Thursday, 9 December 2010
Dáil Éireann Debate
Before addressing this legislation on Second Stage and given that I did not have the opportunity to speak on the overall budget, I would like to comment first on a number of related matters. The one closest to my heart is education. Since becoming the Green Party spokesperson on education in 2002 I have put education as high on the agenda as possible. My party has tried to prioritise education in any way we could, and in the first year of entering Government we secured an additional €135 million investment that would not have been invested otherwise. In the rushed budget of September-October 2008 cuts were made and I am on record as stating that I would not stand over them. I fought aggressively to stop them. In the programme for Government last year we had several cuts reversed and no further cuts, at a time when €4 billion was being taken out of the Exchequer.
Deputy Paul Gogarty: We were told then by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, that the worst was over. Hindsight is great but as we know now we are facing a €6 billion deficit. In that context it was always going to be difficult to prevent certain cuts in the education sector but I welcome that key initiatives we pushed for and which we promised we would remain in Government for have been achieved.
The staffing schedules in primary and second level schools have remained the same. The proposal to cut 500 special needs assistant places did not take place. Cuts in capitation, when measured against the real drop in the consumer price index, still show an increase at a time when tender prices for school buildings are falling. We were not able to stop the drop in school building investment but it matched tender prices.
I regret many things about the education budget where cuts had to come in but a rational analysis of the overall education budget will show that it stands head and shoulders above other Departments. I make no apologies for my own part in that because I believe education is the way out of the mire we are in. We need to maintain our high levels of education and, in that context, I support the stand up for education campaign to invest 7% of GDP in education. We need to keep investing in the right direction.
In that respect also, my party has always opposed third level tuition fees. In 2009, despite efforts, and reports in the media that they would be reintroduced, we prevented this move. There was no increase in registration fees last year even though it was earmarked. This year, again in the context of €6 billion worth of cuts and increased taxes, pressure was always going to come on student charges. Once again, what was touted in the media as a €3,000 to €3,500 cost ended up being €2,000, and for second and subsequent children it remained at €1,500. I do not like the fact that students and their parents will have to pay an extra €500 on registration fees, but I hope people will recognise that we have done our best to minimise the impact when they will be hit in so many other ways.
Other aspects of the budget will have been hit more because of investment in education. As I stated, I cannot apologise for that, but there are areas where further tweaking can be done. One question that has always been asked, which also relates to the social welfare budget, is about pay for Deputies and Ministers. In 2002, when pensions increased by 6%, Deputies’ salaries increased by 13%. I described it as a urination on the less well-off. A couple of Members of the Seanad criticised the Green Party in very disparaging terms, and one person referred to “this gentleman”— I use that in the most expansive way possible or the broadest sense of the word. It shows how much has changed that there is now at least a recognition across all sides of the House that politicians need to show leadership and set an example. We have seen changes in salaries, such as in 2008 when Ministers first took their pay cut and last year when a new, long-overdue vouched system was introduced. Some might say it is still not good enough that the Taoiseach is among the highest paid in the world, and I would concur with that. All I would say is that I hope it is a step in the right direction and it continues over the next couple of years on an incremental basis so that we come more into line with countries whose standard of living we share, for example, Spain, where the cost of living and wages are much lower.
We aspire to be Germans but the only reason we do so is because we have borrowed money from them and we are maxing out our credit cards on German savings. We cannot be Germany. I recognise, although concerns have been expressed — I will be speaking in the debate later on — that we cannot have the second or third highest minimum wage when we are not the second or third wealthiest country. To repeat the argument on comparisons with Germany, the Germans do not even have a minimum wage. However, that is another debate and I hope to speak on that later this evening. Regarding Deputies' pay, the percentage change in 2010 was a reduction of 17.3%. This year, there will be a 9.3% decrease, which I very much welcome in the context of what is going to happen.
The new special PRSI contribution for officeholders coming in this year has not been advertised and it is just as well to put it on the record because the media have reported that Deputies will not be taking a pay cut. My understanding is that as well as Ministers, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, Deputies and Senators, it will also affect members of local authorities. There will be a 4% cut for Deputies on top of the other taxes and levies that are coming in. In my view, it is still not enough, but it at least shows some level of movement given the situation we are in. Hopefully, over the next couple of years, Deputies' salaries will come down, although I do not share the view of some out there that Members should be getting the average industrial wage because the hours of a Deputy are far longer that those of someone working on the average industrial wage. In addition, what got us into the mess partially was corruption, where people topped up their income by making dodgy decisions, particularly at local government level when Deputies were also councillors. This was one of the arguments put forward for raising Deputies’ pay so that they would not be forced into getting a little unofficial dig-out. At least now the dig-outs all are supposed to be legitimate and referred to the Standards in Public Office Commission.
I hope the finance Bill is introduced as quickly as possible, although, obviously, it will not be ready on 12 January in terms of the amount of work to be done. I also hope there is time to bring in, or at least publish, the corporate donations legislation so that we get rid of the link between politicians and money once and for all.
Regarding the Social Welfare Bill, yesterday evening Deputy Michael Ring made an impassioned plea to Members on the Government benches to support Fine Gael amendments. He stated that the cuts that would affect carers, the blind, widows and the most vulnerable recipients of social welfare were unfair, heartless and cruel. I must say I agree, but in saying so I want to clarify, first and foremost, that this budget must be passed and I will vote for it and for the Social Welfare Bill. One cannot have a free for all whereby each Government Deputy votes on each individual amendment because one would not get a Bill passed within the timeframe. All I can do is make a plea to the Minister, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, that action can still be taken through last minute amendments.
There is a rational argument for asking, for example, whether some of the long-term unemployed should take an extra cut because of the more vulnerable or whether old age pensioners take a little bit of a cut. There have been cynical arguments that the reason senior citizens have not been hit directly in this budget is because Fianna Fáil is trying to protect the remnants of its vote, that the over 65s are Fianna Fáil voters. My deputy leader, the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Alexandra White, stated some time ago that the Green Party does not support putting an extra burden on those over the age of 65 who paid taxes at the higher rate over the years and who raised families to the height of the Celtic tiger boom, and who are most vulnerable. We supported the measures whereby additional pension income would be a source of additional revenue. That has been criticised by some, but it is fair that a pensioner who is on a very high income or who has a reasonable second income should contribute a little.
Deputy Ring asked people to vote on individual items. I do not think we can, but were Deputy Ring — I make this pledge before the House — to suggest that old age contributory pensions be cut by €2 and such an amendment was tabled, I would vote for it. However, I have a funny feeling that, no more than Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael will not support putting extra tax on pensioners and there lies the nub of the issue. There is a valid argument to be put forward that one cannot hit pensioners. There is also a valid argument to be put forward that one cannot hit the long-term unemployed. Therefore, the question is how one assists the carers and the blind from within that budget. Somewhere has to suffer and a judgment call has been made by the Minister, who I commend for his efforts. However, I urge the Minister to think again to see whether a little more of a shaving can come off certain areas or if there is a way of analysing the means of a household, including family members, so that those who are in a position to pay a little bit more can do so. Perhaps a commitment could be given here today, either through amendments from the Minister or that the issue will be analysed to see what the impact of these measures would be. It is unintentionally callous, once again, for the most vulnerable to be hit the most.
They have to be hit in a €6 billion budget but in terms of equality, the most vulnerable in our society should be protected the most. Given the relatively small amounts of money involved perhaps more juggling could be done.
We cannot imagine that social welfare cuts will make people happy. In a related context, today I received an anecdotal report, which I did not receive first-hand, of an individual who was in the queue in a social welfare office and went out to stay warm in his car. He returned to where his place was in the queue and was told to go back to the back. When he stated he would not do so because he had a place in the queue, he was set upon and beaten up. The social welfare office was forced to close. I believe there was also an element of racial motivation. If this is reported in the media and turns out to be true I want to condemn any attacks of this nature.
Complaints have been made about social welfare offices not opening early enough in the mornings to let people queue in the warmth. Some response has been made, but it does not cost much to have a little ticketing machine and a portable monitor so people know where they are in a queue; they can go to the shops and get themselves a cup of tea and return and know where their place is. It is very degrading to queue in the freezing cold to collect a relatively meagre income and to feel like one is being treated like dirt. This might help. It will not sort out the anger at the mess caused by decisions of people in the Government and elsewhere and the collapse of the banking system, but at least it may make life a tiny bit more comfortable.
People speak about treason in this House, and it has been mentioned by a number of Deputies that to vote for this budget would be treasonous. Treachery has a number of definitions but it is obvious that the intent is to evoke the spirit of 1916 and the idea that if one commits a treachery one will be shot in the head. I have received correspondence from Presentation sisters throughout the country and I have a letter which I think is worth reading. A letter from a convent in the west of Ireland urged Members of Dáil Éireann to put aside party politics at this critical time and unite to ensure the budget is passed when put before the Dáil. The signatories stated they believed that genuine patriots would put the interests of the country before personal gain to ensure a secure future for our country and its people. It was signed sincerely by Sisters Theresa, Goretti, Patricia, Mary, Maria, Bridie, Clement and Rita. They were not the only Presentation sisters——
Deputy Paul Gogarty: They may be, but they are members of a religious order which is well respected and which has educated many of the children of this country quite well. To have a relatively unprecedented approach by the religious in this country to urge people to vote for a budget——
Deputy Paul Gogarty: That might give me time to speak about the context. One of the reasons the Green Party announced we were leaving Government was partially to do with the issue of the bailout and the lack of clarity and communication and the timing——
Deputy Paul Gogarty: Given the fact that we were bullied by our European partners into a bailout — that is a hard and fast fact at this stage — and negotiated a 5.8% deal which the Opposition claims it might have been able to reduce by a few notches, the reality is that one way or another if we did not get this bailout we would have been crucified on the bond markets. What the Presentation sisters are saying in essence is that if Ireland defaults and we have to go into an Argentinian-type situation then wages will fall by 60% or 70% overnight. That will be when the ATMs will start operating again. It took Argentina six or seven years to get back on its feet and Argentina is a larger country than we are. If we were to default outside of a European-wide context we would be totally knackered as a country. In that space we must look at why it is important to have the four-year plan——
Deputy Paul Gogarty: ——and why it is important to pass this budget. Otherwise, as a country, those who are the most vulnerable will have absolutely nothing. While overall I do not like some elements of the budget and I hope the Minister takes what I said on board, I believe we must pass all of the pieces of vital legislation relating to the budget this year to ensure we are able to continue to borrow money and reduce our deficit by €15 billion over the next four or five years and so that people can continue to have social welfare, wages, job opportunities and social protection.
Under the terms of the bailout we have three years to get our act in order; in a default situation we would have three days to get food stocked up. I do not want to be in a situation where people are rioting in the streets and worried about where their next drop of water will come from, let alone the fact that their social welfare has been cut or taxes have been increased. This is the situation we face and it is why I and my party members decided rather than go to the country to put our own interests first we put the interests of the country first in supporting this budget before we leave government. It is about the people. As I stated previously, it is not about the next general election, it is about the next generation.
Deputy Billy Timmins: I listened with interest to Deputy Gogarty’s speech and there is much in it with which I agree. However, if I had not seen the announcement made a couple of weeks ago that the Green Party was pulling out of Government I would not believe that he is pulling out. I know that deep down the Green Party probably regrets the decision made at the time.
Deputy Billy Timmins: It always prided itself on having wide-ranging discussions with all party members but I do not recall the party membership arriving by balloon and parachute to Dublin to make the decision that weekend.
Deputy Billy Timmins: I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. The Green Party has certainly evolved from when it did not even have a leader a few years ago; now, its leader has almost the same autonomy as a leader of Fianna Fáil. It is growing in likeness to its master.
Deputy Gogarty mentioned education and he prided himself on the lack of cuts. However, as my party leader stated, there are many time bombs in the budget, as there are in the Social Welfare Bill 2010, of which people will not be aware until they run into difficulties further down the road. I do not have the statistics on third level grants in front of me but the threshold with regard to distance to the third level institution was 24 km and it has been extended to 48 km. Many people who received grant funding for third level education will not receive it now. The east coast of Wicklow will lose out and the grant amounts received by people there will be decreased. I thought the budget was very disingenuous in that none of this information was articulated in its text; it was all in the schedules, supplements and measures which followed afterwards.
With regard to the universal service charge, I do not know why we do not have the courage in this country to have tax rates, tax bands and tax credits. We have a health levy, an insurance levy and an income levy. We are now abolishing some of these and introducing a universal service charge. Why did we just not increase the tax rate so that if somebody earned more than, for instance, €16,000 the tax rate would be increased by 7%, 5% or another amount? Why do we try to fool the public? We do not succeed. Why do we speak in such riddles? It only makes life more difficult and adds to administration.
I agree with Deputy Gogarty on funding for education. The tourism, culture, agricultural and food industries and education and innovation are the ways to get us out of this difficulty. There is no such thing as free education because somebody pays for it and it is very important to realise this. My philosophy in life is that those who can afford to do so should pay. One should pay less than those financially above one and more than those financially below one. If this philosophy is operated in life and politics people will be satisfied because it gives a sense of fairness. Whether the budget was trying to rebalance the books or the theory, lower income people have been very badly hit.
The Deputy also mentioned politicians’ pay. I was not always of the view that corporate donations should be banned, but I have come round to that view. There is much misinformation in the public arena about politicians’ pay, but it is difficult for politicians to articulate the ins and outs of the situation because the public, for very understandable reasons, hold politicians and the political system in such low esteem currently.
Deputy Billy Timmins: I could be cynical and make the argument that if we were paid on productivity, the Government would have to pay the public. I would like to suggest, and perhaps the Green Party will take up this cudgel before it leaves Government in 2011 or 2012 or whenever it stretches its term out to, that we consider the concept of limiting politicians’ expenditure between elections, because this spending places huge demands on the political system. For example, people may try to buy the electorate by spending money. If we cut the expenditure of politicians between elections, we would dramatically cut expenses. We should stop politicians from dropping leaflets, making numerous phone calls and from driving endlessly around the country. If the Government introduced legislation to limit what can be spent on electioneering or donations, that would cut expenses dramatically. There is a correlation between spending and expenses, whether it should exist or not.
I welcome the mention the Deputy made of some of the cuts made in the British system, for example, where some of the new British Cabinet take the tube to work. However, I understand the Ministers’ papers are taken to the office in the State car and that when the Minister hops off the tube outside Westminster he collects his papers and the car goes off. I am not into the populist concept of car-pooling. I agree that seeing several Mercedes drive through the gates of Farmleigh does not send out a good message, although the Minister told me that they only had tea and sandwiches there that day and not caviar and fillet steak. We could look at the issue of the model of car used.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: The Minister stated clearly in the Budget Statement that from now on State cars will be two litre models or less. They will be ordinary saloon cars, which is progress. The budget also proposes a 33% saving on the number of drivers.
Deputy Billy Timmins: That is a good and welcome idea. However, the populist idea that a bus should start out in Cahirciveen at 6 a.m. and collect the various Ministers and Ministers of State and bring them to Dublin is not practical and will not work. I believe the public realises that.
I would like to get to the Bill and the reductions in social welfare allowances. I am aware that thanks to the policies of our Government we are in a difficult situation and must have cutbacks. People will accept reductions if they see these reductions being made across the board. However, the more vulnerable have been hit while the professions have not seen a fall in income. The Government must put policies in place that will encourage competition in these and the utility areas that will reduce prices. If this happens people will accept cuts more readily. The Minister has acknowledged this, but it must happen.
Deputy Billy Timmins: The scheme is a good development and I welcome it. I have spoken about the rent supplement on previous occasions and about how it is abused. I welcome the announcement by the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Finneran, of an increase in the tenant purchase scheme from 30% to 45%, as this is something for which I have been calling for some years. I would like to see the Minister ensure a loan system is put in place with local authorities, because it is very difficult for people who have agreed a purchase price with local authorities to get a loan from the banks.
Every Minister and Department has had to reduce its administration budget by €100 million or €50 million or whatever. How will that be done in the Minister’s Department? On the issue of fraud, I understand the Minister had a target saving from fraud detection of approximately €500 million and that he made a saving of over €400 million. I believe there is still huge scope to catch up on welfare fraud. Some members of Fine Gael have discussed the idea of an amnesty for welfare fraud, but that is not desirable in the current climate because it would be seen as giving a green light to theft. However, we must consider measures to cut down on fraud. We can cut out fraud if the penalty is severe enough, whatever the fraud and whether white, blue, red or green collar fraud. There is tremendous capacity within the welfare budget of €20.5 billion to cut back on fraud.
Deputy Denis Naughten: The new trend of Government is to cut the supports of those who cannot work, take away the opportunity for those who want to work and force those on low pay out of employment. The excuse we were given today by the Minister for the cuts made by this Social Welfare Bill is that we do not have an alternative. Cuts to disability allowances and pensions for the blind will be devastating for people with disabilities who already find it difficult to make ends meet on a daily basis. This group of people already suffers from much higher poverty levels than other population groups. They face higher costs of living, particularly for heating, housing and transport. It is completely unfair that the Government has turned a blind eye to those who are literally robbing the State through social welfare fraud, while at the same time it has attacked the payments of the most vulnerable social welfare recipients.
Since 2008, the control division of the Department in Carrick-on-Shannon, which does tremendous work with limited resources, has seen the number of fraud reports from the public increase by 1,100%. While social welfare fraud is estimated at €4,000 per minute, the Government has decided to scale back on its anti-fraud operations in 2011. The original fraud detection target for 2010 was €374 million. The target for 2011 is €207 million less, more than twice what would be saved by robbing payments from carers, people with disability and the blind. We could reinstate the payments to what they were in November of 2009 if we got our act together on the fraud detection targets and replicated the target for 2010. The soft approach to fraud leaves those who cannot work to rely on the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
This is the case even before the crazy anomalies within the system are addressed. For example, a foreign national does not have to show habitual residence or proven link to Ireland to be eligible for the qualified adult allowance payment of €124.80 per week. We have, for example, Margaret, a full-time carer of her profoundly disabled son who has been told that her respite support is being withdrawn due to the cuts and she is now facing Christmas and social welfare cuts of €2,120.80 in just over a year. At the same time, Armando, who arrived in Ireland after the budget was announced on Tuesday evening, bumped into Mary in the chip shop that night, Mary immediately fell for him and he will be granted his qualified allowance, based on Mary’s jobseeker payment, within the next couple of weeks. Yet, we are told by the Minister and the Government that there is no alternative.
On Tuesday evening the Minister circulated a handout in the House explaining the social welfare changes. I would like to acknowledge one section that was highlighted, namely, that supports for people who have been bereaved which would remain unchanged were the widowed parent grant and the bereavement grant. As public representatives, every one of us meets genuine cases of hardship throughout the country every year, where small children are left behind when a mother or father passes away. Someone known to us here in the House is in those circumstances. We would love to do everything we can for that family.
Next year, 800 parents who have lost their spouses will face a 10% cut in the widowed tax credits in order to make a saving of €320,000 to the taxpayer. Ministerial pensions are being cut by 7.7% but these people are taking a 10% cut on their tax reliefs. The Minister claims he has no choice but he could instead punish those who fraudulently take money from the taxpayer. He could have protected the vulnerable by tackling inefficiencies but he decided instead to punish those who cannot speak up for themselves. There is social protection for Ministers’ pensions and those who exploit the system but none for carers, people with disabilities, widows or the blind.
Deputy Michael Creed: As it is not possible for me to deal with the complexities of the Social Welfare Bill 2010 in the limited time available to me, I will instead address what I consider to be the most important points.
We have a significant problem with truancy and it is high time that the child benefit is linked to school attendance. A universal payment could apply until children reach school age but the most effective way to arrest the problem of school drop-outs would be to link entitlement to child benefit with school attendance records. We could have a win-win situation with a bit of creative thinking between the Departments of Social Protection and Education and Skills. Most people accept that payments should be targeted at those who are most in need. Child benefit is paid universally regardless of recipients’ income levels. There is considerable anger that we pay approximately €15 million to people who are outside the State. I accept that cuts both ways and that Irish citizens are entitled to payments in other countries but by linking child benefit to school attendance we could address two problems at once. We need to start thinking outside the box. People who leave the country continue to receive payments which are often greater than the average weekly wage in the new accession states to the EU.
I acknowledge the Minister has set substantial targets in regard to fraud. The problem of fraud needs to be tackled aggressively because it betrays those who are in receipt of meagre payments as well as the taxpayer generally. We could afford to be more generous if we eliminated fraud. One of my constituents continues to run a bona fide construction company employing three or four workers despite being hammered by large companies for which the only obligation in respect of contracts is a tax clearance certificate. He tendered for a small job worth €11,000 but was undercut by two people on social welfare who offered a price of €5,000. Why do we not oblige the sponsors of construction projects valued at more than €3,000 to notify the Revenue Commissioners? As tenderers will thereby know Revenue is in the loop, they would be encouraged to operate within the law. Such a measure would be simple to introduce. Given that we own the banks, we should also direct them not to issue payments where people cannot produce tax clearance certificates.
Fair play to the pensioners. There is a consensus in this House that they should not be touched but this comes at a cost. A married couple with two dependent children currently receive €385.70 per week in social welfare benefits. It is not easy to live on that amount of money. These people are the real poor in today’s Ireland and this budget continues to hammer them. Many of them have lost their homes or are paying mortgages on negative equity. They are worse off than any pensioner. A married couple will receive a pension of approximately €440 in addition to the household benefits package. Where is the justice for people who are trying to raise their children? Deputy Gogarty made some solid points about the education system but children are going to school without a good coat or proper shoes for the current inclement weather.
The Minister’s intentions in revising the entitlements for disability payments have caused fear among my constituents. I have tabled a parliamentary question on the issue because I am anxious to have it addressed in more detail. I urge him to make haste slowly in this area because we should not dismantle the current system without certainty that its replacement will work.
Deputy John O’Mahony: I totally object to the shameful way in which the most vulnerable people in our society are being treated in this budget. I refer in particular to the blind pension, the carer’s allowance, the disability allowance and the widow’s pension. This the second budget to hit these vulnerable people. The reason given is that everyone has to take the pain but I agree with Deputy Noonan that it should have been possible to protect these people by cutting €90 million elsewhere. They are already falling through the cracks of our society. We have been told that the cuts are minimal and unavoidable.
The reports in today’s newspapers that AIB executives are to receive bonuses worth €40 million before Christmas are confirmation that the Government has sunk to new depths in running the affairs of the country. The Christmas bonus paid to pensioners and social welfare recipients until two years ago allowed them to purchase presents and put food on the table. This year, however, the Christmas bonus is being paid to banking executives. That demonstrates how the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
We have seen the small print in the budget. On Tuesday, the Minister for Finance announced with great fanfare that the salaries of executives in semi-State bodies would be capped at €250,000. Within 12 hours we learned this cut would not affect bonuses. I am sure some accounting system will be installed to ensure that there will be no cut at all. A couple of years ago, the same Minister reduced the income levy for top civil servants with the stroke of a pen, because the civil servants in question has lost their bonuses. There is one rule for the rich and another for the poor.
It has been claimed that the cuts are minimal. However, I had a call from a parent last night. Her husband has lost his job and they are in receipt of farm assist and child benefit. They could not wait for orthodontic treatment for their children from the HSE and are paying for treatment privately, using their child benefit. Child benefit has now been cut. She said they cannot take the braces off the children’s teeth.
Deputy Paul Kehoe: It is with astonishment that I stand to speak about the drastic cuts announced by the Minister for Finance in Tuesday’s budget. Before the Budget Statement, Fianna Fáil backbenchers promised to protect vulnerable people. They spoke on local radio stations and, we were told, at parliamentary party meetings about what they could and would do. The cuts have now been introduced. Government backbenchers can go to their constituencies and say how sorry they are, but they cannot come to the Dáil to speak about these cuts or to put on the record of the House how sorry they are. They have given up their speaking time.
The reduction in carer’s allowance is a scandal. We will all experience our parents, grandparents and relatives growing old, and we will have an onus to care for them. Keeping elderly people out of long-term residential care will save the country thousands of euro. We will all grow old ourselves. Does the Minister for Social Protection have his feet on the ground? Has he visited families who look after someone in their home, to see what they are going through? Like the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I know the excellent carer’s association in Count Wexford. I met some of its members prior to the budget and on numerous previous occasions. They tell us of the heartache they go though because they want to care for their family member. They do not want to put them into long-term care. I plead with the Minister to reverse the draconian cut in carer’s allowance.
Fine Gael also wants to protect the blind pension, widow’s pension and disability pension. We all have stories to tell of how these cuts will affect families. I feel most sorry for widowers whose children are going to school or college. Before this cut, they were put to the pins of their collars trying to make ends meet and put food on the table. Deputy Michael Creed spoke about old age pensioners. I have no doubt the Minister would have tried to cut the old age pension were it not for the lesson the Government got a number of years ago, when it tried to take the medical card from them.
Deputy Kieran O’Donnell: Apart from the Minister, not a single Fianna Fáil Deputy is in the Chamber. They promised the Carers Association and disability groups that there would not be a cut in their payments. In my own constituency of Limerick East, I know the work carers do. The Government is taking €8 per week from their allowance. This is the equivalent of €35 per month or more than €400 per year. This is a huge amount to someone on carer’s allowance. This will save the State €2.8 billion. It is short sighted.
Many people who receive disability allowance are trying to live independently. They are the most vulnerable section of society. The Minister has not thought this through. Backbenchers told carer and disability groups there would be no cuts. Shame on them. They should be here today, but they have gone into hiding. Will they troop through the lobby and vote for these cuts?
We needed to see leadership. It was reported today that €40 million is to be paid in bonuses to AIB staff. How was that allowed to happen? These bonuses relate to 2008, when the crash occurred and a blanket bank guarantee of €440 billion was put in place by the Government on behalf of Irish taxpayers. At the same time, for the sake of €90 million, the carer’s allowance, blind pension, widow’s pension and disability payments are being cut. These cuts need to be reversed today.
I want to see Government backbenchers speaking in the House today. They have given up their speaking time. They were elected to represent their people and they should be here. This goes to the heart of Government. Did the Minister think this through? There is no shame in standing up and saying, “I got this wrong”. How can the Minister condone the payment of €40 million in bonuses to 2,000 people in AIB — when €3.5 billion of taxpayers’ money has gone into the same bank — and at the same time cut payments to carers, the disabled, the blind and the widowed? These cuts represent a huge amount of money to those who receive it.
These cuts will also be a cost to the State, because people will be obliged to go into nursing homes and hospitals. I ask the Minister to reverse these measures. I have no doubt Fianna Fáil backbenchers will rush to the Chamber to take credit for that reversal. This is a bigger issue and the Minister is a bigger man than that. We need to see him reversing these measures today. In my constituency of Limerick East, they will cause enormous hardship to the most vulnerable sections of society.
Deputy Catherine Byrne: Anyone who switched on the television this morning and saw what was going on in this Chamber would have described it as a circus. It is no wonder the people have no time for politics or no faith in politicians.
The Green Party has had a change of heart. They want to stay in Government to bring in the climate change Bill. It is a bit late to bring in that Bill when the climate has already changed and is on our doorsteps. Four elderly people had untimely deaths because of the cold weather and the lack of proper facilities to look after footpaths and entrances to estates.
Last night, the Taoiseach said he was very sorry we are in this situation. Sorry is not good enough. It is not good enough now and it will not be good enough for the people of this country. I refer to the man who gave up his job to look after his wife, to stay at home and become her carer. He made that decision out of love and respect for his wife. He now faces a further reduction in his carer’s pay. He works 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. The few bob he receives goes towards extra heating and clothing, in the preparation of special meals for his wife and providing transport. This man is saving the State €1,800 a week which would be the cost of caring for his wife in a nursing home.
The Government poured more salt on the wounds of the people in its really mean decision to cut the blind pension. The total pay-out on the blind pension is a small figure because only 1,472 are in receipt of this pension, making a total of €600,000. This figure is a lot less than expenditure on Ministers’ pay.
The Green Party and the Government in general should be hanging their heads in shame. The most vulnerable people in the country are crying out. The people are crying out. I am told at every door that they want this Government out. The longer the Green Party stays in Government, the longer the Government will remain. I hope when the day of the general election comes, that the Green Party, in particular, will be paid its dues on the doors.
Deputy Seymour Crawford: I cannot say I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill because it is not a welcome piece of legislation. I refer to the contribution of the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Alexandra White of the Green Party. Yesterday she literally claimed everything that was good or what she regarded as good. She said that only for the Green Party education would be in a much worse state. She claimed the Green Party was getting a mayor for Dublin. This is a big issue in the country. She even claimed that it was as a result of the work of the Green Party that 7,000 hectares of forestry was planted this year. When Fine Gael was last in Government in 1996, a total of 25,000 hectares was planted and there was no word of the Green Party then. The sooner there is no word of the Green Party now, the better for this country. Where does the Green Party stand today?
Fine Gael agrees on the necessity to make cuts of €6 billion but there are better ways of making those cuts than cutting payments to widows, to the blind, to carers and to the disabled. I will be leaving this House when the next general election is called. I understand the arithmetic of the situation. The cut in the old-age pension in 1924 has been hung around Fine Gael’s neck — Cumann na nGaedheal at that time — ever since. I question the logic of cutting payments to the weakest in society when a small cut across the board would have had the same effect and would be less harmful. For instance, is an elderly couple on €460 a week deemed to need more than a widow with three children and a mortgage and many other expenses?
Deputy Seymour Crawford: I thank the Minister for taking up my time to try to justify his existence. My own mother spent the last years of her life as a blind person and I know what it is like to have a blind person in the house. To cut such a person’s benefit by €16 a week over two years is very unfair. A total of €40 billion was found to pay off the Ulster Bank people yet the blind pension, the carer’s benefit and the disabled person’s pension was cut. The Minister should be ashamed. I understand that cuts had to be made but why did the weakest in society have to bear them?
The Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport, Deputy Mary Hanafin, in her contribution last night said that she was handing out leaflets at the DART station and informing people about the good things in the budget. She said she was giving people the facts and that they understood and accepted them. I can tell the Minister that when the Government goes to the country — the sooner the better — Ministers will know what the facts are because people are extremely angry. I am also angry on behalf of the weakest in society. I make no apologies for saying that I have always stood up for them and I demand anyone to prove otherwise.
Deputy Tom Hayes: I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I thank my Fianna Fáil colleagues for giving us time to contribute as we would not have had this time if they had the guts to come into the House and say what they told the Carers Association some months ago when the association lobbied Members. There is not one of those Members in the House today and it is a shame on them. This is not how democracy should be. These Members have an opportunity to help the carers of Ireland.
We all accept that change must happen, that we are living in difficult times and that adjustments must be made. It is not fair to say the only option is to cut everything. There is an option to take the carers out of it, at least. I live in the real world just like many people in this House but it should be noted that carers do a very special job for a lot of people. They have an impact on the lives of very vulnerable people. It is unfair and harsh and vindictive, in my opinion, to cut the carer’s allowance. The allowance is a small amount of money on a day when we are talking about €90 million. Reference was made to the €40 million in bonuses for bank staff. There must surely be some way to curtail these payments and make a once-off gesture to spare the carers.
The Minister is a member of the Cabinet that took over Allied Irish Banks and that agreed to bail out the banks. There must be some way open to the Minister to reverse the cut in the carer’s allowance. He would be doing a service to the community if he would take this action before the House votes on the Bill this evening. We would all support him in such a gesture and support the Bill if he made that change. I implore him to see if this can be done.
The budget introduced on 7 December is the meanest, harshest budget since Ernest Blythe took the shilling off the old-age pension. Social insurance benefit and social assistance rates, jobseeker’s benefit and jobseeker’s allowance are all reduced by €8 and supplementary welfare allowance is reduced by €10. The reduction in child benefit by €10 and the double whammy of a €20 hit for the unfortunate third child is a disgrace and an attack on children’s rights. A generation of third children will be forever stigmatised by the budget of 2011. The greatest con job of all is the abolition of the health and income levies and their consolidation into the universal social charge. The present health levy does not apply to people earning less than €26,000. The universal social charge initiative was promised by the Minister for Finance in last year’s budget and described as a revenue-neutral measure. Instead, it has been deviously designed to extract an entirely new stream of tax from the poor. It is a new tax which is described in this budget as such, despite the Minister for Finance’s assertion to the contrary and his denial in the House today.
Never before in the history of the State have workers, who earn as little as €4,004 or less than €80 per week, had to pay such a tax on their earnings. The minimum wage-earners will now pay at least 2% on their entire earnings, rising to 4% for the final portion. The budget will reduce the income of the minimum wage earners by a minimum of 14%, rising to 16%, meaning that the lowest paid in our society are being savaged. On the other hand high earners will not be adversely affected by the new charge, as there is no further increase in the universal social charge after €16,016 or the 7% maximum irrespective of earnings. For them the 7% charge is replacing a combined 11% health contribution and income levy and therefore the highest earners are actually benefiting substantially from this measure by a very nice 4%. When the universal social charge is combined with the 10% reduction in tax bands and tax credits, working widows, working lone parents and people with a medical card will be hard hit with the cumulative cuts.
This is the second year in succession that the average individual weekly basic social welfare rate has dropped by €8 for the carer, the disabled, the blind, the widow, the single parent and the unemployed. The meanness of this budget knows no bounds in its ability to target the most vulnerable in our society. At the same time the Minister for Finance who promised to tax the 7,000 tax exiles last year has still not taken a cent in tax from that well heeled international jet set who fly in and out of Ireland at will. The budget proposes to abolish property-based tax reliefs by 2014 but like St. Augustine, not quite yet. The stated intention is good but Fianna Fáil cannot tear itself away from its propertied friends around whom so much of Government tax incentive policies were based over the past 13 years. Even when the game is up and the IMF and EU are running the country Fianna Fáil is still seeking to protect its influential friends and keep the taxation burden on them as low as possible.
The lunacy of what the Government is doing is summarised in the remarks of the Minister for Social Protection yesterday when he stated: “My Department currently accounts for approximately 38% of the total gross Government expenditure and therefore it is not possible to stabilise and reduce public spending without impacting on the Department’s budget.” The expenditure of the Department of Social Protection will actually increase despite these vicious cuts. The Government has missed the obvious, which is that it is unemployment that needs to be cut. Unfortunately it has no plans for making this happen.
Finally, Fianna Fáil without our consent foisted the debt of the banks on the people of Ireland. With its blanket guarantee of the bank debts it put a millstone around our collective necks. This budget is part of that millstone. We must reject it and put it back where it belongs, around the necks of those who created it. It is time to reject Fianna Fáil policies and politics. The first step is to reject the Social Welfare Bill and the budget in the Dáil today.
Deputy Seán Sherlock: I wish to nail the lie that the universal social charge is a charge. It is in fact a tax and let us call it what it is. Financial Resolution No. 13 on which we voted on Tuesday stated:
So it is a tax and that tax is a time bomb that will seriously affect low-income earners with serious medical conditions who have medical cards and are exempted from the other levies. The grouping together of the health and income levies under this universal social charge — that is, universal social tax — will mean that such people will now not be exempted from these levies, will be subjected to this tax and will have their already meagre and marginal incomes reduced further by the imposition of this tax. It is completely and utterly regressive. I find myself saying the same thing this year as I did in the debate on last year’s budget; any principle of taxation must be such that it is meted out fairly and in an equitable fashion. This runs contrary to the canons of taxation because it will affect those people on marginal incomes who also have serious underlying medical conditions in an adverse way by virtue of its imposition. It is completely unfair and should be opposed. I stand proud that our party will oppose the imposition of this tax because it is not what we are about in this Republic and any country with proper republican ideals would not impose such a tax in such a way as to affect those people who are on such marginal incomes.
The Union of Students of Ireland provided a very good critique of Tuesday’s budget and highlighted that the budget seeks to double the distance required to qualify for the non-adjacent rate of third level grant from 24 km to 45 km for all existing and new applicants from September 2011. The net effect is that it will exclude working-class families from the potential to gain a grant. It will exclude people living in rural areas from being able to get a third level grant and will act as a disincentive for people who want to upskill and come back into the educational sphere if they happen to be living such distances away from the third level institution they want to attend, which is also ludicrous. If we are seeking to get people back to work, arbitrary bands such as this discriminate against those who will not qualify on the basis of distance.
Carers are protecting vulnerable people and allowing them to live independently within the family home but subject to help from those who are caring for them. Why has the Government created a further disincentive for anybody to take up a carer’s allowance when the net impact could be to force more people into nursing homes? There is a social economy and we need to take a more lateral view by regarding care givers as people who are making an active contribution and who should get a due reward for that contribution to avoid forcing people into nursing homes because of the disincentive.
Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Tá mé buíoch go bhfuil deis agam labhairt ar an mBille seo. Is trua é go bhfuilimid ag déileáil leis in aon chor. Tá teip iomlán ar an Rialtas cosaint a thabhairt dóibh siúd atá ag brath ar íocaíochtaí leasa shóisialaigh sa Stát seo. Tá sé ait nach bhfuil aon Teachta ar thaobh an Rialtais sásta seasamh suas agus tacaíocht a thabhairt don mBille seo. Léiríonn sé sin an náire atá orthu go huile is go hiomlán. Tá siad sásta caint faoi gach sórt truflais eile, nó dul i bhfolach mar thoradh ar a gcuid náire. Feicfimid cad a tharlóidh nuair a thagann an t-am chun vótaí a chaitheamh. Is é seo an Bille Leasa Shóisialaigh is measa a chonaic mé riamh.
The budget is grossly unfair and is a hostile act committed against families on low income and the most vulnerable. The Department’s title was changed earlier in the year to the Department of Social Protection, but it is the exact opposite; there is absolutely no protection involved in the Bill. Deputy Gogarty was the only Member from the Government benches whom I saw speak. I do not know if he knows whether he is in government or out of government; he has not a clue at the moment.
He stood up in the House and spoke about how great the Green Party was for standing up for education. We might have an opportunity at another stage to properly debate the consequences of this budget for our education system. Those who are most vulnerable in our society are being taken out and kicked around the place by Deputy Gogarty and this Government. It is the people who are dependent on public education who will be affected. Their schools will be affected by the capitation cuts and the additional charges in terms of bus services.
As I have stated time and again in recent years, this Government, including its backbenchers, have no understanding of what it is like to be dependent on social welfare. The majority of social welfare recipients are genuine people; they are not involved in fraud in terms of being in receipt of double payments and the like. They are totally dependent on social welfare. If anybody on the backbenches or the ministerial benches had been unemployed for any length of time or had been dependent on disability or any other social welfare benefit, he or she would have an understanding of what it is like to go hungry once or twice a week and not to be able to afford to heat his or her home or pay normal household bills.
Time and again the Government has not done its homework. When I asked the Minister earlier this year whether he had done an impact study on how the non-payment of the Christmas bonus payment would affect those in receipt of social welfare, he admitted he had not. The first thing one is supposed to do when introducing legislation is to carry out an impact assessment on its likely impact. The Government said it would do so but it will not because it is afraid it will be told the legislation is scandalous. This is especially the case when there were alternatives, and alternatives were suggested to the Government not only by my party but by trade unionists and economists. The money is there. Ireland is still a wealthy country but in this budget the wealthy have got off scot free in comparison with those who are low paid or depending on social welfare.
These are not only the provisions contained in this Bill but the provisions in regard to public services and the effect the budget will have on public servicees. Who are the people who most depend on public services, who cannot afford luxurious cars or holidays and the likes? It is those who depend on the social welfare code. Public services will be decimated because of the cuts in the grant to local government, in the subvention to Bus Éireann and Bus Atha Cliath and in capitation grants. There also will be cuts in training grants under CE programmes, which is illogical in that we are trying to train people to take up work but their training grants will be cut. There will be huge cuts in funding for drugs task forces. These services are based in the most disadvantaged areas. There will be a massive cut in the money available for CDPs. Thank God, I do not have Deputy Gogarty or the Minister for Social Protection protecting my back because they are doing a useless job of protecting the most vulnerable in our society. That is what the Government said it would do in its election programme in 2007, but that has been scrapped and thrown in the bin. It is high time this Government did the same — that it scrapped itself, got into the bin and stayed there. However, the only problem is its members will not be unemployed in the same way as those who are depending on social welfare. Everyone on the backbenches will have a pension or probably a job to which to return. I am not denying they should be able to do that but they will not feel the effects of cuts and they will not depend on social welfare.
The Government, in preparing this Bill, failed to examine the cumulative effects of cuts not only in this budget but in the previous three budgets. This budget means individuals in receipt of disability allowance will be down €847.60 a year since 2008, €16.30 a week. The same applies to those in receipt of the carer’s allowance. There has been a huge cut in these benefits. This was justified by the Minister when he pointed to low inflation as a justification for cutting by 4% the basic social welfare rates of jobseekers, carers, lone parents and people with disabilities and the income of an unemployed family with three children by almost 5% but, according to the consumer price index, inflation rose by 2% this year. Therefore, in real terms, those families are taking a hit of nearly 7% because many of the essential goods — this is the key point — such as health, education, transport, energy costs have increased sharply in the past two years and particularly in recent months. Some of the most notable increases in 2010, according to the consumer price index in October, were education costs up by 9.5%, housing, electricity, gas and other fuels up by 8.5%, transport costs up by 1.25%, health costs up by 0.5%, mortgage interest up by 25.1% and communications costs such as telephone systems up by 2.5%. That clearly shows prices have increased. Any cuts affect the money people have in their pockets and people do not have money in their pockets for long if they are dependent on social welfare. They spend it. Any cut in social welfare payments impacts hugely not only on families who are already living in poverty — that is the key point, they are living in poverty — but on the local shops and businesses. Such cuts have a cumulative effect. I urge the Minister and those backbenchers who do not have the backbone to come in here and debate the Bill, praise it or stand up for it, to vote against it. It is a disgrace. It will lead to increased poverty and possibly deaths because people will not have the money to heat their homes this winter.
Deputy Michael D’Arcy: It is not much pleasure to be here debating these reductions — these cuts. I have a concern about the creation of a poverty trap and while that trap was created previously, this budget will copperfasten it. We must examine the cumulative effect of the reduction in the minimum wage from €8.65 to €7.65 together with the introduction of the universal social charge, which is a penal tax. The Government should stop calling these measures charges or levies — they are taxes. In addition, there has been a widening of the bands and a reduction in the tax credits. The poverty trap will be exposed badly because this budget will shove people onto social welfare payments.
If one multiplies the minimum wage of €7.65 by 40 hours a day, it comes to a little more than €300 a week, and if one multiplies that figure by 52, in terms of the number of weeks in a year, it works out at a little under €16,000. The reality is that the universal social charge kicks in at the higher rate of 7% on an income of €16,016. The 40-hour a week minimum wage payment calculates at a little over or under €100. If a person on the minimum wage works 40 hours a week, he or she will pay the charge at the rate of 4%. Those are the numbers. If that person works 40 hours and 15 minutes a week, that will bring the person into the 7% bracket in terms of the charge in respect of all of his or her moneys. This is a poverty trap. A family with two children — according to the social welfare documents we received yesterday — taking account of child benefits payments, will receive €24,000, which is €500 a week. People on lower wages will have a choice of whether to stay at home or go to work. The reality is they will stay at home and claim social welfare payments because they will get more money. That is a poverty trap which cannot be allowed to continue.
Considering the numbers, we see that people paying taxes may not continue to do so as a result. If we keep expanding tax bands and reducing credits, more people will fall into the poverty trap. There are two choices for the future; the decision to reduce the minimum wage can be reversed so the minimum wage remains higher or social welfare payments can be cut. Given these choices, this was not a smart decision.
Before the budget I pursued some officials in the Department of Finance and the Secretary General of one of the Departments, asking if they had analysed the long-term effects of these reductions in their budgets. They had not. I put the matter to the Minister for Finance and he stated that his Department had done so, but it has not. We are finding that the analysis has not been done. They have put together an exercise in addition, multiplication and division, calculating how savings are made. They have stored significant problems for the future as cuts in programmes will have far greater costs down the line for children who will not get attention in education or children who fall through the cracks and end up in the justice system.
The reductions are being made here and they seem the obvious places but the analysis has not been done so as to ensure we make reductions in the right areas rather than areas which amount to cheap options. These reductions will cost much more in the future and anybody paying taxes in ten or 20 years will see this regressive budget as a disaster.
Deputy Tom Sheahan: I will be specific in my comments. Accessibility to one’s entitlements for social protection is becoming more difficult and I have one specific case in mind, on which I have been working for nearly two years. A mother of two children died tragically, leaving an 18-month-old child and three-year-old child behind. Six weeks after, the father of these children had a stroke and he is now incapacitated on one side. The aunt of those children took them in on the night their mother died and to this day she has not got one cent from the State for looking after those two children. The woman applied for guardianship but was not awarded it because the children did not go into care. If they had gone into care for one night she would have qualified for it but she did not leave them into care because we know what has happened with children in care. She did not want that, yet she was not assured that they would be left to her although she wanted to look after them. She applied for the fostering grant but was refused.
I have worked on this for two years and have been hopped around to different Ministers while this poor woman has not been helped in any way by the State. The main appeals office on D’Olier Street is very poorly run in my experience.
With regard to other aspects of social protection, a self-employed man with ten staff working for him may have his business go to the wall. He would collect PRSI and PAYE for the State from the staff, paying it on their behalf. His staff can receive payments from social welfare on contributions for nine months the week after they have been let go. The man whose business has gone to the wall has no entitlements and he would have to wait 18 months before he can get any payment. This man may have a wife and family as well. Such a man can be sent to the community welfare officer but invariably such people are unsuccessful when they take that approach.
Employees who lose their jobs get nine months payments from stamps and then one is means-tested. How are non-nationals who have sent every bob they earned in this country out of State means-tested for the jobseeker’s payment? I am not being racist but I am looking for equity and equal access to benefits. Somebody may be able to answer how the Department of Social Protection carries out a means test for non-nationals who have been working here when all their money has been sent home.
There should be a charter of rights for the self-employed because their entitlements are archaic. Many of these people who have lost their businesses are the new poor. They may have invested heavily in business, staff and recruitment, as well as education and other improvements for staff, before finding their business gone. I hope something can be done for those who I see as the new poor; they are the self-employed whose businesses have gone to the wall. I welcome any comments on this from the Minister.
Deputy Dinny McGinley: What strikes me about these proposed cuts in social welfare is the unfairness and inequity of it all. These cuts will have a negative impact on those who are bottom of the income league in this country and who can least afford it. We can talk about widows, people in receipt of blind pensions, carers’ allowance or benefits for the disabled, invalids or even jobseekers but they are all means tested. These people may have no other kinds of private wealth and little property. Unfortunately, these people will pay for the economic sins of the recent past.
I bought a copy of a national newspaper this morning and saw on the front page that the taxpayer will pay bonuses to personnel in AIB, with the average payment at €16,000 or €17,000 to be made before Christmas. This money is coming from the same Exchequer that pays for social welfare. It is unfair and surely there should be some way of diverting the €40 million and making it available to those suffering because of these cuts. The most cruel cut is to be made on the benefits of blind people. Those of us with the gift of sight can consider ourselves very lucky compared to blind people and the disability they suffer. It is cruel for them to be asked to suffer and make a sacrifice.
Social welfare is governed by a very strict code. I know people violate that code and we know what happens to anybody getting money they may not be entitled to. They can even end up in prison. At the same time, the captains of the Celtic tiger — bankers and developers — seem to have the freedom of the country and the world. This is a further indication of the unfairness and inequality of our society. The Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, may remember an election held either at the end of the 1980s or in the early 1990s during which hoardings were erected with the slogan that health cuts hurt the old, sick and poor. These are the very people who will again be affected.
It is difficult to explain the economic benefit of reducing the basic minimum wage by €1 per hour. We are informed time and again that there are 1.8 million or 1.9 million workers in the State, of whom only 2% or 3% are in receipt of the minimum wage. What is the economic advantage of depriving this small group of a significant percentage of their income? The percentage of income others will lose through tax increases and so forth pales into insignificance compared to the loss to those on the minimum wage.
Deputy Costello referred to Earnán de Blaghd, a man who has been much sinned against for many years. He was Minister for Finance at a time when the country was in dire straits following a vicious civil war which left barely a bridge or road that had not been blown up.  While his decision to reduce the old age pension has gone down in the political annals of the State, it should be noted that de Blaghd restored the former rate in the subsequent budget.
Deputy John Perry: I am pleased to speak to the Bill. The vulnerable are paying a heavy price for the massive bailout provided for the banks. As Deputy McGinley noted, it is ironic that on the same day we learned that bonuses will be paid to individuals in the banks who failed abysmally, resulting in a costs of billions of euro to the State, we are debating the price to be paid by people who did not cause the economic crisis. I refer to those who have worked hard and are now in retirement, those in receipt of blind person’s pension and invalidity, disability or carer’s allowance. Carers do an outstanding job and save the State huge sums by caring for parents and relatives in the home.
The savings made through these cuts could have been collected or raised by other means. For example, the Minister announced a dramatic reduction in stamp duty rates. If someone is in a position to pay almost €1 million for a property, he or she should be able to pay stamp duty of 2%. Stamp duty is not preventing people from acquiring property. The problem is that the banks are not making money available.
Deputy John Perry: People are finding it difficult to borrow money. Stamp duty has not been the catalyst that prevented sales of property from proceeding. If one is able to borrow close to €1 million, one should be able to pay an additional 2% in stamp duty. The €90 million in savings could have been secured by other means.
The measures proposed will have a detrimental effect on local businesses. A reduction in income of €48 for those on the minimum wage will reduce what is spent locally on services and in retail outlets. It will result in a decline in VAT, the largest source of tax receipts to the State. Modifications to the VAT rate could have generated additional income for the State.
It is regrettable that people who are hard pressed to meet the costs of maintaining a home will have their wage cut to €7.65 per hour. As someone who owns a business, I know that the biggest investment companies make is in their personnel. Staff retention is difficult and the measure sends out the wrong signal. The proposal by the Fine Gael Party’s spokesperson on finance, Deputy Noonan, to abolish the employer PRSI contribution for employees, up to the level of the minimum wage, makes sense as it would reduce employer costs and allow staff to continue to earn €8.65 per hour.
Given the difficulty in finding staff willing to work for €8.65 per hour, the cut in the minimum wage will act as a further disincentive to work. Jobs will not be retained by reducing the minimum wage. The best initiative available to achieve job retention would be if the banks made money available. Having been bailed out by the State, one would assume they would support business by providing working capital for job retention and creation. Bonuses are being paid to bankers while viable businesses close.
The Taoiseach indicated that Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Banks have €12 billion available for small companies. This money is not getting through to its destination, despite the work of Mr. John Trethowan of the Credit Review Office and notwithstanding various commitments that have been given. The best stimulus to the economy would be to ensure banks provide funding to businesses.
The Social Welfare Bill is grossly unfair to those it penalises and detrimental to the economy. It is a case of back to the future. As Deputy McGinley noted, we have returned to the 1980s with the vulnerable being required to pay the price. It is very disappointing that they are the casualties again.
I am pleased to note that older people are fully protected and will continue to receive, at current levels, the State pension and other allowances, including free telephone, television licence and home care packages. In addition, payments such as the living alone allowance, the age allowance for those aged more than 80 years and the fuel allowance will be maintained. I also welcome the payment of a once-off fuel allowance of €40.
The scheme to provide 15,000 new places to help people return to work cannot be introduced soon enough. People may ask — where are the jobs? Places could be found in community organisations as they would benefit from the valuable skills of many of those who are unfortunately languishing in unemployment. The unemployed want to support and engage with organisations such as Muintir na Tíre and other groups which share the self-help ethos of the late, great Canon John Hayes.
A further 10,000 additional positions and internships will be provided in the public and private sector under the Department of Education and Skills. This is a welcome initiative. Waterford County Council is using the scheme successfully with the co-operation of all staff and trade unions. It assists our brightest and best people, those who have new ideas and have spent considerable periods in education or upskilling. They are ready and able and have the tools of the trade and expertise to give leadership, vision and creative support to private companies and private bodies such as county councils.
While child benefit rates will be reduced, other supports for children will not change. Although I accept the need to address child benefit, I am disappointed that it does not seem to be possible to means test it for those on incomes of more than €100,000. The qualified child allowance paid to those in receipt of weekly social welfare payments will not change and the family income supplement, which is a vital scheme, will also be maintained. To return to my comments on work schemes, work must be profitable. As to my prior comments about the work schemes, these must be profitable. I do not mean that in the sense of being greedy. However, if a man or woman does a 40 hour week, or more or less, such work must be viable for the individual. There is a great deal of expense involved in getting to and being at work and an incentive must be offered in the difference between what a person would earn at work when such is available and what he or she would get when not working.
Deputy Mattie McGrath: That balance must be readdressed. I did not interrupt the Deputy who will know my views on this from our committee work. The balance must be fair and there must be incentives for people to go to work. We must first create an environment where people can work.
The half-rate carer’s allowance will continue to be paid to those who are full-time carers. The House can see that I wear the badge of the Carers Association, as I always do. It is a wonderful organisation. I know we are not meant to wear anything of the kind in the House and I apologise for pointing out my badge but I wear it because I believe carers do a very significant job on a national basis. The carer of the year happens to come from my county. God bless them all in these circumstances for the work they do on a 24-7 basis. Carers will also get the annual respite care grant of €1,700 per care recipient, which is badly needed. It may give carers a break from their 24-7 chores. The carer’s allowance rate for carers aged 66 and over will not change. That is a very important aspect of the budget and I am delighted that in the very challenging and stringent times we face those rates have been maintained.
I mentioned family income supplement. People in lower-paid employment must be supported and it is important that they be remunerated in a reasonable way for their work. Other child measures will not change either. The qualified child increase for families who depend on a weekly social welfare will remain unchanged. There are many benefits such as allowances for clothing and footwear and the back to school allowance which will remain unchanged. It is not all doom and gloom I accept in full the background behind the budget. I appreciate the forbearance of the Minister, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, who engaged with me on these issues in spite of my position outside the parliamentary party. I put a comprehensive suite of measures to the Minister for Finance regarding the budget proposals. These were not all without reference to the national situation. I am disappointed that a cut was not made to the number of Deputies or to our wages, both of which measures I had requested. We are taking a tax cut but the public must see that we are sharing the same cutbacks as they have. In some cases we are but this is not seen.
I asked for a cap on wages of €200,000 because €250,000 does not go far enough. This cannot be a token gesture and must be addressed. I do not want Ministers telling me it cannot be done because of contractual arrangements. This is not a normal situation, it is an emergency and we should have emergency legislation to challenge these individuals. If they want to take us on in the courts, let them do so and let them be judged by the public just as we are.
I looked for many work stimulant measures. The 15,000 work opportunity placements are an additional boost. There have been upgrades in the area of energy in the shape of tax credits so that people can spend money in the real economy rather than the black economy. They can make necessary improvements to their homes, employ C2-registered contractors and kick-start the economy in that way. I also welcome the changes to the C2 rates, with 35% withholding tax reduced to 20%.
I very much welcome several Bills that will be brought before the House before the general election, including the student support Bill which I have championed and which has been on the books for a long time. The construction industry must be sorted out in regard to sub-contractors. I raised the situation of the Pierse company in the House two weeks ago, with the Ceann Comhairle’s permission. There are smaller “Pierse” situations around the country; they have been around for the past two years and will be there in 2011. I refer to companies that go to the wall and leave their sub-contractors without money. Human tragedies follow for the employees of the sub-contractors and their families who have a very good relationship with the sub-contractors. This is not good enough especially in cases where companies have traded recklessly. It is not the fault of the sub-contractors who supplied goods and services and are entitled to fair remuneration. We must protect them and a Bill to that effect must be introduced in the House. I compliment Senator Feargal Quinn on his work on this matter.
We protected the old age pension, but we must also be fair to other vulnerable groups. Perhaps we took our eye off the ball regarding certain groups of vulnerable people, especially blind people, widows and people with disabilities. This was unwise. I appeal to the Minister. I discussed this matter with him both last night and this morning to learn if there was any hope of arresting this cut. These people are not able to work. It is said that pensioners are not allowed to work because of their age but in many cases nor are the people I mentioned able to work. I totally agree with the Minister that there are different levels of disability. Goodness knows, this is a difficult area for able-bodied people to discuss because we do not understand the feelings involved and the challenges such people face. A person on disability benefit because of, for example, a hurt finger is surely not entitled to the same rate as a person who is wheelchair bound, blind or otherwise incapacitated.
It is difficult and what makes it all the more galling is to learn what is going on in the banks. They brought us to our knees and now we learn of an unacceptable situation in AIB. That cannot be allowed. I met with the Minister for Finance regarding the matter. He told me that some of the individuals in question went to the courts about these bonuses. They have a brass neck. Obviously, we must accept the conclusion of the courts and cannot pass emergency legislation to prohibit the bonuses. The taxpayers are majority shareholders in AIB. I always understood that a bonus must be earned. I would love to know what bonuses were earned in 2008 or since. What about the “negative” bonus, the cost to the taxpayer? I do not refer to the front line staff to whom such bonuses do not apply but to managers who often made the hairier decisions. I compliment the managers, perhaps of senior years, who did not make those decisions and held the line against enormous opposition, namely, the drive to be whizz kids, make more bonuses and get more money for themselves. I compliment the front line staff at the counter who take the wrath of the frustrated and frightened public.
If we cannot introduce emergency legislation in regard to these bonuses or cannot cap wages at €200,000, why are we here? We are able to change legislation to cut the minimum wage because we know the people concerned will not take us on in court. They cannot afford to do so. That is morally wrong. If the bonuses cannot be stopped, I ask the Minister, and have done so, to bring in a new tax of 99% on such bonuses because they are fraudulent, wrong and were not earned. It is morally corrupt that any person could be paid such a bonus. We saw what happened with the IMF-EU investigators. I cannot believe the IMF can have done a thorough investigation if it has not been made aware of this situation, is not aware of the practices in banks or the fact that no person has been brought before the courts in regard to these issues. I do not intend to convict anybody — people must get due process — but nobody has been charged. I am aghast at the IMF. I hope to meet some of its delegates who must be made aware of what has gone on, is still going on and is expected to continue.
The Minister for Finance has a majority shareholding on behalf of taxpayers and we cannot allow this situation to continue while, in the same breath, we allow the budget cuts for vulnerable people. We expect everybody to take a share of the pain and people are willing, ready and able to do so. The Irish are a very resourceful and inspiring people. They have been downtrodden but since the Famine we have proved we can come up again and rise above all these matters. My priority is to get the IMF and the EU out of this country. We call the EU our friend but it is not our friend after all, given the punitive interest it is charging us, which is much more than the IMF is charging. There was no vote for that package in this House which disappointed me very much. I hope ultimately there will be such a vote, perhaps in a month or six weeks’ time. The people will have their say as they are entitled.
We have ended up as we are; there is no point engaging in the blame game. We should have accepted more responsibility and some humility would not have done us any harm. The fact is we are where we are and the IMF is in the country in the guise of helping us out. However, it is not helping us out but is out to protect the euro for the Europeans. We are all interested in that. I hope I will never be proved right but I can envisage a two-tier euro. We are being punished severely and are paying much more in interest than we would pay to the ECB or to our EU partners. This country voted for the Maastricht treaty which was intended to protect banking and stop bad banking practice. I totally accept we were 50% to blame for the crash in the Irish banking sector but our European banking partners must take the other 50% of blame. They were culpable too but we have ended up taking 100% of the blame and are being punished. Our piggybank money is being raided to pay for the sins of the banks while the banks talk about paying bonuses. This is crazy. If the situation is that bad, and it is, I do not know why we cannot act, in the name of God, the Irish people and the Irish Republic, to bring some sense of responsibility to bear. I can see the banks’ point of view. They have been untouched and we have pumped billions into them. Now they want more and the IMF-EU is coercing us to give them our €17.5 billion and include that as part of a €85 billion loan. With my secondary school maths, I work that out at €67 million so why it is classified as €85 million, I do not know. It is a trick of the loop approach, as far as I am concerned. The people have had enough of this and they want action. I want changes in regard to vulnerable groups such as carers and others, not across the board but selectively. Vulnerable people who cannot earn extra finance or go out in the community to work would be the first to volunteer and to help.
I spoke earlier today to the members of two viable businesses in my constituency. They cannot get the lifeblood of their business, capital, to keep themselves afloat. Their overdrafts are being withdrawn by the very same bankers who are getting €40 million in bonuses.
I estimate that making a change to the cuts in regard to these groups would cost approximately €100 million but €40 million of that money is going to the banks. We could save this money in an hour if we had the will to do it. We must get the will to do it. We must stand up and say this is wrong and we will not accept it. I appeal to the Minister, whom I have spoken to privately and will speak to later, as well as to his Cabinet colleagues, to try to address this terrible injustice.
Deputy David Stanton: I make the point I have only a few short minutes to speak. I was spokesperson on social and family affairs some years ago when the late Deputy Seámus Brennan was Minister. At that time, we discussed the Social Welfare Bill after Christmas and had time to debate, reflect on and analyse it. It is being rushed through on this occasion.
As Deputy Mattie McGrath has just pointed out, carers and people with disabilities are being affected. I received a call yesterday from a person who is a full-time carer for her husband, who is confined to a wheelchair. The couple’s income will be cut by €62 a month. The woman told me she knows where every euro she has is going, that she needs every euro and that this will cause real hardship for her. Deputy Mattie McGrath has just said he does not agree with this cut. I challenge him that there is no point talking about it inside or outside the House. If he does not agree with it, he should vote against it — that is what one does if one does not agree with it. If he wants to protect the most vulnerable in society, that is what he should do. He should come into the House and vote that way.
The Deputy is correct. Carers are being hit in the Bill. We all know the work carers do, 24-7, and they need all the support and help they can get. If any group should have been exempted, it should have been carers. Think of the amount of work, stress and hardship involved in caring for a bed-bound person. For years, the Disability Federation of Ireland and other groups have been calling for a cost-of-disability allowance. They recognise there is an extra cost involved in looking after a person with a disability. For example, a person with a disability probably has to have the heat on all the time in a house because if he or she is not mobile, the person cannot warm up by going for a walk. Such people need special food, extra medication and so on. There are hidden costs to having a disability.
Instead of recognising this and making other adjustments, the Government and the Minister decided to make a cut across the board, when there was no need to do so. This will cause terrible hardship. I am very concerned about these people.
Deputy David Stanton: With regard to domiciliary care allowance, we must consider the number of appeals to the social welfare appeals office given the waiting list is enormous at this stage. Quite often, the social welfare appeals office overturns the decision of the Department. The Minister might provide the figure later but it was a high percentage in the past. People should be given a fair crack of the whip at the earlier stage and not have to go through the heavy pressure of making an appeal. One man in my constituency had a major operation and is in receipt of a disability allowance. As he is now applying for a disability pension, he must go for another medical.
Minister for Social Protection (Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív): I thank all the Deputies for their contribution. Many valid points were made and I will try to deal with as many as I can. Deputy Ring asked about the universal social charge. The charge is not payable on any social welfare payment.
We must start from the premise that €6 billion had to be taken out. Fine Gael agrees with that premise and the Labour Party does not. My belief is that if we had taken out €4.5 billion this year, the finances of the State would have become unsustainable, we would not have been able to borrow money and the consequence would have been that the cutbacks that occurred in social welfare would have been much more extreme than what we have had to do here. Therefore, my judgment, as someone who cares, is that we had to make the €6 billion adjustment.
The figure involved in this regard is €104 million, although Fine Gael claims it is €90 million and I will not argue with that — let us call it a cool €100 million. If we decide not to take the €100 million, by not reducing a wide range of payments, we must say where we will get that money — it is as simple as that. When all the figures are stacked up, they must come to €6 billion.
There was a challenge and a debate in this regard during the spring. When I said in May I had not made up my mind about anything to do with the social welfare budget, I remember much talk and, I might say, outrage that I was not willing there and then to exempt huge swathes of people from at least consideration. At that time, the debate centred on the old age pension, which involves almost 500,000 people. What I was putting around in my mind at that time, and am still putting around in my mind now, although we have made a decision — which was probably the right decision, on balance, although one could look at it in two ways, and some Deputies today have done so — was the idea that as one eliminates groups from consideration, inevitably, to reach the target figure, whatever that figure is, a deeper cut would have to be made on the balance. That is the problem.
My Department will have 39% of current spend next year, which is an increase of 1%. In practice, this means that to make savings in regard to health, education and social welfare, which Fine Gael accepts, one cannot ignore those three Departments. We have heard Deputies on all sides, obviously, make pleas for the health, education and social welfare Departments. Having had much discussion and negotiation in this regard, it was decided one could not take a pro rata cut out of social welfare, so the cut, including administrative savings and so on, was €875 million. Through various further savings, including in regard to fraud, which I will discuss shortly, we managed to reduce this to a figure for rate cuts of approximately €533 million. To take that as a percentage of current expenditure, which is approximately €55 billion, it is close to 1%.
People then suggested we should exclude various groups. I am fully aware of the work of carers, and I would like to address this issue. The Government since 2000 has multiplied by six the expenditure on carers.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Rightly so. It was less than €100 million in 2000 and it is now more than €600 million. A great many fundamental reforms took place. For example, we introduced the half-rate carer’s allowance.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: This allowed one, for the first time, to obtain the half-rate carer’s allowance in addition to an underlying social welfare payment. We introduced the respite care grant, amounting to €1,700 per year, which is more than €30 per week. There is an arrangement whereby a carer caring for somebody down the street or a quarter of a mile away can get the free benefits, worth €20 per week, even if her or his partner is working. We have the most generous income disregards relating to the carer’s allowance. There is a disregard of more than €300 for an individual and more than €600 for a couple. That architecture is fundamental.
Approximately one third of carers under 66, or 28% to be precise, are in receipt of the half-rate carer’s allowance. There is no change in the arrangements for carers over 66. The carer’s allowance represents the best social welfare rate. After the adjustment, it is €240 per week.
I felt it was important to retain the architecture put in place. I refer to the universal respite grant paid to all carers. Many carers are not entitled to the carer’s allowance but they do receive the respite grant in recognition of the work they do. I felt it was very important to protect this.
We have protected the right to the half-rate carer’s allowance and the allowance received by those caring for more than one person. Therefore, we have protected the basic structure of the scheme, which the McCarthy report recommended should be subject to a cut. Cutting it would have been cruel and wrong.
We are still keeping the basic carer’s allowance rates way ahead of the other basic rates. Consider the challenge I would have faced had I said we would not cut the carer’s allowance. If the blind pension were a stand-alone payment, there would be no difficulty in exempting it from the cut. For very obvious reasons, I am very understanding of those who are partially sighted or blind.
Deputy Jack Wall: They have a valid case. All that occurred in regard to the old non-contributory pension payment was a change in title. The Minister excluded all the other pension entitlements. Why did he not exclude the one in question?
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: I am coming to those. Had I picked out the 1,400 blind people, which would not have had any significant effect on the arithmetic, the Deputy would have argued that there are many on the disability allowance whose multiple disabilities are far worse than partial sight. The Deputy would have made this case to me very cogently. I know people whose disabilities are far worse than that of partial sight.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: That is exactly what I am coming to. If one decided not to cut them all, including the allowance for the blind, it would lead one to the disability allowance and then to the invalidity pension. One might say the invalidity pension could be supplemented by other means, but one might not have other means. In such circumstances, one must consider the criteria associated with the disability allowance. The problem is that when one adds the three categories together, one arrives at a figure of 150,000 people. If one added in the carers and widows, there would be an exemption required for another 300,000 people.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: According to the 2009 figures, there were 113,000 widows and widowers in receipt of a contributory widow’s or widower’s pension. They comprise a very heterogeneous group because one has a legitimate right to work if one is in receipt of a widow’s contributory pension. It is not means tested. Therefore, widows’ incomes are very varied. Owing to the contributory nature of the benefit, recipients do not comprise a uniform group any more. There are more widows and widowers working than was the case in the past.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Widows with children are paid the one-parent family payment. If I decided to create a new category comprising widows with children, separated and divorced people would ask why I was treating them separately and giving them a different fundamental rate in spite of both groups having the same cost of living.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: The problem is that if one were to remove all the one-parent family payments, one would have to take another €3 or €4 off those on the jobseeker’s allowance and jobseeker’s benefit. That is where the difficulty lies.
Valid issues have been raised by the Opposition. I do not want anybody to create a world like that in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on the basis of what I said. Nobody should receive less than the basic rate. When I made reference yesterday to having a measure of disability, I was suggesting it would allow one make an extra payment to those with more severe disabilities. This would be easier to do because the numbers would not be so great and not as many issues would arise at the margin. If one were really serious about tackling this issue, it would be the way to go. We are achieving this and we will do so in the first step next week by trying to help people to find employment and retain benefits through the partial capacity Bill.
With regard to child benefit, I was asked what I have against the third child in a family. I favour the third child very much because the actual rates after the budget will be €140 for the first child and €140 for the second child. The third child will still attract a higher rate, namely €167, and the fourth child will attract a rate of €177, and so on.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: I am just explaining. Larger families have expenses and child benefit does not meet the full cost of rearing a child, or anything like it, as all of us know. One might ask why I did not take €5, which cut would have been applied in respect of the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth child. The problem with that approach is that a family with four, five or six children would have lost €20. However, under the arrangement I propose, the extra cost would be restricted to €10, irrespective of the size of the family.
There was much debate on fraud. One of the Deputies said we were taking only €200 million in savings from fraud detection and that the savings from fraud detection last year were €533 million. I would like to go into that in more detail but I would say that the Deputy is not comparing like with like because the calculation of savings from fraud detection takes into account an imputed saving into the future whereas what we calculated was the cash saving——
|Ahern, Bertie.||Ahern, Dermot.|
|Ahern, Michael.||Ahern, Noel.|
|Andrews, Barry.||Andrews, Chris.|
|Ardagh, Seán.||Aylward, Bobby.|
|Behan, Joe.||Blaney, Niall.|
|Brady, Áine.||Brady, Cyprian.|
|Brady, Johnny.||Browne, John.|
|Calleary, Dara.||Carey, Pat.|
|Collins, Niall.||Conlon, Margaret.|
|Connick, Seán.||Coughlan, Mary.|
|Cregan, John.||Curran, John.|
|Dempsey, Noel.||Devins, Jimmy.|
|Dooley, Timmy.||Fahey, Frank.|
|Finneran, Michael.||Fitzpatrick, Michael.|
|Fleming, Seán.||Flynn, Beverley.|
|Gogarty, Paul.||Hanafin, Mary.|
|Harney, Mary.||Haughey, Seán.|
|Healy-Rae, Jackie.||Hoctor, Máire.|
|Kelleher, Billy.||Kelly, Peter.|
|Kenneally, Brendan.||Kennedy, Michael.|
|Killeen, Tony.||Kitt, Michael P.|
|Kitt, Tom.||Lenihan, Brian.|
|Lenihan, Conor.||Lowry, Michael.|
|McEllistrim, Thomas.||McGrath, Mattie.|
|McGrath, Michael.||McGuinness, John.|
|Mansergh, Martin.||Martin, Micheál.|
|Moloney, John.||Moynihan, Michael.|
|Mulcahy, Michael.||Nolan, M. J.|
|Ó Cuív, Éamon.||Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.|
|O’Brien, Darragh.||O’Connor, Charlie.|
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|O’Keeffe, Batt.||O’Keeffe, Edward.|
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|Costello, Joe.||Crawford, Seymour.|
|Creed, Michael.||Creighton, Lucinda.|
|D’Arcy, Michael.||Deasy, John.|
|Deenihan, Jimmy.||Doherty, Pearse.|
|Doyle, Andrew.||Durkan, Bernard J.|
|English, Damien.||Feighan, Frank.|
|Ferris, Martin.||Flanagan, Charles.|
|Flanagan, Terence.||Gilmore, Eamon.|
|Grealish, Noel.||Hayes, Brian.|
|Hayes, Tom.||Higgins, Michael D.|
|Hogan, Phil.||Howlin, Brendan.|
|Kehoe, Paul.||Lynch, Ciarán.|
|Lynch, Kathleen.||McCormack, Pádraic.|
|McEntee, Shane.||McGinley, Dinny.|
|McGrath, Finian.||McHugh, Joe.|
|McManus, Liz.||Mitchell, Olivia.|
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|Neville, Dan.||Noonan, Michael.|
|Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.||Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.|
|O’Donnell, Kieran.||O’Dowd, Fergus.|
|O’Keeffe, Jim.||O’Mahony, John.|
|O’Shea, Brian.||O’Sullivan, Jan.|
|O’Sullivan, Maureen.||Penrose, Willie.|
|Perry, John.||Quinn, Ruairí.|
|Rabbitte, Pat.||Reilly, James.|
|Ring, Michael.||Shatter, Alan.|
|Sheahan, Tom.||Sheehan, P. J.|
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|Timmins, Billy.||Upton, Mary.|
|Varadkar, Leo.||Wall, Jack.|
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