Leaders’ Questions.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 698 No. 3

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Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  I would like to raise with the Taoiseach the consequences of last Wednesday’s budget. Bearing in mind that the hype and big discussion are over, the consequences are becoming evident for a great many people. Politicians stated in the House that, in accepting the fact that there was a requirement to secure a reduction in current spending of approximately €4 billion, there should be a sense of fairness in the budget. I want to address this very issue.

Fine Gael has tabled a motion for Private Members’ time dealing with the consequences for the disabled, blind and carers who cannot work because of their circumstances. The contacts made with me as a politician over the past weekend and the graphic descriptions given of the circumstances that apply in respect of these three categories suggest clearly that this budget is demonstrably unfair and mean. Let me outline why.

The pension for the blind is means tested. If a person who is blind has any means or is married to a person of means, he or she cannot draw the pension. Those who do qualify apply for the old age pension when they reach the qualifying age because it is of a higher value. There are only 1,500 people in this category nationally, yet the Minister has taken €8.60 off them every week. They cannot work and they have a very strict means test applied to them.

Carers provide over 3 million hours of care every year because of their love of kith and kin. Let me tell the House about Tom from Arklow, whose case is public. He looks after his loved one because she has had multiple sclerosis for 16 years. Tom was an IT consultant earning €400 per day, or €2,000 per week, and is now a full-time carer. The conditions specify that the care must be full-time. Tom’s allowance has been cut by €8.60. His loved one is in a wheelchair. The house must be heated because she cannot move around, thus incurring a higher cost than would normally be the case. The carbon tax will result in their paying extra for travel. The woman’s dietary requirements are such that the cost of living in the house is higher than normal.

The same applies to all the disabled. The Government, in seeking cuts in the order of €4 billion, has actually aimed the political gun at the most vulnerable, including the blind, carers and the disabled. The Taoiseach and I have been in houses and have seen people with dementia and incontinence and we have noted the pressure on those who look after these people on a full-time basis. These carers save the State an average of €40,000 each, which amounts to hundreds of millions of euro every year, yet the response of the Government has been to take €8.60 off each of them. It has pumped billions of euro into a black hole of banks and has allowed people with pensions of more than €100,000 to walk away untouched.

There can be nothing——

[415]An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Deputy Kenny, could we have a question please?

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  ——in our so-called Christian country that is as unfair as what I saw last Wednesday for the carers, the disabled and the blind.

Every Minister with any gumption should be ashamed to walk up those steps to vote against the motion against these measures. I ask the Taoiseach not to divide the House tomorrow on an issue that is as sensitive as this, where there are defined numbers and cases. Many of those affected are in their houses having to put up with the cruel consequences of this Government cut. With so many other options available, will the Taoiseach tell us now that he will reverse these cuts?

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  The Government had to consider how we could have a sustainable social welfare system going forward against the fact that the revenues coming into the Exchequer are at the same level that they were six years ago in 2003. In the meantime, when resources allowed, there were, rightly, significant increases way beyond the cost of living increases for social welfare recipients. The Government is quite proud of what it achieved during those years.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  That was from the generosity of his heart.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  In the pre-budget outlook, the Government had to take a position on social welfare spending reductions, a spend of over €22 billion against just €32 billion coming into the coffers. That is not a sustainable position.

The rate of savings identified meant all areas of expenditure had to be examined, including social welfare. The Government sought to carefully consider the matter and ensure that the level of reduction or contribution from various blocs of public expenditure was least in the social welfare area.

That being said, I recognise that any reduction in social welfare rates is a disappointment to their recipients. We made this decision out of the necessity of ensuring that we have a social welfare code going into the future which we can sustain. On the one hand, we cannot agree that a €4 billion adjustment needs to be made while, on the other, suggest there are easier ways for it to be found. It is a difficult exercise but one which had to be undertaken by the Government in a considered way.

While there has been a cut on average of €8.30 on all working payments for those under 66 years, excluding dependants of pensioners over 66 years, the cost of living is back at February 2007 levels. Welfare payments, even after these cuts, will still be at 2008 levels. At 2003 revenue levels, social welfare rates would have been 50% lower than they are today.

The issue is how savings in the social welfare code can be ensured. We all understand the cuts affect recipients but they have been introduced in such a way as to protect them to the greatest extent possible. There has been a reduction in the cost of living. The increase of 3% in welfare rates in the 2009 budget means there is a net effect of 1.1% considering the consumer price index and the cost of living impact on welfare recipients.

Others have been protected such as the 475,000 old age pensioners and the 430,000 children in low-income or welfare-dependent families. We had to focus the savings wherever we could. Unfortunately, it was not possible to construct a budget without a contribution from the social welfare budget. We had to make those decisions. That the cost of living came down this year helped us maintain people’s living standards despite the cuts made.

[416]Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  I am disappointed to hear such a response from the Taoiseach. This is not the Deputy Cowen I knew.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  He has changed.

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  The Deputy Cowen I knew had a genuine feeling for the voiceless, for those with no trade union, for those with nobody to represent them except their associations and public representatives.

The Taoiseach spoke about the social welfare system going forward, the €22 billion in social welfare expenditure, the pre-budget outlook and the Government’s understanding that a contribution had to be made. The cost of excluding carers, the disabled and the blind is €108 million.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: Information on Paul Kehoe  Zoom on Paul Kehoe  That is nothing.

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  In my contribution, I was careful to point out the categories of carers, the disabled and the blind. I did not mention pensioners or children.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Could we have a question please?

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  In the Fine Gael alternative proposals, it would have been possible to exclude all categories. Regarding the point of going forward, as the Taoiseach said, and it causes people trouble, budgets are always about choices. My contention is the Taoiseach has made a very bad choice. For example, had the Government chosen to accept more of the McCarthy report’s recommendations on the elimination of quangos, it would have saved €175 million. By doing so, the Government could have left untouched the carer’s allowance for Tom, looking after his wheelchair bound wife in Arklow. By doing so, it would not have had to take €8.30 off the 1,500 recipients of the blind person’s allowance, all of whom are means tested anyway.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Deputy Kenny, this a serious overrun in the time allowed.

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  There was an easier way to find these moneys when the Taoiseach claims there was not. As Fine Gael has pointed out for the past two and a half years, it could have easily been done with the elimination of quango after quango. The Taoiseach was informed in writing this would save €175 million.

If the Taoiseach proceeds down this line against this motion this evening and tomorrow, he will divide the public representatives of all the people on the issue of social welfare allowances to carers, the disabled and the blind.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Could we have a question, Deputy Kenny, please?

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  Every Government Member who walks up those steps tomorrow during the division on the motion should be ashamed of what they have taken from those who have no voice, no trade union and no one to come to this House to argue for their case every day.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  They are ashamed.

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  There is an easier and better way. Several opinions are open to the Taoiseach to allow him not reduce allowances to carers, the disabled and the blind.

[417]What about the amount carers save for the State because of love of kith and kin? The message sent out to them is that they do not count and neither does their work. It is not good enough to say we gave them more in times of plenty.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Could we have a question, Deputy Kenny, please?

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  Of course the Government gave them, rightly, more and it was appreciated. However, he cannot take it from them now, in such a short time before Christmas.

Deputies:  Hear, hear.

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  These are the people who have no voice with no one to speak for them except for the few who do in here. Tomorrow, the Government will have an opportunity to vote on this motion. The Taoiseach must reverse these cuts. There is another way he can find €108 million in cuts and not take €8.30 a week off carers, the disabled and the blind. If he does it before Christmas, everyone will say the Taoiseach has done the right thing at last.

Deputies:  Hear, hear.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  It is easy for the Leader of the Opposition to suggest alternative ways to find this, that and the other.

Deputy Shane McEntee: Information on Shane McEntee  Zoom on Shane McEntee  Why does the Government not take it off the rich?

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  It is the Government’s responsibility to——

Deputy P. J. Sheehan: Information on P. J. Sheehan  Zoom on P. J. Sheehan  Get rid of the quangos.

Deputy Shane McEntee: Information on Shane McEntee  Zoom on Shane McEntee  Why not take it off the rich people?

Deputy P. J. Sheehan: Information on P. J. Sheehan  Zoom on P. J. Sheehan  Get rid of the quangos.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Deputy Sheehan, the Taoiseach without interruption.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  I listened to the Deputy’s party leader in silence.

Deputy Shane McEntee: Information on Shane McEntee  Zoom on Shane McEntee  Fine Gael gave the Taoiseach an option but he does not want to listen to anyone.

Deputy Peter Power: Information on Peter Power  Zoom on Peter Power  Will the Deputy listen in silence?

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Deputy McEntee, allow the Taoiseach without interruption.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  It is easy for the Leader of the Opposition to suggest continually that there are easier ways of finding money. The €4 billion that we recalled simply stabilises the deficit. We still have an Exchequer borrowing requirement this year of €18.8 billion.

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  The figure in this case is just €108 million.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  We still have to reduce our indebtedness over time. We must recognise and confront that reality in the best way we possibly can. While acknowledging one is open to criticism when one touches a social welfare rate at any time, the best prospect of maintaining the levels of support the Government built up over the years must be sought. The value of [418]what is being provided for people is €10 ahead in terms of what they were getting in 2007 and the cost of living at that time.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  The Taoiseach is a magician.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  These are the facts.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  They are not.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  They are, of course, difficult facts. No one is suggesting it is easy. It is not easy for any Government. I am sure it was not easy for the Government of which the Deputy was a member which gave only €1.50 per week extra to pensioners. I am sure that was a difficult decision and that that Government was not in a position to give any more.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  At least we did not cut it.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  Fianna Fáil has been in power for 12 years.

Deputy Noel J. Coonan: Information on Noel Coonan  Zoom on Noel Coonan  It was better than taking money from them.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  We debated the issue at which time I am sure the Government was criticised for its decision. The fact is we are in a new economic situation. We are in a situation where we have to deal with the issues.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  The Government is not doing anything about it.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  The Government caused it.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Deputy McCormack.

(Interruptions).

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  It is not a sustainable position to suggest that we can have a €22 billion social welfare bill next year and have receipts coming into the Exchequer of €32 billion and then look after public service pay issues, programmes, capital programmes and everything else.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  Advisers and everything else.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  It is not a sustainable position. Therefore, the reduction in social welfare that had to be contemplated and acted upon by Government,——

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  The Taoiseach was in charge.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  ——reluctant though we were, was necessary. It was necessary and done in the best possible way.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  It was cowardly. The Government hit the poor.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  I confirm that the respite care grant of €1,700 per annum was not affected nor was the half rate carer’s allowance, which is an innovation introduced some years ago.

(Interruptions).

[419]The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  I accept that this is not an easy position for any Government to be in. The decision was necessary.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  No, it was not; that is a lie.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  It was part of the overall €4 billion requirement.

(Interruptions).

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Deputies please.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  It is simply part of a budgetary process that will have to continue in coming years so that we can get this country back to solvency——

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  It was brought about by bad government.

Deputy Joe Costello: Information on Joe Costello  Zoom on Joe Costello  Ask Deputy Gogarty.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  ——and to do so in a way that is as fair as possible to everyone.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Deputy Durkan, please.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  The most unfair and callous thing one could do would be to suggest that a no change policy could be sustained into the future. That is not possible. It is better to be frank and candid about all areas of expenditure.

Deputy Dermot Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  Hear, hear.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall  Zoom on Róisín Shortall  The Government did the most cowardly thing; it hit the weakest.

Deputy Dermot Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  Be honest about it.

Deputy Paul Kehoe: Information on Paul Kehoe  Zoom on Paul Kehoe  The Government’s own backbenchers do not agree with it.

(Interruptions).

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  I call Deputy Gilmore and ask Members to allow him ask his question without interruption, please.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  When the Order of Business has concluded the House will begin to debate a Bill to cut the pay of State employees and to unilaterally change their conditions of employment. I want the Taoiseach to clarify two matters for me before we begin that debate.

First, will the Taoiseach clarify to whom exactly the Bill will apply? There was speculation over the weekend that it might apply to employees of semi-State companies but that appears to have been clarified. The Schedule to the Bill excludes the semi-State employees. However, there is a provision in the Bill which appears to extend the application of the pay cut not alone to direct employees of the State but to employees of any body which is wholly or partly funded by the State. This presumably means it would be extended to employees of voluntary hospitals, community development projects, family resource centres——

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  FÁS.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  ——Leader programmes, development organisations and charities. I want the Taoiseach to tell me if the cuts in pay will apply not alone to direct employees of [420]the State but to all bodies, as stated in the Bill, which are wholly or partly funded directly or indirectly out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas or from the Central Fund.

Second, will the Taoiseach tell the House what impact the cuts imposed under this Bill will have on the weekly household income of a family of a clerical officer in a Government Department married to a library assistant, both earning €30,000 per annum and who have three children? What will be the weekly reduction in that household’s income?

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  The Taoiseach is good at sums.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  I do not have in front of me the tables in regard to the impact of the cuts. Obviously, there will be a 5% reduction up to a certain level in respect of the people to whom the Deputy refers.

The situation is as set out in the Schedule to the Bill. The Minister for Finance will outline the provisions in detail on Second Stage and during Committee Stage. The categories of employees to whom it applies are as confirmed by the Deputy.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  With regard to those to whom it applies, it is stated that it will apply to a body that is wholly or partly funded directly or indirectly out of money provided by the Oireachtas or from the Central Fund or the growing produce of that fund. As I understand it, that extends the application of the pay cut not alone to direct employees of the State but to all those employed in the various voluntary sectors that are funded by the State, including voluntary hospitals and so on. Frankly, I find it difficult to see how this can be done given that the contracts of employees of those bodies is not with the State but the bodies which employ them. That is what the Bill says. The Taoiseach has not thrown any more light on the issue in his reply.

With regard to the Taoiseach’s reply to the second part of the question that he does not know what will be the impact of this measure——

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  It will be 5%.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  ——on a family made up of a clerical assistant and library assistant, each earning €30,000 per annum and who have three children, the answer is €70 per week. Of course, the Taoiseach does not know what will be the impact of the cuts because the Government did not bother its barney to assess what would be the impact of its budgetary measures——

Deputy Joe Costello: Information on Joe Costello  Zoom on Joe Costello  Hear, hear.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  ——on low paid employees and on the type of people, as referred to by Deputy Kenny, who are impacted by the cut in social welfare payments. There is a requirement on Government — it is in the Cabinet handbook — that every measure before Government be poverty proofed. It is to be examined to see what impact it will have on those who are in poverty or at risk of going into poverty. When the Labour Party asked last week in this House where was the document in respect of poverty proofing of the budget and why it was not included in the budget documentation and laid before this House, none of the Ministers present at the time knew anything about it. They knew nothing about any type of examination to see what type of impact the measures in the budget would have on poor people. The Taoiseach’s answer today confirms that the Government has not given a second thought to what will be the impact of its budgetary measures on the lives of people in receipt of social [421]welfare payments or in respect of cuts to the earnings of low paid people. The Taoiseach cannot even tell this House today what will be the reduction in the family income of two people impacted by the cut in pay at the lowest level. The Government did not give a second thought to this issue. It does not give a curse for people who are poor or in receipt of low pay.

(Interruptions).

Deputy Dermot Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  Deputy Gilmore is back in his mould again.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  We are back to the polemics again. I was asked a specific question during Leaders’ Questions in regard to which one would not have information unless one had a table. I stated there will be a 5% cut.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  I know that.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  If the Deputy wants to outline the actual amounts for me then we can work out the figure.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  It is the type of information one would remember.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  No, it is not.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  If it mattered to the Taoiseach, he would remember.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Deputy Gilmore, please.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  No, the Deputy is playing word games and trying to suggest to the media that the Government is indifferent in terms of the impact of the cuts. We are well aware of the impact. It is 5% up to a certain level and then moves on to 7.5% and beyond. We have the tables. In respect of this budget, I make the point that taking 2009 and 2010 together, what is termed progressivity, people paying more at the higher end, is the case as a result of what we have been able to achieve in 2009 and 2010 taken together.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  The Taoiseach must be joking; that is not the case.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  One must look at the tax increases in April and the expenditure cuts now. That has been part of the budgetary strategy to make the adjustment.

Deputy Noel J. Coonan: Information on Noel Coonan  Zoom on Noel Coonan  Fianna Fáil has been in power for 12 years.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  What amuses me in this House——

Deputy McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  The Taoiseach does not look amused.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  ——is the Opposition saying, “Yes, of course, it should be €4 billion” and “Yes, we will be responsible and we will make sure that we come forward with the expenditure cuts” and when it comes to the crunch saying, “No, not that way” and “Think up some other way.”

(Interruptions).

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  All we are hearing is the populist notions that there is some simple way of this country getting out of trouble.

[422](Interruptions).

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  The Taoiseach, without interruption please.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  There is not. It requires the Government to have a bit of gumption and determination to do it and that is what we are prepared to do.


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