Government, over the past number of years because of the strength of other sectors of our economy, but it is an area that should be given more support. This need not be financial support. We must remember that sectors such as tourism could generate wealth and these should be given more consideration while we go through this difficult period.
We must maintain our competitive position in the global marketplace. It will be necessary to become more competitive to attract jobs from overseas. This is particularly apparent when we hear the statements of the campaigning candidates in the US presidential election. They are clearly under pressure from domestic voters in terms of jobs America is haemorrhaging overseas. This is an area the candidates have highlighted and we must be mindful of it because of the significant number of individuals employed by overseas companies here.
We must retain our low personal taxation rates. I am pleased the Minister did not take the easy option and increase PAYE tax rates in the recent budget. If we do not have a competitive personal tax rate, we will lose jobs overseas. Our corporation tax rate has been part of the reason companies have located here. While we saw a small increase of 0.5% in VAT rates, we can live with that.
We have a well educated young workforce, but we need to continue to invest in education. Everybody on this side of the House will come under pressure from schools which have seen their budgets cut, which will manifest itself in the loss of teaching jobs. However, we must keep our eye on that area to ensure we do not lose what has been one of our greatest advantages for the promotion of jobs. I think in particular of our third level institutes and our good university structure. These institutes have been told by the Minister for Finance that savings must be identified in the sector and they must get their houses in order.
We have a very good third level institute of technology structure also. I understand there are proposals with the Department and the Minister with regard to regularising, bringing together and making savings in that sector. One of the suggestions mooted is amalgamation. I suggest the directors of those institutes should get together and come up with positive and meaningful proposals that would not cost the State anything more than the current budgets. If they did this, we might see changes made that would increase their standing and the quality of the programmes and courses they offer.
As a result of what we have seen over the past week, it is time for us to change our focus. We must focus on the challenges that face us as a country, a nation and a people and the challenges that face our particular economy. As we face even more difficult times next year, we must position ourselves to deal with those challenges.
Deputy Frank Fahey: One of the attributes of good government is the ability to confront challenges. There is no doubt that the Government confronts a challenge greater than any we have seen on many previous occasions. However, I am convinced the Government, under the Taoiseach Deputy Cowen, is capable of meeting the challenges. The Fianna Fáil Party, the Green Party and the Progressive Democrats, together with the Independent Deputies, will recognise and overcome the difficulties we face.
It is vital that the solidarity and courage required of people who support the Government should be seen throughout the country in the coming days and weeks. We will face significant challenges with the education cuts, agriculture cuts and others. It is vital, therefore, that we stand up and defend the Government for doing the right thing.
I am amazed by the response of the Fine Gael Party to the budget. A defining moment in my 26 years in the Dáil was the 1987 budget when Ray McSharry had to take difficult decisions, just as we do today. At the time, Alan Dukes had the courage to put the country and the best interest of the economy before the political parish pump. It is rather sad to witness what we have seen from Fine Gael in the House over the past few days. The Government has had to make difficult decisions. It had to make the decision to raise tax by €2 billion in net terms so that it would end up with a general Government deficit that is still high, at 6.5% of GDP.
Deputy Frank Fahey: The Fine Gael finance spokesman said this week that if Fine Gael were in power it would not raise taxes, but would instead bring in a budget with a 5.5% deficit. This can only mean Fine Gael favours further expenditure cuts, totalling more than €4 billion, because to reduce the deficit from 6.5% to 5.5% would cost more than €2 million. I challenge Deputy Richard Bruton to confirm that is the position and to tell us how he would make those cuts. I challenge him to tell the farmers at the weekend meetings the cuts Fine Gael would make — I am sure Fine Gael will say the cuts are terrible and it would not make them. I ask Fine Gael to tell the teachers and parents who will challenge us over the next number of weeks what cuts it would make in education if not the ones proposed by the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe.
The Fine Gael performance with regard to the budget has been cowardly and political. This is a sad day. I am convinced that when we have the next general election, the electorate will see Fine Gael for the Opposition it has been, full of opportunism. Take health, for example. Deputy Richard Bruton wants to cut €700 million more in health than the cuts made by the Minister, Deputy Harney, or than provided for in the budget.
Fine Gael does not have a proper approach to a budgetary framework or to the planning or allocation of money. Week in and out Fine Gael Deputies call for more spending. On the Adjournment last night, we had Deputy Olwyn Enright calling for more speech therapists. Fine Gael Deputies continue to call for more services here, there and everywhere. However, when there are some difficult decisions to be taken——
Deputy Frank Fahey: I will listen to Deputy Sheehan when I have finished. The reality is that the Fine Gael opposition to this budget has been rather pathetic. I have often listened to Deputy Reilly since he came into this House and I must admit I have been rather impressed with him. However, I have never seen such hypocrisy as I have seen from this man during the debate in the past two days. I know he has been quoted already. Speaking in December 2007 about the deal he did on the over 70s medical card he said:
Deputy Frank Fahey: I heard this man last night talking about the 70 year old man on a trolley and whether he should declare he has a medical card. Considerable criticism, much of it fair, has been made by the over 70s about the confusion surrounding this scheme. I put it back to Deputy Reilly and Fine Gael. What about the 65 year old man slightly over the present medical card limit who is ill in hospital and cannot get a medical card? Fine Gael is suggesting we should keep the rules for him but we should give the medical card to the man who now will have, perhaps, €150,000 in income.
I heard Deputy Rabbitte talking about those very wealthy people. He said they did their patriotic duties by the State. A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I have great admiration for your party colleague in my constituency, Deputy Michael D. Higgins. I am often tempted to give him a higher preference than I should, as he was my old teacher aside from other things.
Deputy Frank Fahey: However, any socialist in the country must be wondering what the Labour Party is about. We have heard so much concern from Labour and Fine Gael about the 5% they now tell us should get a medical card.
Deputy Frank Fahey: Of course Deputy Rabbitte does not really believe that the 5% now left without a medical card should have one — we all know he does not believe it — but it is typical of the hypocrisy we have heard from Fine Gael and Labour in recent days. I make one prediction. In the general election in three or four years’ time, or whenever it comes, if Fine Gael and Labour really believe that the electorate is sufficiently gullible to the kind of politics they will get from those two parties in an alternative Government, they have another thing coming to them. The reality is they will not fool the electorate at this stage.
Deputy Frank Fahey: There is no point on the one hand claiming they want €4 billion in cuts in public expenditure and then going out and telling all the interest groups they will not cut their areas. That is hypocrisy. The electorate is more sensible than to believe that kind of stuff.  If the Opposition had the courage to do what the former Deputy Alan Dukes did, it would get considerably more respect from the electorate.
I wish to speak about some of the positive measures in the budget. The Government’s definitive statement that the 12.5% corporation tax will not be increased is very significant. I hope that in the way the Minister put the matter in the budget he will be happy to consider reducing it when the time is right. The 12.5% corporation tax is the single most vital aspect of the Irish success story. It matters to the multinationals already here and those considering locating here. There are other factors, including of course the workforce and our infrastructure. However, the taxation matter is critical and I welcome its insertion in the Budget Statement. We cannot ignore the fact that we are now competing with countries with lower rates of corporation tax.
I also welcome the announcement on the research and development credit. The Tánaiste is to be complimented on the way in which she put forward this measure for consideration by the Minister for Finance. With all the other controversies around the world, people might not have noticed that the row in Washington about the $700 billion also cast doubt on the US provision for research and development tax credits. According to Ralph Hellmann of the US Information Technology Industry Council who was quoted recently in the wall Street Journal, this was disastrous for the US. What could be disastrous for that country could be good news for us. That announcement in the budget is significant good news for us. The Government decision has positioned us for this US opportunity and put us at the forefront of research and development regimes globally. This is where we need to be and will leave us well positioned when the economy starts to recover.
I also welcome the Minister’s announcement on intellectual property. It is vital that Ireland and the EU have a strong legal framework on intellectual property. China and the other countries that had problems in this area have straightened up their acts. We can no longer rely on people being afraid to patent in these jurisdictions. Ireland needs to put itself at the forefront of intellectual property legal regimes and introduce incentives. Ireland should consider introducing an artists’ exemption-type scheme for scientists and others who base themselves here, register patents here, carry out research and development here and bring the associated jobs and revenue to this country. We could have special zones for such inventors and developers of intellectual property. I look forward to the Commission on Taxation making favourable recommendations to the Minister for Finance in this regard and I urge it to do so quickly. These three areas are of great significance in the context of ensuring that Ireland continues to attract international foreign investment and create new jobs.
I also wish to refer to the 6.5% deficit. This issue has been lost in the frenzy that has happened in the past week. We cannot underestimate the seriousness of the fiscal position in which we find ourselves. A 6.5% deficit in 2009 assumes relatively small contractions in GDP in 2008 and 2009. Exports are assumed to grow next year by 2.5% in real terms. However, recent examination of the global economy makes that export projection appear somewhat optimistic. If the global economy suffers a deep recession, which appears increasingly likely, Ireland’s fiscal deficit will be much higher than 6.5% of GDP. We could be facing a budget deficit of more than 10% of GDP in 2009, which would involve the necessity for large increases in tax revenues to reduce that deficit gradually over a four to five-year period. That is the essential element of the budget. The budget’s proposals need to be implemented and not the kind of winner-takes-all approach that we have seen from the Opposition during the budget debate.
The Opposition’s one shining white light, Deputy Bruton, did not contribute to the farcical debate in the House over the past two nights. Every party needs to understand the main priority for the country is that we face up to the difficult fiscal position. If we do so, we will progress out of a recession much quicker than any other country. I challenge Deputy Burton to outline how we will not increase taxes while reducing expenditure by €400 million.
It attacks my patience to its elastic limits to listen to Deputy Fahey and his party giving lectures about political responsibility to members of the Fine Gael Party. Like Deputy Fahey, I have been a Member long enough to know what it is to be both politically responsible and politically irresponsible. I was a backbencher during the Fine Gael-Labour coalition Government in the 1980s and I recall the bear pit politics and circus in this House, the centre of democracy in this country, engaged in by Deputy Fahey and his colleagues, a number of whom are Ministers today. The Minister of State, Deputy Curran, may not recall these times but I recall the shenanigans in the House every day during that period. I will not listen to lectures from Deputy Fahey or any other Government backbencher about being politically responsible.
When the country’s interest is on the line, Fine Gael always steps up to the plate and I only have to go back two or three weeks when the financial future of the country was about to disintegrate and not to the 1980s or 1980s for the latest example. Fine Gael, led by Deputies Kenny and Bruton, stood up and backed the Government to the hilt. I was a Member when the Tallaght strategy was adopted. Fine Gael supported the Government and the strategy of which Alan Dukes was the architect but there are vital differences between today and 1987.
Deputy Dinny McGinley: First, the strategy implemented the programme for Government on which Fine Gael had fought that year’s election and we were honourable enough to support the strategy. Second, a minority Government was in power following the 1987 election and it could not implement a policy without the co-operation of the Opposition. The Government parties have a majority of ten nowadays, which was reduced to seven last night. They do not need a Tallaght strategy but a vigilant Opposition that will oppose the brutal cutbacks announced in last week’s budget is needed.
I recall being present in the House when the interest of the island, North and South, was in question and the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed by Garret FitzGerald on behalf of the Fine Gael-Labour Government. When the national interest was in question, Fianna Fáil sent some of the most senior members of the party to the US where they were given short shrift and they were sent home with their tails between their legs by honourable American politicians.
Deputy Dinny McGinley: I am obliged to answer the charges made by Deputy Fahey. Deputy Reilly, my colleague, has been accused of this, that and the other. However, Deputy Martin introduced the free medical card for the over 70s as a political stunt without carrying out negotiations with the doctors, the Department of the Health and Children or the health boards and he underestimated its cost. He has been exonerated by Government backbenchers but, hopefully, he will not be by the people. As Minister for Foreign Affairs, he has washed his hands of everything that happened over the past week while his colleagues carried the burden and he hopes to return on his white steed in a few years when, hopefully, Fianna Fáil will be in opposition.
Deputy Dinny McGinley: I am also reminded of another political stunt by a Fianna Fáil Minister in 2003, the so-called decentralisation programme. A total of 54 centres were designated and thousands of civil servants were to be transferred throughout the State. The programme was due to be completed in 2006. Three centres were selected in County Donegal with 250 civil servants to be decentralised to Donegal town and a few hundred to Buncrana while Foras na Gaeilge was due to move to my parish of Gweedore. Not a solitary civil servant has been transferred to Donegal.
This is a crisis budget, which was brought on by the actions of the Government, bankers and developers. There is an international financial crisis but we are experiencing a home-grown economic crisis. No matter what happens in America or England, we have our own difficulties. A total of 70,000 additional people are unemployed since the day the Government took up office in 2007. That is happening in Ireland, not America, because the Government financed a construction bubble. Every worthwhile economist in the country knew this. For the past three or four years, Deputy Bruton warned the bubble would burst and when it did, there would be economic and financial chaos. That is why a crisis budget was announced last week and it has unravelled over the past few days before our eyes.
Deputy Dinny McGinley: A supplementary budget will be introduced in the spring and this time next year the budget deficit will be much more significant. The Government parties have created that deficit and I wonder whether they will be able to address it. If the Government parties address it in a meaningful, constructive and responsible manner, we will support them but if they continue to attack the elderly, the youth and the sick, we will not jump on the train with them.
Like Deputy Fahey, I am a former teacher. The budget is a full frontal attack on the education of young people. The programme for Government stated the pupil-teacher ratio would reduce from 27:1 to 24:1 during its first three years in office.
I had a discussion with the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, on Raidió na Gaeltachta yesterday morning. In 2002 she stated no child under nine years of age in the State would be in a class of more than 20 pupils. Lo and behold, at least 150,000 pupils under the age of nine years are in classes of not more than 30 pupils, rather than 20. This is the Government’s record in education.
Deputy Dinny McGinley: Deputy Bruton and our education spokesman, Deputy Brian Hayes, were mentioned. In one hour, they identified 32 brutal cuts in education. Some jump out at me. When I see a curtailment in the school building programme, I remember the vocational school in Stranorlar, Finn Valley College, where work has been on the cards since 1979. I think of Gortahork, which has been seeking a new school for years, my former school of Scoil Chonaill, Bunbeg, Pobalscoil Ghaoth Dobhair and countless other schools throughout my constituency. How many more years must they wait because of the curtailment?
Two cuts relating to the Irish language jump out at me. According to the Government, it will be the saviour of the Irish language. The summer colleges, which most of us who did not live in the Gaeltacht attended at one time or another, were financed from three sources. Parents and the Departments of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and Education and Science made contributions. The latter Department’s contribution was meant to pay for the teachers of the 30,000 to 40,000 young people attending the colleges every year. What has the Department done with the capitation fee of €50 per pupil this year? It has not been reduced. Rather, it has been abolished. This will be a body blow to the young boys and girls studying for their junior certificates and leaving certificates——
Deputy Dinny McGinley: ——and to the economy of Gaeltacht mná tí from Donegal to Cork and Kerry who are depending on the boys and girls to generate income so that they can keep their families together and educate them in the years to come. It will also be a blow to tourism in the Gaeltacht. Most tourists visiting Gaeltacht areas in Donegal, Galway and elsewhere are the parents, guardians, uncles, aunts, grandfathers, grandmothers and other relatives of the pupils. The abolition is a treble-edged sword.
The second cutback was also vicious. For a number of years, we have brought teachers into our area because we had none of our own. They are young men and women who did not get into this country’s training colleges. A former Aire oideachas is listening to me. Those people were trained in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the UK. They came to Ireland and, before being recognised as fully fledged teachers, were obliged to do Irish oral and written examinations. The Department was generous, probably in the time of the former Minister, Deputy O’Rourke, and facilitated those people in spending two or three weeks in Gaeltacht areas. The Department gave them grants because they might not have had full-time jobs. This grant for unqualified teachers attending Irish courses in the Gaeltacht has not been reduced. Rather, it has been abolished. People are suffering.
Much has been stated on medical cards, but I will not comment because my good colleague beside me will have something to say. However, we are discussing health. I have been a Member for long enough to know that we all remember what health cuts do to the old, the sick and the poor. The mantra on the other side of the House is that the Department and the Health Service Executive have increased the health budget from £3 billion in 1997 to €16 billion in 2008. Considering the country’s hospitals, clinics and surgeries, it is difficult to determine where progress has been made. Money has been poured in, but there are no visible results.
Last week, it was announced that Letterkenny General Hospital would close two orthopaedic wards from 25 October until further notice. What does this mean to those people, be they elderly or otherwise, who need hip or knee replacements and so on? This is the type of budget before us. There could be more and more of the same but, if the Government is responsible, we will support it.
Níor thagair mé don Ghaeltacht in aon chor. Tá gearraithe siar móra sa cháinaisnéis seo ar an nGaeltacht. Baineann na gearraithe ní hamháin leis an Roinn Gnóthaí Pobail, Tuaithe agus Gaeltachta, ach le hÚdarás na Gaeltachta freisin. An bhfuil na heagraíochtaí sin fós in ann fostaíochta, obair agus saothar a chur ar fáil do mhuintir na Gaeltachta? Tá súil agam go mbeidh deis agam níos mó tagairt a dhéanamh don Ghaeltacht an tseachtain seo chugainn nó an tseachtain ina dhiadh sin.
Deputy P. J. Sheehan: I have seen it all now. Has Fianna Fáil learned nothing from the history of the State? Did the Taoiseach not state that he wanted to set Seán Lemass as his role model and follow his dynamic leadership in building a new Ireland and in making brave decisions for the good of all Irish people? These were his words only a few months ago when he assumed the office of Taoiseach. I now know that he wanted to follow the proven failures of de Valera, his economic or other policies that have proved to be failures over the course of time. Instead of dancing at the crossroads, we now have singing at the crossroads. Was it a coincidence that budget day was the late Eamon de Valera’s birthday? The Government has gone back in time to make the same mistakes. Will Fianna Fáil never learn?
Let me remind the Taoiseach of who is responsible for handing his colleague the misfortune of becoming the Minister for Finance. One of de Valera’s adversaries, Winston Churchill, once stated: “We contend that for a nation to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle”.
In 1997, Fianna Fáil was left a strong, sound economy. When we handed over the reins of government, the volume of exports was growing at 17%, but it has collapsed to just 6%. Under our Government, productivity was growing at 8% per annum, but it has collapsed to just 2%. Then, our market share increased by 25% in four years, but this Government has cut it by 20% in four years. To use one of Fianna Fáil’s phrases, one could say that the economy was slowly roasting on the barbecue. Fianna Fáil took it, shoved it into the microwave and turned it up to turbo power. When the party saw the steam leaking out from the top, bottom and all sides, it watched in amazement and did nothing, but assured us at the same time that we would have a soft centre. Now Fianna Fáil wonders why it must clean up the explosion of debris on all sides of its cooking experiment. It is blaming the whole world, but not its little version of coward economics.
Deputy P. J. Sheehan: When I look at our two financial wizards, the two Brians, I am reminded of those famous black and white films in de Valera’s time, when I was still going to school, of two fellows in black suits, one of whom said to the other: “This is another fine mess you have got me into.”
In the current Taoiseach’s budget speech last year, he stated the national development plan was his top priority. Postponing or delaying it would be “a major policy error”, which would “damage activity next year and impair our quality of life in future”. This is another fine mess. The Taoiseach also stated that the provision of medical cards for vulnerable families is a priority for the Government, pointing to the commitment in the programme for Government to double the income eligibility limit for parents of children less than six years of age and to treble it for parents of children less than 18 years of age with an intellectual disability. That puts a whole new meaning on the phrase “A lot done, more to do”.
To remove the automatic entitlement to a medical card for those over 70 years of age is another example of the Government’s maladministration. It bribed the electorate with this measure and wasted taxpayers’ money in implementing it. The then Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, underestimated by half the numbers availing of this benefit. He had not consulted doctors before the scheme was announced and ended up paying them five times what they were paid for treating patients who obtained their medical cards after a means test.
It is not the fault of the over 70s that the then Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, did not read another of his briefing papers, with the result that the taxpayer had to shoulder the exorbitant cost of providing these “golden” medical cards. To remove this security from the elderly and possibly infirm in tough times shows a mean streak in the Government. It is exacerbated by the reduction to the standard rate for tax rebates on medical expenses. Does this apply to those who have worked to be in a position to pay their own nursing home costs, those who must pay for nursing home recuperation after surgery, those who do not want to enter the fair deal arrangement or those who employ a carer for an elderly relative? What a wonderful effort to protect the weak and vulnerable.
The Minister for Finance is proposing to raise an extra €2 billion from the hard-pressed taxpayer. A large portion of that figure is accounted for by glaring mistakes on the part of various Ministers, such as PPARS, illegal nursing home charges, electronic voting, the additional costs associated with medical cards for the over 70s, the “Bertie bowl”, Thornton Hall, Punchestown, the Kenmare marina project, the M50 toll bridge and so on. Instead of suffering only a 10% reduction in their salaries, the Ministers concerned should have been sacked. Members may recall a television programme called “The Six Million Dollar Man”. Now we have the Six Billion Euro Wasters.
Last week, I tabled a parliamentary question on the provision of roadside facilities for tourists travelling around Ireland in motor caravans. The Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism refused to answer the question, stating he had no official responsibility. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government did likewise. The Minister for Transport responded that it was a matter for the National Roads Authority. It is not only the construction industry and the banking sector that are in trouble; the tourism industry has had its worst year for a long time. If three Ministers choose to absolve their responsibilities rather than roll up their sleeves and get stuck in when times are tough, they can only be described as wasters.
This budget did nothing to stimulate economic growth and employment. It did nothing to promote tourism or agriculture. It did nothing for the people of west Cork. Farmers are faced with the abolition of the farm installation grant and the retirement scheme, with several other cuts likely to be revealed in the coming months.
Deputy P. J. Sheehan: The only person with a smirk on his face last week was the former Deputy and Minister of State who now wears a hard hat. He may need a full-face helmet by the time of the next budget not only to hide his face but to protect his neck.
The fishing industry is faced with serious difficulties. I am reminded of the saying, “A rising tide raises all boats”. The fishing boats are rising and falling with every tide but they are tethered to the quay side, being unable to fish for half of the year. The budget did nothing for fishermen, who are left with less money than they had before. Where will the funding come from to assist them in repaying their huge borrowings for their super-trawlers?
The Government took the soft option of introducing 30 stealth taxes and doubling the borrowing requirement in nine months. I take this opportunity to remind them of the old saying: “Borrowing, like scratching, is only good for a while”. The Government has been found out and its days are numbered.
I am particularly concerned by the suspension of care of the elderly schemes due to a lack of finance. Will elderly citizens be left to die in their homes this winter? Cork County Council alone is processing 5,000 applications for the scheme, which must now be set aside pending funding allocation. The scheme that was introduced six months ago amid much fanfare offered assurances to every senior citizen that grants would be available to assist them in upgrading their homes. Now, however, they are being left to shiver in the cold. The Government’s conduct in this matter is disgraceful.
There are many stings in the tail of this budget which will not be fully unravelled until the various Ministers have introduced all measures in the House. The increase in the pupil-teacher ratio will lead to the loss of 400 teaching jobs, 200 at primary level and 200 at secondary level. At my clinic in Skibbereen last Saturday, five constituents told me about the difficulties they have encountered in securing speech therapy for their children. Thirty minutes per week is inadequate. I spoke to the parents of a young person who had a serious palate operation and who was told by the surgeon that she needed additional therapeutic care in the school she is attending. She was allocated 30 minutes of speech therapy per fortnight. There is no evidence here of the caring Government about which we hear so much.
The Government has lost the confidence of the public throughout the State. One had only to stand on the plinth outside Leinster House yesterday to see the anger of the 15,000 elderly people who came to protest against the serious disadvantages they face as a result of the introduction of means testing of over 70s for the medical card. The Government cannot stand over its policy, a policy which was responsible for me losing my seat in 2002. The introduction of a universal entitlement to a medical card for over 70s was announced six months before that election. It achieved its objective of ensuring a majority for Fianna Fáil, but it kept me out of Dáil Éireann for another five years.
The Government’s actions are despicable. Elderly people were not told that the provision of medical cards for all over 70s was merely a temporary measure. Will there now be means testing in respect of free travel and electricity and telephone allowances? Is this the thin edge of the wedge?
I am trying to instil some knowledge in the people opposite. However, I fear my words are in vain as they are not taking any notice of what I am saying. The people will take notice during the European and county council elections. If the Government tries to introduce another referendum on the Lisbon treaty it will feel the wrath of the people.
I have been a Member of this House for the past 23 years. Never in that time have I witnessed that which I witnessed last night. The taxi driver who took me to my accommodation last night, on finding out I was a member of the Fine Gael Party, refused to take from me any payment for the journey as a gesture of goodwill to the Fine Gael Party for its stance in regard to the scandalous act of the withdrawal from persons aged over 70 years of the universal right to a medical card.
Deputy P. J. Sheehan: What will the Government do next? What is the position in regard to the new schools promised for the past years in Clonakilty, Kinsale, Castletownbere, Skibbereen and Bantry? The staff at these schools are teaching their pupils in totally unsuitable accommodation. Files on these projects have been sitting on desks, collecting mould, in the Department of Education and Science for the past ten years. Not one penny has been allocated to any of these projects, which is a disgrace.
It is likely a further budget will be introduced in six months time given the current one was introduced only nine months after the Government took office. The Government must heed the people. If it does not, it is bound for failure.
Deputy Mary O’Rourke: I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak today on the budget. Before I do, however, I wish to speak briefly about the medical card issue on which, it appears to me, there was a great deal of play acting. I regret that confusion arose between last week and early this week until the matter was cleared up. However, two characteristics of the main Opposition parties were absent in terms of the manner in which they dealt with this debate.
I will deal first with the Labour Party, members of which may want to respond to what I have to say. As I understand it, the Labour Party represents socialism, the essence of which is that those who deserve something get it, and those who do not deserve it do not. This allows one to target scarce resources at those most in need. I understood that to be the essence of socialism. It appears this is no longer the case because the Labour Party now wishes everybody over the age of 70 years to get a medical card, regardless of means.
Deputy Pat Rabbitte stated that he doubted there were 25,000 millionaires in Ireland. I am not a millionaire but I earn enough to ensure I do not need a medical card, a position I am glad to be in. I hope many others are in the position of being able to afford to meet their own medical expenses. I deserve no credit in this regard. I told the truth and was not the butt of endless jokes among a certain political party in this House as evidenced in the columns of a popular national newspaper.
Deputy Mary O’Rourke: Second, a quality of the Fine Gael Party that I have always admired is that of self-reliance, that one should provide for oneself where possible and should not rely on Government to do so. It is perhaps this which prevented Deputy Richard Bruton attending the debate on the medical card issue on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. I am a little perplexed about this. As far as I am aware, having checked the matter on Google, Deputy Bruton did not speak on the issue on either Tuesday or Wednesday night but he did turn up for a vote on the matter at 8.50 p.m. as shown in the vote results on the Internet. I believe the reason for this is because he is imbued with the Fine Gael characteristic of self-reliance that one should not seek or act in a fashion that results in one scattering money all over the place but should, if possible, mind oneself.
Deputy Mary O’Rourke: Deputy Ulick Burke and I soldiered together in our exile in Seanad Éireann and always got on well. Deputy Sheehan stated the reason he was not re-elected to the House. I, too, know why I was not re-elected. However, I am here now and happy to be here, as I am sure is Deputy Ulick Burke.
I was struck by the absence from the debate of these two salient characteristics, namely, Labour Party socialism where one targets money at those who need it and the Fine Gael characteristic of self-reliance. Both were absent from the debate as was Deputy Bruton. Last night, I watched “Tonight with Vincent Browne” on which Deputy Simon Coveney, the breakfast roll man, was a guest. It was interesting to listen to Deputy Coveney try to wriggle his way past questions relating to Deputy Reilly, who was not a guest on the programme. Deputy Reilly is not to be produced publicly for a while.
Deputy Reilly is the man who less than 12 months ago said that medical cards should not be indiscriminately awarded to everybody over the age of 70 years. How quickly he changed his mind. Of course, he was not at that time representing the IMO but was a Member of this House, which makes it even more amazing that he was able to say that.
Some 70 year olds with whom I spoke expressed to me their real fear that by some mischance Fine Gael and Labour and, whoever else they could bring with them — we know they have a few confréres, might form a Government. They genuinely do not want to see those parties in government.
Deputy Mary O’Rourke: I met several people. They are fearful the Labour Party and the Fine Gael Party, parties so strangely in alliance now as they were on previous occasions, would perchance get into government, which would not benefit the country.
This was never going to be a pretty budget, nobody ever said it would be. How could it be? It is a budget in which very practical and austere decisions had to be taken. While we were not aware of the decisions taken, we knew this would be an extremely difficult budget. I believe if the current situation continues, future budgets will be even more difficult.
I will speak briefly on the pupil-teacher ratio. An earlier speaker, Deputy Sheehan, stated that 200 primary teachers and 200 secondary teachers would lose their jobs. No permanent teacher in this country will lose his or her job. Teachers may go to another school either within the panel system or at second level on the redeployment system but a permanent teacher——
Deputy Mary O’Rourke: A permanent teacher is not allowed to lose his or her job. The idea that teachers will suddenly lose their permanent teaching post is incorrect. I regret any diminution in the standard of teaching care in our schools. The teachers we have at both primary and post-primary level are of the highest calibre.
I lived to tell the tale in this regard. The Acting Chairman and Deputy Burke may not have been here — the Deputy may have been in Garbally — but I was a Deputy in 1987, serving as Minister for Education. I do not know if anybody else in the House now was a Deputy at the time. There was a pupil-teacher ratio change of three proposed at primary level and two at post-primary level. On one Saturday there were marches and I found it difficult to go anywhere, although I went to them. On a Saturday there were 6,000 teachers outside my modest home — if I can describe it as such — in Athlone. I live in a small bungalow on the side of the road and there were gardaí and everything brought to control the 6,000 people outside my house.
The teachers came, sent in a deputation and we spoke before they left and went into town. On the following Monday the Athlone Chamber of Commerce wrote to me to say the town greatly benefited from the numbers at my gate and asked if I could arrange for them to come again.
Deputy Mary O’Rourke: The hotels, restaurants and shops greatly benefited. I still have the letter because I thought it was such a sign of entrepreneurship that the businesses were willing to seize the day of delight which came to the town. It was not a day of delight for me. I lived through all that and came out the other end. I did not lose my seat in the following election, despite all the furore.
It was a very difficult time but no permanent teacher at primary or post-primary level lost his or her job. There were teachers working on a temporary basis but any profession has temporary positions from time to time. The people who fill them know their mandate to work in the position is limited by the nature of the contract they entered. There are many positives in this budget.
Deputy Mary O’Rourke: The 12.5% corporation tax is a positive, and the Government stated very clearly this would remain. It will not go up and I hope it may decrease if we overcome this recessionary period. There are many other matters in which the productive elements of this country were helped and will continue to be helped so we will be able to avail of employment opportunities if and when they come. We will be able to work through our difficulties and emerge the other end.
It is a very difficult time and it would be very easy to throw one’s hands up and say we cannot do anything, it is all too difficult and we should all throw money at everything and everybody. We all know what the country would end up like then.
Deputy Mary O’Rourke: There is no point in saying we brought all this on ourselves, which I have heard. What about the major advances in pension entitlements and special needs assistants, SNAs? Special needs assistants were not heard of ten years ago but now there are SNAs in schools and parents with a child with a particular difficulty can have the assistance of an SNA to help him or her through the school years. The measure was a marvellous advantage in the world of education. I did not bring it in because we had no money at all when I was Minister.
There is also the capital programme, which has a significant backlog of projects to be attended to. Every one of us as Deputies could stand up and list off primary and post-primary projects that are badly needed. We hope that funding from the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, will enable us to finish what is on hand and give the go-ahead to some new projects.
The agricultural community is gearing up for difficult times and public meetings are being called. I hear from Athlone that there were five meetings on one night, with three for teachers and two for farmers. We will need helicopters to get around to all the meetings but we will go.
Deputy Mary O’Rourke: I always faced up to people wherever there were difficulties. It does not cause me joy to do so but neither does it cause me unrest or disquiet. I am convinced the country is worth backing up now in order that we can come through the difficulties and emerge at the other end.
The intensity of the public debate surrounding this budget has been ferocious and the public response has been extremely hostile so far. Granted, the issue which has received the most focus is emotive and does not easily lend itself to rational discussion. We can learn some very useful and constructive lessons from this controversy. It is now high time to have a cool head and reflect calmly on the issues this debate has thrown up. We must move on in a more enlightened and even-handed way.
As a nation, we must face up to the acute and pervasive problems which will affect all of us in one way or another. We must take these problems very seriously and we must all act with a strong and deliberate sense of public duty. We must approach our circumstances with a reinforced unity of purpose.
We are confronted by adversity now and the truth is we are not used to that. It is incumbent on all of us now, politicians and citizens alike, to behave wisely and reasonably. The national interest, both on an economic and a social level, are at stake and the quicker we all realise that, the better. The corrective policies which we adopt now are vital if we want to restore order and stability to the public finances and to the economy in general.
It is very important that the central thrust of this Government’s intention should not be lost in all the emotion, the political drama and the arguments which have been played out everywhere in the past week or more. We cannot afford to allow ourselves to be deflected from our main job of work, which entails many hard choices and tough decisions. We must take remedial action now to ensure we manage the public finances correctly and continue to promote economic growth and prosperity when we emerge from the doldrums of the current global crisis.
We cannot delude ourselves. We must all remember and understand that we are now living in severely altered circumstances compared to those which prevailed up to very recently. The harsh reality is that our revenues are vastly depleted compared to those we have had at our disposal and which we have enjoyed. The bald fact is we have much less money to share and there are ever-increasing demands on the public purse. We must make judicious decisions about where that money is spent. We have so many competing and deserving interests but the onus is on the Government to ensure that the taxpayers’ money is spent carefully and invested prudently. The Government is compelled to make these strategic decisions based on the bigger national picture and take the overall long view.
We must understand that the Government is motivated purely and simply by financial practicalities and fiscal constraints. The clear intention is to economise and allocate the available resources evenly and fairly while at the same time identifying areas of spending which can be reduced. This — no more and no less — is in the national interest.
The Government is driven by the clear need to cut its cloth to suit its measure and the budget is formulated in the context of much less money to go around on everyone. The overriding imperative is to direct these scarce resources to those who need them most, which is basic common sense.
It is not the intention of the Government to victimise or penalise any section of our society. It is not the intention to cause hardship, rather, this is a concerted and genuine attempt to tackle some of the more expensive aspects of our recurring costs. Public expenditure must be reduced as much as possible on the current side and as much as is practical on the capital side.
The Government’s objective is to effect real savings in areas where they should be attained and where escalating costs cannot be justified. The stark reality with which we must grapple is that tax revenues will diminish for the next couple of years. While we have many bitter pills to swallow to rectify our position, if we take our medicine now we can maintain our living standards in the longer term. We have enjoyed so much comfort in the past 12 years or so that we now find it hard to adjust our collective mentality. We have grown accustomed to unprecedented levels of prosperity and it seems to be difficult to adapt to a more frugal approach. However, we have no choice but to adjust our priorities immediately.
The Government is being realistic. It recognises that shrewd management of the public finances is essential at this time. We must cut back on our expenditure and we must find savings wherever we can. The Government is acting with honourable intent and its bona fides are genuine.
Deputy Bobby Aylward: It is acting in the national interest based on its informed assessment of the economy and the prognosis for the next couple of years. The Government is forced to operate within the current parameters for public spending and to do otherwise would be reckless and certainly would do untold damage to the long-term budgetary strategy of this country.
There is an element of the medical card debate that is relevant and worth noting in the wider context of this finance debate. I am glad the principle of means testing has been retained in this instance. I believe it to be a fair way of assessing whether an individual can afford to pay his or her own way. It is generally accepted that anyone who can afford to pay should pay for some of the State services they receive. Virtually no one disagrees with that principle. No one expects the taxpayer and the State to carry the entire cost for those who have sufficient means to pay their own way. In an ideal world with limitless resources, of course it would be desirable to retain the concept of universality or automatic entitlement but the pressing reality now is that we simply cannot afford to extend that luxury to everyone, irrespective of their means. I do not believe there will be any resistance to the introduction of means testing, which is a fair basis on which to assess the capacity to pay or the ability to do without State assistance in certain cases. Moreover, it allows the State to disburse limited resources on a fair and even basis. Ultimately, it will ensure that available moneys are delivered to those who need the support of the State to meet their daily needs or to provide essential public services.
The unvarnished truth is that international forces and domestic factors have conspired to make our fiscal situation extremely difficult. The Government must readjust its spending priorities in the light of this rapid downturn. It must be both cautious and discerning in the allocation of taxpayers’ money. Obviously, moneys targeted at one group necessarily will mean that another group will be deprived. The Government must reconcile the books and must use its resources as effectively as it can. With this in mind, I do not believe that anyone would refuse to pay or would expect the taxpayer to bear his or her costs for some of the State services. It is only fair and equitable and I firmly believe most people will regard that as a very reasonable proposition when we are living through times which demand more restraint.
Everyone must have a sense of good conscience and fair play. Unfortunately, some people in our society are disadvantaged and are in need of State support and assistance to improve their quality of life. That is the precise reason total spending on social welfare next year will be €19.6 billion. I welcome that such expenditure will directly benefit 1.5 million people. Members must acknowledge they have a bounden duty to support the men and women who rely solely on the State to assist them in making ends meet and I am satisfied the Government has discharged this duty well. At the same time, one must recognise there are those who do not need the intervention of the State to maintain their living standards and to carry certain costs. We have no option but to exercise great caution in the distribution of public moneys and one must be sure that everyone gets their fair share. Fairness is the operative word in this regard and is no less than a moral obligation in these straitened times.
Like running any good business outfit, Members must guarantee that the State is getting good value for money, must identify any forms of waste and must ensure that such waste is eliminated. Members must ensure that all agencies of the State are carrying out a useful role and function and if there is room for rationalisation within the apparatus of State, they simply must examine the structures carefully and must manage strategic reform of that sector. In that context, I look forward to the publication of the Government’s proposals for public sector reform in the coming days and weeks.
Deputy Bobby Aylward: Efficiencies must be achieved in respect of both costs and work practices throughout the State. In essence, the onus is on Members to ensure the taxpayer receives good value for money and that such money is being spent productively and to good effect.
Deputy Bobby Aylward: The Government faces significant economic and social challenges, which are being addressed in a forthright manner. It is single-mindedly determined to meet those challenges within the framework of this budget. As the Taoiseach noted, Ireland is very much open for business. We must keep a steady hand on the wheel to ensure we maintain our international reputation as a good place to do business. It is essential to ensure that the right environment is sustained in order that Ireland continues to be an attractive location for direct inward investment. The Government’s sustained focus is on enterprise and job creation, on increasing exports and developing new markets. Consequently, we must ensure that we remain competitive, have the appropriate skills base and that our tax and regulatory regimes are conducive to increased investment, expansion and job creation.
The budget sets out a well defined path towards economic recovery in the next few years. Although the path may be difficult, our destination is attainable. If we all resolve to make our own contribution, we will be well placed to seize the opportunities that a renewed economy will present. This budget represents a sound blueprint with a balanced share of strategic investment in order that this country will be well poised to capture the benefits which will come our way in time. We must remember that our basic economic structure is in good condition. However, unless we implement the right measures now, we will dismantle all the positive improvements that have been made to this economy over the last decade. We must ensure the economy is robust in order that it can withstand the ravages of the worldwide financial turmoil and is in a strong position to re-establish itself as a progressive, modern and open economy.
The budget is not all about finance and the economy. The people, who have worked hard to make this economy so vibrant and resilient, are being treated in a fair and practical way and those who are marginalised are getting the State support they deserve. We are all in this together and are all in this for the long haul. I am convinced we can achieve our aims if we combine to show a generous sense of public-spiritedness and a modicum of fair play for everyone. This budget is a collective endeavour that demands the commitment and support of every man and woman in this country.
I have just come from a three and a half hour meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts. As Chairman of that committee, I note this budget makes clear the Government has learned nothing from the serial wastage of public moneys that comes before the committee every week. While public money is a precious resource to be used for the public good, unfortunately the Government has perceived it as a means to buy votes and help the friends of Fianna Fáil, especially those from the Galway tent. The medical cards for over 70s service was announced without having done ground work on the necessary costing and negotiations. The Government failed to prepare and now seeks to burden many of those who are over 70 and the taxpayer with that burden, because the doctors negotiated a better deal than did the Government. My consolation is that at least Deputy Reilly now is on the people’s side. Unfortunately for the people, they still are stuck with the same Government to negotiate for them.
The same Government decided that instead of preparing a plan, a decentralisation program was to be initiated with lofty goals and with no prior negotiation. It was turned from being a good concept into a gimmick in which both taxpayers’ money and civil servants were used for political gain and not for public good. The same people who brought us the HSE are still in charge. They have failed to gain for the people proper improvements in the health sector. For all the major financial increases in recent years, the health service has worsened. While such major financial increases will not recur, thanks to the Government we still have a substandard service. Health also has been used by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats as a political tool.
At the end of 2006 the HSE knew its budget for 2007 was going to be over target but it did not look for detailed cutbacks until the summer of 2007, which was subsequent to the general election. This issue is relevant to the budget debate because it is central to the Government’s weakness in terms of dealing with its finances. A culture within the HSE of expecting historic allocations plus inflation has allowed for limited systematic change in health services because most of the new money invested chases after old money to prop up services under pressure and, as a result, little is left for new services. If something is inefficient in our health services, it will not improve if it simply gets more money.
In regard to the significance of the summer of 2007 as the beginning of the cutbacks, a tradition has developed within the HSE to expect Government bail-outs above and beyond original allocations. Naturally, therefore, various managers decided to try their luck. This tradition has led to a dysfunctional budgeting system within the HSE and it exposes the Government’s detachment from the reality of the health services. Without some control the public good will not be served. Another reason the Government chose the summer of 2007 was that it did not want to cut services until after the general election.
Far from taking care of the old, the sick and the vulnerable, after the election the Government found savings in services for older people and the disabled. This year’s report by the Comptroller and Auditor General contains a key section on our health services which probably passed the Government by. It does not want to admit its mistakes and certainly does not want to learn from them. Its money-saving sights are still set on older people, but this time they are focused on their medical cards.
It was formerly difficult to understand the Government’s priorities given that it was able to give money to everyone on the back of massive property tax revenues. However, now we know where it has hitched its wagon. In the aftermath of the budget, the only sectoral representative who stood out like the cat that got the cream is our former colleague, Tom Parlon. He has continued the Government’s representation of the building industry by becoming the director general of the Construction Industry Federation. Never forget that when it comes to priorities, Fianna Fáil will choose the builders over anyone else. For far too long, Fianna Fáil bet the economy on the building industry and now we are being asked to pay for its gamble. When its developer friends were milking it on the backs of first-time buyers, the Government was happy because it was getting its cut. When the builders need a dig out, the Government’s first priority is to find equality of pain for the lowest paid in our society through an income tax levy. It is funny, or tragic, that equality of gain in the good times was off the agenda for Fianna Fáil’s friends in the building industry.
When Fianna Fáil backbenchers gave a standing ovation to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, on the income levy, the medical card cuts, the education cutbacks and the cutbacks in agriculture, we saw what they really thought. They were so out of touch with the people that they cheered and clapped. How many voters are now wondering how they could have voted these Deputies into power? Almost 50% of the electorate voted for Government parties in the last election. The only people with less to be happy about are Green Party voters, who did not realise they had given Green Party Ministers a mandate to blindly follow Fianna Fáil no matter where they were taken.
Education is the foundation for our economic future. By increasing class sizes the Government has ensured that each student gets less time from his or her teacher and that each teacher must expend more effort in trying to control his or her class. It means that education is not ring-fenced to secure our future prosperity. Deputy O’Rourke, who I respect very much, gave out the spin that no permanent teacher will lose a position. Certainly, however, those who are substitute teaching after spending as many as seven years in university in the hope of a career in education no longer have any hope. Last Saturday night I was told by some of these young people that they were planning to emigrate to Perth in Australia for a few years. It is sad that the emigrant boat is leaving once again because it will affect every family represented in this House. It is a pity that the hopes and talents of our young people will again be lost to other countries. After 28 years in this House, I see that we are almost back to where we started. I recall the early 1980s, when the IMF hovered threateningly and there were protests outside our doors, hunger strikers and disgruntled teachers. We are back to square one.
It was a mistake not to include in the bank guarantee a provision for a Dáil committee to scrutinise the banks and their behaviour. The Minister for Finance has taken too much power to himself and avoided proper accountability. He considers it sufficient to receive a report every six months. It is well understood within financial circles that events move so fast that a report should be made to a committee of this House, be it the Committee on Finance and the Public Service or the Committee of Public Accounts, on a monthly basis at least. The committee in question should have its experts who could report on progress made. Even though the banks got into this mess because of their lack of accountability and transparency, the Minister is proceeding on the same basis. It is foolish to believe circumstances will not change significantly over a six-month period.
This budget does not prepare us for the future. It targets young, lower paid and older people while giving the construction industry what it wants. Fianna Fáil has lost sight of the people of Ireland and Fine Gael is more representative of them. It is a sad day when, even after its display of incompetence, the Government has not yet given older people a clear picture of what lies ahead for their medical cards. It has failed to prepare for the future and has fallen short in terms of leading the country when times are not so good. We are now paying the price for Fianna Fáil’s stewardship of the country. Unfortunately, matters are getting worse because of the shambolic party that forms the centre of the Government.
The Government is so incompetent that it cannot even do a proper U-turn on medical cards. It looked dumb-founded at older people’s so-called ingratitude to its out of touch attempt at a U-turn. It is now wounded and its chaotic leadership style will further damage Ireland. I am glad the Taoiseach has taken off for China because he has been a source of confusion in the medical card debacle. Fianna Fáil Ministers and backbenchers have shown such a pathetic grasp of reality that they gave a standing ovation to this budget. The Cabinet was so out of touch that almost a full week had passed before it realised the depth of public anger. It has blown the goodwill it needed from the people to get through the tough times that lie ahead. Its leadership is now in question and we may be heading for a general election sooner than we think.
Deputy Ulick Burke: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the budget debate. When the Taoiseach made his statement to the House, one comment in particular caught my attention. He stated: “ Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.” Nothing has ever been displayed to such an extent as these words. It was unprecedented to bring the budget forward from the usual date in December to October. In doing that, we know the carelessness with which it was put together. The Ministers were not aware of the contents and significance of the budget measures. They were out of touch with reality. Looking back and regretting that they brought it forward, if they had the opportunity they would have thought it out properly. It amazed the public how each Minister could sit around a table to produce it.
As each day goes by, new issues are arising and are being teased out. There was a failure to scrutinise adequately the proposals and bring them forward to the people in an acceptable way. The Acting Chairman, Deputy O’Connor, made a peculiar statement in his contribution and perhaps he can clarify it in the future. He stated that one has to be inside the tent to get things done. Coming from Galway, that could mean lots of things. What comes to mind immediately is the tent in Galway. It was a Fianna Fáil motto to have that idea out there. Over the years that the tent was in Galway, every developer and builder was told they had to be inside that tent to get things done. That has laid the foundation of the situation we are now in. Deputy O’Connor may have put a different construction on that tent but that is the reality of getting inside tents.
I refer to Deputy Fahey’s deliberations today when he accused Fine Gael of hypocrisy in what the party has done in the past fortnight. If ever there was a man, and a former Minister, who must look into the mirror to see the epitome of hypocrisy, surely it is Deputy Fahey. In his absence, I remind him that when we see the relics of his time as Minister we are reminded of his schemes such as the lost at sea scheme. There is a review of this and we await the outcome of the investigation and what it will throw up. Many people will be interested in that issue.
I refer to the spin we have had during the past hour in this House, including Deputy O’Rourke suggesting no teacher will lose a job. In fact, 1,000 teachers at primary level and 1,200 at secondary level will lose their jobs. The schools affected by such losses are trying to come to terms with the serious consequences of the delivery of a proper education system in those circumstances without those teachers. I will return to this matter.
The budget was a panic response to the total irresponsibility of the Government. Each Minister, without exception, has played a part in bringing our economy to a standstill and worse. Deputy Bruton described the budget of the Minister for Finance as a black budget with the potential to turn a recession into a depression. That is the sad reality of the Fianna Fáil-led Government of the past ten years. Now, they say they are demanding a patriotic response from the people. Many have mentioned the patriotic response of all members of Government, bar the Minister when he delivered his speech, when they cheered this budget. There was a total lack of realisation of the depth of cuts and the hurt it would bring to so many. We need only refer to the situation outside the gates of Leinster House, with 10,000 or more elderly people driven in desperation to bring the message home to an unresponsive Government. The Government made five efforts at a U-turn and failed. It is out of fashion to make a U-turn in Fianna Fáil and that is saying something.
It took a person of the quality of Ms Anna Manahan to come out publicly on behalf of the elderly to say it is unacceptable that the medical card will be taken from the over 70s. That was one of the major factors that led to yesterday’s situation. Half an hour later, 15,000 third level students were outside the gates saying they would not accept the return of fees because they have the benefit of an opportunity, namely to get an education and find work, that would be denied to so many others if fees were returned.
My main problem with the budget is the lack of a policy initiative that might indicate the Government has a plan or a programme for recovery. The Government can talk about it and the needs but there is no plan that we can recognise. We see Minister after Minister wheeled in here to announce the bits and pieces of cuts they will make. Today, we were told there would be further details of further actions. In an article in The Irish Times last week, the Taoiseach wrote:
That will not happen. I suspect that what he means by “if we stay on course” is if he is able to remain in government for a while it might automatically lead to recovery, which we hope will be sooner rather than later. However, in the absence of structured policies that simply will not happen.
The people of this country are in a state of shock after the good times. Now we are back to the days of high borrowing, rising debt and an increasing tax burden on all people. A 1% levy across all sectors was initially included but then the Government rowed back and said a certain limited number of the lower paid would be exempt from it. It was a crude instrument, a sledge that frightened everybody because of the consequences.
In his delivery on budget day, the Taoiseach said the only way to provide quality public services and to maximise support for the less well off is to get back to strong public finances as quickly as feasible and to take the actions required to achieve this objective. What did the Taoiseach and his Ministers do in response to that? They made cuts and hurt the elderly, the young and the farming community. I shall return to that last point.
It is clear there has been an abject failure to reform the way we spend our taxes. Deputy Fahey’s outburst against the Opposition in the Chamber today was, in part, because of jealousy of his constituency colleague who has a flush fund, a dormant account that he can spend in any place he wishes, while Deputy Fahey, no longer a Minister, is feeling the cold breeze.
With regard to education it is very important that we realise that the 32 cuts as now revealed will, if implemented, have serious consequences for the quality of education and for those who will suffer the subsequent outcome. Deputy O’Rourke mentioned special needs assistants, SNAs, earlier. That is fine but she left out the important factor that legislation and demands from the public required us to have a response to the special needs of people. It is regrettable the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy O’Keeffe, has postponed his statutory duties with regard to the implementation of that legislation, hurting once again the most vulnerable in our society, those with special needs. Many people are not aware that the consequences of that action is that many people with special needs will be further penalised within the education system. It will be the same for those who cannot get access to proper support in their community and in their homes, either at an earlier stage under the Department of Health and Children or later when the responsibility lies with the Department of Education and Science. The Minister, Deputy O’Keeffe, is new to the role and was pressurised and therefore the cut was greater in this instance.
We can look at the 32 cuts. In ways they are small but are demoralising in the effects they will have on particular groups. I shall mention a few of these. With regard to substitution, there is nothing in the statements of the Minister for Education and Science that shows he understands the consequences and the downside of the wiping out of substitution except through medical certification. From now, the practical situation in schools is that if a teacher is out on any given day for any reason, school duties or otherwise, there will be chaos. Some teachers will have to look after two classes or, as I believe the alternative will be in small, rural primary schools, students will have to be sent home. If that is the type of education the Minister and this Fianna Fáil-led Government is to bring in, it is time for them to go.
The Government promised before the last general election that no child under nine years of age would be in a class of 20 or more. Now we know that at least 100,000 children will be in classes of 30 or more in the ordinary run of events, as and from now. I can name three schools in my local area which had an enrolment of 48 pupils on 30 September. Two, Clontuskert and Foneagh, will not quality for the additional teacher to which they would have been entitled next September as a result of the Minister’s raising the pupil-teacher ratio by one. In that situation, if one teacher is absent for a day for some reason, how can the Minister expect a lone working principal teacher with responsibilities for administration and everything else to cater for 48 students in that school? This is the reality that was not thought out by the Minister or the Government and the consequences will be unbelievable.
In secondary and primary schools there will be no opportunity for children to be involved in extra-curricular activities such as games, drama or any other social situation, if this decision is implemented. Will we have a Minister who denies, at primary level, an adequate number of teachers in schools, who especially denies services to those with special needs, who at second level eliminates those other facilities?
Time and again over the past two months we have heard Ministers in the areas of health and education talking about obesity and the necessity to involve students in PE and in active healthy activities, with proper healthy food. This is typical Fianna Fáil speak, out of both sides of their mouths. They say one thing but do the other thing which undermines the first. I know that over the next weeks concerned parents and teachers at all levels will seriously protest about a situation that cannot be allowed to continue.
Another new Minister, another new broom, was swept under the table of Cabinet when he was forced to introduce the abolition of installation aid and the retirement pension. There were cruel cuts in disadvantaged areas and other schemes. Various spokespersons for rural people, not merely the IFA, have spoken of the commitment many people have. Earlier we had a Government spokesman talking about the support for business and start-up business. That is a classic example of doublespeak. Members of Government talk in this Chamber of support for new businesses while at the same time they deny young people the opportunity to work their inheritance and have an opportunity of a living in rural Ireland. They do so by taking away grants. Those who have already entered into that movement are now told there are huge expenses. Many have leased property and have involved themselves in considerable loans in anticipation——
I call on the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, to reconsider the severe cuts proposed. He must not decimate agriculture, particularly in the west where dependency on support mechanisms is at its greatest. The Government should generate additional revenue from tax exiles, many of whom return to Ireland now and again to dictate policy.
I look forward, at this late stage in the discussion, to making a few observations on the budget and overall financial position, specifically the Estimates which were published as part of a booklet circulated in the House during the Budget Statement. The debate on Estimates usually takes place at a different time of the year with the result that important issues are frequently overlooked.
Like the curate’s egg, this year’s Estimates are a mixture of good and not so good news. In the few short minutes since I entered the Chamber I have taken a note of the aspects of the Estimates which will affect my constituency of Laois-Offaly, especially County Laois. Most of what I have jotted down is good news for my county.
Some people are pessimistic by nature and only see bad news, while others are excessively optimistic. I take a pragmatic approach of welcoming good news and taking bad news on the chin. I recognise the need to bring forward the Budget Statement in response to the gravity of the economic position. I propose to dwell on some of the projects covered in the Estimates for 2009, which will have a tremendously beneficial effect throughout County Laois and beyond. In particular, I refer to the proposed levels of current and capital investment, which will help improve quality of life and educational, social and transport infrastructure in my county. All counties will benefit and County Laois is not special in this regard. However, as a relatively small county, it will receive a fair share of the national cake, albeit neither much more nor certainly not less than that to which it is entitled. Deputies should take ten minutes to jot down a series of points showing the activities in their constituencies which are proceeding.
Given the problems being experienced in the construction sector, it is important the Government continues to progress the national development plan. Previous Governments adopted a simplistic approach and abandoned capital investment projects when they encountered cashflow difficulties or a deficit. This approach causes major problems because necessary infrastructure is not in place when the economy improves. The Government is proceeding with its capital investment programme, albeit at a slightly slower pace than envisaged. We must prioritise and postpone rather than abandon certain projects. This means it may take seven years rather than five years to complete projects under the national development plan. In view of the current economic circumstances, this is not a bad position.
People need certainty that projects will proceed, provided it can be shown that they will provide short-term or long-term economic benefits. This has been the priority of the Government in the national development plan.
While Deputies may find some of the issues I raise marginally parochial, lessons can be learned from the topics I propose to discuss because public representatives deal with identical issues every week. They are, therefore, as relevant in other areas as they are in my constituency. I will focus, in particular, on how the national development plan will affect County Laois. In the Estimates for the coming year, the National Roads Authority, under the aegis of the Department of Transport, will proceed at full tilt with the construction of the M7 and M8 motorway projects. This project will deliver high class motorways linking Dublin and Limerick and Dublin and Cork, respectively. The projects, both of which include construction in County Laois, have been under way since earlier this year.
Given that discussion of routes and other issues commenced in 1999 and there have been no unforeseen delays in the intervening period, it baffles me that a contract for the motorway project in my county was not signed until 2007. While I accept that work done at the early stages means fewer difficulties will arise in the long term, I fail to understand the reason that the design and planning stage of projects account for at least 80% of their timescale, whereas the construction element is squeezed, concertina-like, into the final 20% of the project lifetime. Be that as it may, tremendous work is taking place on the motorway project which is worth several hundred million. The project is coming into full swing and early this year, a headcount revealed that 1,400 people were employed on the contract while 14 different items of plant and equipment, ranging from the largest cranes in the State to JCBs and forklift trucks, were in operation.
The reason for the project is not only to provide employment but to link our major cities. I am a fan of motorways. One of the factors overlooked in the debate about these routes is their contribution to road safety. Many of the main causes of road traffic accidents — I refer to collisions during overtaking manoeuvres or at busy junctions rather than the single vehicle accidents which occur late at night at weekends — are removed when motorways are constructed. In the past ten years, 12 fatalities have occurred on the stretch of the N7, a national primary route, within 1.5 miles of my home in Castletown. I remember each and every incident and the principal reason they occurred is that the N7 is a busy, two-way road. I look forward to the opening of the new motorways as drivers will no longer meet oncoming traffic when overtaking and they will be served by graduated junctions and properly constructed roundabouts rather than dangerous junctions at crossroads.
Deputy Seán Fleming: In the past year, my locality experienced two tragedies when pedestrians were killed by trucks on the main streets of Mountrath and Abbeyleix, respectively. One of the victims was a young child while the other was an elderly lady. It should no longer be necessary to drive trucks through small towns. Motorways are needed to bypass these towns and improve safety for their residents as they travel to school, visit post offices or do their shopping. One cannot overstate the contribution motorways make to road safety.
The Estimates and financial package placed before the House for consideration for next year include hundreds of millions of euro allocated directly to the motorway projects. The sting in the tail is the imposition of a toll at a point south of Portlaoise. People may complain about tolls but it is not a big deal to pay a couple of euro in exchange for being able to travel on a safe road.
I will now address the impact of the national development plan on schools. Two new secondary schools are to be built in Portlaoise under public private partnership projects, with two further new schools scheduled for construction in County Offaly. The approved contractor is an Australian company, Macquarie Construction in partnership with the Irish company, Pierse Construction. The Minister, I understand, will be able to formally announce the commencement of construction in the coming weeks. I understand funding is in place and that the project has gone through the rigours of the National Development Finance Agency. Those two secondary schools in Portlaoise will be under construction in 2009, if not beforehand. They will replace the two old schools in the town. Only last year the then Minister for Education and Science opened Portlaoise College, which is part of Laois VEC. It will be one of the few towns where the three secondary schools will have been built within a five-year period. There will be no old school in the town in the next couple of years and we shall have the most modern set of secondary schools in Portlaoise of any town. That is an achievement and the funding is in the financial package in front of us.
In addition, I want to acknowledge that there is a major amount of money there for a project that is particularly close to my heart, the new community school in Mountrath, a mile from where I live. That involves the amalgamation of the Ballyfin secondary school, which is closing next year, the Brigidine convent school in Mountrath and the St. Aonghus vocational school into one new state-of-the-art school, which we hope will be ready for students to move into on 1 September 2009. Construction commenced on that in the second half of this year, there is a very tight timeframe and I look forward to work progressing. Funds are in the Estimates this year to allow that project to be completed and opened next September.
As regards primary schools, only a few weeks ago I introduced to the Minister representatives from Abbeyleix national school, who want to open the first autism unit in County Laois. There is no such facility in the county and children with autism basically have to go Athy or Offaly, where there are excellent schools. I am very pleased, however, that Abbeyleix school has agreed to take on board a new autism unit for County Laois and that, I hope, will get the go ahead. The Minister was extremely sympathetic to the case and I expect a positive result in that regard. In the event, that school will be in construction early in 2009 as well. There is real activity on the ground. These are things that matter to people at local level.
I am appealing to the Minister, if he has funding, to support these projects, also. I expect Borris-in-Ossory, Rathdowney and Killeshin national schools to go to construction next year and planning to be advanced for the new primary schools in Portlaoise. These will not be ready for construction next year, as the design process is just being commenced and they will have to go through planning and tendering. The construction period will follow all that. However, these are among the tremendous projects that will happen in County Laois in 2009 and I am very pleased about that.
Also provided for in the Estimates under the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs — I am very pleased the Minister has confirmed he will be announcing funding — is the new rural development and social inclusion programme. I have not got the exact title the Department uses for that programme, but it will be announced by the Minister in the coming weeks. In County Laois we have had the Laois Leader company and two social inclusion companies, one called Portlaoise Community Action Project in Portlaoise and Mountmellick Development Association’s social inclusion programme. Those organisations have agreed, with considerable difficulty and negotiation, to come together to form one county structure for Laois, to deliver social inclusion and rural development programmes. That work is being completed at local level and the Minister has the full funding in his Estimates for the coming year to give the projects the go-ahead. I look forward to all those improvements taking place in terms of social inclusion and rural development under the new programme and again, funding is in place.
Moving to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government I am pleased that funding is available under the water services programme. There is a significant increase in the water services investment programme for 2009, with very good reason. We need to improve the water quality in some of the towns and villages. Some small villages do not have sewerage schemes at all and some of the smaller towns have schemes that were built 60 or 70 years ago which have outgrown the capacity of the sewerage treatment plant. The group town scheme, involving the upgrade of water, sewerage and treatment plants in Abbeyleix, Rathdowney, Durrow, Mountrath, Stradbally and Clonaslee, is in one bundle. We all know the Department likes to bundle groups for a design, build and operate scheme and they are ready and at the tendering stage. I expect that project to get the go-ahead, based on the level of increased funding within the Department for water treatment facilities. Similarly, I want to see the group village sewerage scheme advanced through the design and tender stage, to include places such as Castletown, Ballynakill, the Swan and Timahoe. I expect that to progress in 2009. The construction will not take place in 2009, but will follow in due course when the preparatory work is finished.
Then at local level, there are the smaller schemes. Work has commenced and will be ongoing in 2009 and paid for in the funds provided in the Estimates before us for the Ballycleary group water scheme, to allow 50 houses, all with wells but without water at the edge of Castletown village, to be connected to the public mains; and an extension to Moyad, which is an addition to the Swan water scheme. These projects will all happen, work has commenced but the funding will have to be met out of the 2009 Estimates to allow them to be completed.
In terms of child care, the list goes on. There is an allocation of funding for a new child care facility at Killadooley, halfway between Borris-in-Ossory and Rathdowney and also a new town, near the Laois-Carlow border, and that is proceeding as well. I know the budget for housing is quite tight for the coming year, but work is under way by the voluntary housing agency, Respond!, to complete a housing programme in Mountrath. That will be completed and finalised, including a new community facility for residents, in 2009.
There is a good deal of affordable housing in County Laois that is for sale through the local authority, as well as many houses coming through the Part V process in 2009 for people who require social housing from Laois County Council, and I compliment the council. It is one of the three counties in all of Ireland that has refused to take any funds at any stage under the Part V process. It insisted on taking housing, whether social or affordable, on every housing development constructed in Laois in recent years. We have increased housing stock available for people who need to buy under the affordable scheme or those applying under the social housing scheme. I have met developers who were building houses in County Laois in different counties and they thought we were mad. They said every other county allowed them to make a cash contribution in lieu of social housing, so why not Laois. I encouraged the council to hold firm to its policy, as I still do, because it is the right one, and we have got houses. We have one of the smallest housing lists in Laois of any county strictly because the local authority refused to budge on that principle and insisted on Part V houses all along. In addition, people ask whether we have funding put aside for the rainy day in the future. We have built up a substantial fund of development levies in County Laois for a major programme of works to be carried out by the local authority in the period ahead.
If one looks at the Estimates, one sees there are increases in the key Departments, Education and Science, Social and Family Affairs and Health and Children. The increases may be small but they are there. Some people might feel I have overdone the local issue, but the point is that the same applies to every constituency in every county. If Deputies want to be negative, they will find nothing other than problems. The script of this might make an appropriate newsletter for circulation in my constituency. Before I sit down I shall have to think, in case I have left anywhere out. The point is that this is the financial package the Government put forward on budget day. I have not got time as I am sharing with my colleague, Deputy Dooley, who will start in a couple of minutes, but I could continue to go on about the positive aspects in relation to the financial measures and social welfare increases that were announced. I shall leave others to do that, and in any event, they have been well covered.
We all talk about the HSE and the need to cut out the administrators, reduce paperwork etc. I have just come from the Committee of Public Accounts. Before the committee were the chief executive and financial people from Beaumont Hospital. I asked about the collection rate when people attended the accident and emergency unit there last year, excluding those on medical cards who did not have to pay. The fee was €66 and it has increased in 2009. The collection rate in Beaumont Hospital for those fees is only marginally over 50%. In those hospitals the morning after someone visits an accident and emergency department, an invoice is typed up and sent out at the end of the month. A reminder is then sent and another one a month later. It eventually goes to a solicitor who sends another reminder but rather than face court costs, they just walk away from it.
Coincidentally, the collection rate among those staying overnight in hospitals is up to 80%. Seemingly, there is a better collection rate among those who must take up a hospital bed. We should pass legislation in order that a person gives his or her PPS number when they go to an accident and emergency department. It should be deducted from the person’s salary at the end of the month. That would eliminate all the paperwork and bureaucracy. There would be a much higher collection rate.
That is one practical example from this morning’s meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts which could help to reduce administration and bureaucracy in the HSE. I have much more to say but have run out of time. I will hand over to my colleague Deputy Timmy Dooley.
The budget was set against a very difficult and different backdrop from budgets in recent years. The international crisis, about which we talk so much and which perhaps many of us do not understand to the extent required, has put enormous pressure on governments and politicians throughout the world to react in the best way they can to address their economic circumstances.
The crisis started in the banking sector and moved into the stock markets, so there has been a double impact. Many people have not started to focus on the very particular impact it will have on this country, namely, on foreign direct investment, investment already here and on our capacity to retain employment at record levels.
While many people are talking about a recession, it is almost like a virtual reality. For many people, it is just talk because they have not experienced the level of crisis economies throughout the world are in. It will take perhaps another six to eight months before people really appreciate how dire is the state of the finances not only of this country but of countries throughout Europe.
While there may be much outcry at present about certain measures — many of them will be highlighted over the coming days and weeks — it seems people really have not come to terms with the state of affairs on a national and international basis. People would find it a little easier to understand some of the decisions taken if they accepted that.
The diminishing tax returns, which required the budget to be brought forward, was really the first indicator. When the tax and capital gains tax returns are made in the middle of next month, it will bring into very sharp focus where the public finances stand. What is most important is to put order on the public finances. We all suffered in the past because governments on all sides failed to take the decisive action necessary. We cannot allow that to happen again.
The Opposition seemed to suggest that this budget was about attacking the young, the old and the low paid and that there was another target group, the high rollers. This is the Joe Duffy mentality, namely, that there is a group of high rollers which one can target. The truth is that the bulk of the tax take comes from middle income earners who are being stretched. When one looks at their income limits versus the income limits which are talked about loosely, one will see the pressure which is on so many people with high mortgages, child care costs, the cost of travelling to work, the cost of education and the cost of raising a family. The Opposition seemed to suggest that we should target these people but it will not come out and say that. There are not enough high rollers about which it talks. If we took the entire earnings of the so-called “multimillionaires”, it would not pay to keep anything going. It is important people are honest and that they set out clearly from whom they want to take extra money to shore up the public finances and to get us back on an even keel.
The other misconception floating about is that we bailed out the banks. We have thrashed this around the House fairly well but the Joe Duffy show seems to think we bailed out the banks and propped up property developers. This has become common currency. While it is completely untrue, there is a belief that is the case.
Deputy Timmy Dooley: In County Clare alone, the Ennis by-pass was built as well as the N18 to Shannon Airport. There were improvements to the N18 from Limerick through to Bearfield. The next phase of the work will bypass Bearfield, Crusheen and Gort to connect with Galway. Significant sums of money have been spent upgrading the infrastructure in the airport. Money has been spent on water and sewerage schemes in Liscannor, Feakle, Quilty, Tuamgraney and so on. That is where the investment has gone. That is not blowing the money. I am not suggesting Deputy Quinn said that but others have done so. That is investing for the future.
People have said we did nothing when we had surpluses and we did not squirrel the money away. Investing in infrastructure is squirrelling it away. It is putting in place the capacity for this country to continue to develop into the future. I do not believe that is a waste nor do I believe it was a waste for us to put significant funding into some of the smaller rural schools to maintain population in those areas. I do not want to list them but there are many. However, there is still work to be done. Ennis boys’ national school needs to be completed and I hope the Minister will be able to accommodate that next year. School upgrades are needed in Bearfield and Quin and I hope that can be done. Many schools throughout County Clare have been upgraded.
The Department of Health and Children has provided funding for day care centres. It has been suggested that we do not look after the elderly. We got it wrong in regard to the medical cards, we apologised and we are putting that right. Funding has gone into day care centres to allow people to remain in their homes and yet have contact with health care professionals and people in their community. It allows them to have a quality of life in their latter years.
Today the Minister for Health and Children gave €70,000 to a community group in my area to provide a bus to bring people from isolated areas to a centre five days a week. That is investment and if that is blowing money, I am missing something in terms of my capacity to represent the people who elected me to this House.
Clearly, there are fewer resources and we need to make some difficult choices. We must target the resources at those most in need. There was a time when it was possible for an element of luxury in terms of what we did because the resources were there but, unfortunately, that is no longer the case. Perhaps the public is not as focused on that as it will be in the coming months.
No economist forecast that this downturn would come about. The market dislocation which took place in the United States, initially through the sub-prime crisis, instilled fear and created uncertainty. Anyone who has any understanding of the financial markets knows that fear and uncertainty are the principal drivers for a market collapse, which is what we have seen. There are companies whose asset base far outweighs their market capitalisation at present.
Deputy Timmy Dooley: We are a small economy on the hind teat of Europe. Unfortunately, economic pressures probably affect us more quickly than France, Britain and Germany which have populations of 50 million to 60 million. It took them much longer to get the type of growth rates from which we benefited. Clearly, we will experience the downturn more quickly because of the size of our population.
Certain people in the Opposition put forward the notion that we should spend more, that this budget was measly and mean-spirited and that we should have taxed less and cut nothing. Some people have the luxury to do that but, unfortunately, the Cabinet does not have that luxury. There is a body of people looking to the Government to provide stability and an economic framework through which we can return to the kind of economic growth that will assist us in providing employment and a quality of life for future generations. Notwithstanding the difficulties that have arisen in the budget, the broad budgetary framework exists to support that approach. Some commentators suggest it may take longer to get back on track than originally expected, but we will get back on track.
I recognise the important measures proposed in the budget, particularly from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, in terms of the investment in our water services to ensure the quality of drinking water. This measure is particularly helpful in my constituency for sewerage schemes in places such as Broadford, Clonlara, Curraclare and Labasheeda. Also, in light of much of the negative comment that has been made about the Department of Health and Children, the Minister has confirmed since the budget that the Ennis hospital upgrade will go ahead this year. That demonstrates the commitment to providing for the health care needs of the people I represent.
Deputy Joanna Tuffy: James Connolly, the founder of the Labour Party, appealed to those “whose interests are always on the side of progress”. Progress was a word he used a lot. Many people would agree that the older people and students who protested yesterday and the teachers, children and parents who will protest next week are standing up for progress.
The reduction in class sizes, universal access to medical cards for the over 70s and universal child benefit were all progressive moves. Universal access to the medical card has meant better health and greater security for older people. The introduction of free third level education by the Labour Party when in Government resulted in more people, from all socio-economic backgrounds, going to college. Even groups whose participation in third level education had diminished before fees were abolished have increased their rate of participation.
Deputy Joanna Tuffy: No it has not, as the statistics demonstrate. The Minister of State should read the Clancy report on access to higher education. The provision of better health facilities and good public transport would be progressive moves. If we had made more progress with regard to infrastructure, as other countries did, over the past ten years when we had the money, we would all be more protected in this changing economic situation.
To return to the protests in recent days, the image of the people involved would warm all hearts except those of Members on the Government side. Older people and students supported themselves and each other. They were not divided and ruled by the Government promises to increase the income limits. Older people refused to be divided on the issue because it was about all of them as a community of older people. Similarly, students supported older people. The protesters were fighting for all of us as members of society and for progress and the good of all.
I disagree with the points made by Deputy Dooley. That we face economically difficult times is not reason enough to regress. The day of reckoning has come for the Progressive Democrats as it winds up as a party. The Green Party has taken on that party’s aggressive and divisive ideology, which is not concerned with social protection, fraternity or similar values. Deputy Dooley talked about Government policy, namely, that in times of economic hardship one stops what one is doing and reverses. If the Progressive Democrats had the same kind of influence in the next economic boom as it had in our recent boom, the boom would be about ensuring the wealthiest do best and money would not be put into universal services such as health care. We would have private health care, thanks to Deputies Harney and Cowen and the rest of the Government.
There are many examples of progress made by governments throughout the world, not just in Ireland. The traditional Fianna Fáil, of which Deputy Conor Lenihan’s father was part, made progressive changes. However, things have changed in Fianna Fáil and it is no wonder there is unease among the strain in Fianna Fáil that has social progress in mind. We can make progressive moves in times of economic hardship. For example, the abolition of fees was funded by the abolition of a tax covenant break. Basically, the money was taken from the wealthy and used to provide universal access to third level education. Similar progressive measures should be taken now. Even in more difficult times, measures were taken to improve social welfare benefits.
One has only to look back through history to see what progressive measures have been taken in bad times. We can do the same now. The Labour Party has produced a document advising what can be done to help our economy, such as investing in school buildings. Investing now will stand to us in the long term. It is similar to the situation my parents were in some time back. They were not well off, but they got a mortgage and invested in a house in which they raised their family. That is how people manage. Just because there is no money does not mean we cannot make progress.
The Green Party is a regressive party. Social progress and protection are not on its radar. Environmental progress is not on its radar either. I heard about Deputy Paul Gogarty’s speech, but have not read it yet. I am not surprised by what I have heard. The Green Party is all talk, but talk is no use if one is not prepared to walk the walk. The Green Party should have been prepared to walk as soon as it realised what was in the budget. It should have said it would not vote for the budget unless the Minister removed the measures relating to the reduction in class sizes and the reduced access to medical cards.
The Green Party is not progressive with regard to the environment either. The budget also provides less money for public transport and for landfill remediation. The only reason the Green Party is in Government now is for the sake of being in Government. The Green Party is no different from the Progressive Democrats or Fianna Fáil in Government. The Green Party is regressive and will damage our environment and society while the Government lasts.
Deputy Ruairí Quinn: It gives me no pleasure to speak on this budget, which was a failed budget as soon as the Minister sat down after his 45 minute speech. It did not deal with the macroeconomic realities. It is now a dead budget because, so far, two key expenditure items have been seriously altered, the income levy and the medical card fiasco.
The Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats ideological surge to the right has prevented them from abandoning the 5% nonsense associated with the medical cards. They have bought in partly to the erosion of the principle of universality and its replacement with means testing. This is back to the poorhouse mentality, which I never expected to see from Fianna Fáil, but it is here now and embedded in its core.
I have some experience of budgets and was around the Cabinet table for the formulation of nine of them, participating as Minister for Finance in three. This is a bad budget because it does not do the primary task with which it was charged. It does not work. Worse, the Minister’s speech was a very poor budget speech, because it had no strategy, coherence, clear message or sense of direction. The call for patriotic action at the end of it was the most cynical act I have heard in a long time in the House.
Seán O’Rourke asked me to speak on “News at One” on the day of the budget. What I said is in the public domain. I said I was fearful. I said that the Minister, Deputy Brian Lenihan, was a very able and clever man as his academic track record will prove. However, he is the youngest Minister in terms of experience around the Cabinet table. He has no family or personal economic or commercial experience. Sadly, because I like the man personally, when I sat down to hear the Budget Statement that reluctant analysis was borne out. The budget content was worse than expected. I have some experience in this area. The budget speech was both structured and written by civil servants. It clearly was never politically proofread. Hence the 1% levy was announced as being on all income and not what the Government has now conceded. The announcement about the medical cards for the over-70s was simply nonsense and we now have the unravelling day by day of the contents of that scheme. We have yet to see the full impact of the series of depth charges that have been dropped into the ocean that is the primary, secondary and tertiary education sector.
I say to you, a Chathaoirligh, as a professional accountant with some expertise in this area, that the Fianna Fáil reputation for sound macroeconomic management is clearly a myth that needs to be debunked. Let me start as far back as 1977 with the Fianna Fáil election manifesto of Jack Lynch, George Colley, Des O’Malley and Martin O’Donoghue. I can recall in this House when the then Minister for Finance announced in his budget speech that total expenditure amounted to borrowing of 13% of GNP, there was a round of applause from the economically illiterate clowns on the Fianna Fáil benches on the far side. Within two years we were in crisis to the extent that Charles Haughey mounted a coup and took over. However, Mr. Haughey was even worse than Mr. Lynch, who was economically illiterate. Mr. Colley’s problem was that he was too honest and he actually implemented the promises contained in the manifesto for the election Fianna Fáil never expected to win.
Deputy Ruairí Quinn: I say to Minister Lenihan-light that I will deal with that when I have more time. I am giving the statistics of macroeconomic management. Charles Haughey refused to deal with it and John Wilson was dispatched to give an increase to the nurses that was unsustainable. In the period from February 1982 to November of that year Mr. Haughey again refused to deal with the problems despite the exhortations of Ray MacSharry. In the period from 1987 to 1989 Fianna Fáil began the painful macroeconomic correction, not because it wanted to do it, but because Alan Dukes delivered the Tallaght strategy and it had no choice.  From 1989 to 1992 Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, led by Des O’Malley, endured the currency crisis to which it had partially contributed but was not responsible.
When I became Minister for Enterprise and Employment in January 1993, redundancies were occurring at the rate of 147 per week. By the end of that 1992 to 1994 Labour and Fianna Fáil Government we were beginning to see the turnaround. In the 1994 to 1997 rainbow Government we actually got in line to qualify to join the single currency, the euro, which transformed the country. However, as somebody said to me, during the 1970s and 1980s we had needed to avoid the rollercoaster ride that was the currency fluctuation, to move from being Italians, Spaniards or French and obtain the discipline of German low interest rates and low inflation. We got that with the single currency.
Unfortunately Charlie McCreevy as Minister for Finance continued to behave like an Italian, not recognising that there were now constraints preventing us from adjusting for inflation or for non-competitive costs by the devaluation of our currency. Nor did we have an independent central bank to correct us when we made mistakes. We had the ludicrous reduction in capital gains tax that boosted the economy. At one stage we were growing at 11% per annum. I know the Acting Chairman cannot participate in this debate, but he can reflect upon it.
With the infrastructural constraints we had in the economy at that time, the boost in economic activity to that extent was such that the construction industry was destroyed in the following way. We all remember it. People were saying that they did not want to know how much it would cost, they just wanted to know when the builder could start. That was the beginning of the demise of the construction industry as a competitive component of our economy. The first part of the Celtic tiger, which I am happy and proud to say I played some part in creating and which was handed over to Charlie McCreevy, was blown away. The blowing away only happened after 2002, as independent economic commentators will confirm.
Unfortunately this budget is in the same tradition of 33 years of economic mismanagement. It simply will not work. We will be back next year facing more difficult problems, confronting issues the extent of which we do not know at this time. The reality is that we have failed utterly to recognise the constraints within which we find ourselves, which are also the safeguards that have saved us from going down the path on which the Republic of Iceland has found itself. If we were still an independent economy with a separate currency this country would now be bankrupt. Some 300,000 people in Iceland have got permission to borrow $6 billion from the IMF and World Bank to rescue their economy. They will be in debt for generations as a result of the mismanagement of their economy and the hubris regarding how it might operate. That is the extraordinary legacy we will get from Fianna Fáil.
I propose to nominate the following extract for either the Booker prize or the Myles na gCopaleen literary award. Perhaps my Fine Gael colleagues might listen to this because if somebody can understand this and better still implement it they deserve a medal. This, along with the levy for car parking spaces, is the contribution of the Green Party.
A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, you were once the occupant of the Custom House. It may come as a surprise, but not to you, to learn that so was Myles na gCopaleen, also known as Flann O’Brien. I am delighted to see his spirit is alive and well and he is on his bicycle. The sooner they get on their bicycles the better.
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