Tuesday, 21 June 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Micheál Martin: When the jobs initiative was announced, the Taoiseach and the Government decided not to publish any supporting documentation on the impact of the €1.8 billion raid on personal pensions. This was a direct reversal of the policy that had been pursued for over a decade, whereby all background papers on revenue matters were published on-line. With other members of my party, I repeatedly asked the Taoiseach to provide briefing material concerning this attack on pensions before putting the measure through the House. On 11 May he said to me “if there is any outstanding information the Deputy seeks, it will be provided for him, because there is not anything secret here.” Nothing was provided; discussions were cut short and the measure was forced through the House. It has now emerged that the Taoiseach was informed in April by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, that the levy could have extremely negative impacts. She told him well before the levy was announced that it could incentivise or force some pension schemes to close. She also told him that it would disincentivise retirement savings and have negative long-term implications for pensions policy. A Department of Finance briefing that he received expressed concerns about the solvency of some funds. It stated the policy the Government was considering “could seriously undermine the pensions sector”. This extremely serious information suggests the actual cost of the attack on private pensions will be very different from that claimed by the Government. Why did the Taoiseach decide to keep this information secret until after the measure had been pushed through the Dáil?
The Taoiseach: I received a routine letter from the Minister, setting out her views on the impact on her Department. The Deputy’s allegation that information was kept secret is without foundation. As Deputy Martin will be aware, we live in a democracy. The Government is entitled to make decisions about how it might progress matters that are of interest to the people. Clearly, the mess the Government inherited in respect of unemployment and the economy generally, warranted a focus on restoring confidence to the indigenous economy.
There was technical advice from the Pensions Board. The Government decided to impose a levy of 0.6% on the pensions industry for four years as a temporary measure bringing in €450 million a year which will be spent directly on focused areas where employment can be created. As a consequence, the Government altered its decision on VAT with impact directly on the hospitality sector and the labour intensive industries, on the travel tax and on halving employers’ PRSI. These are measures within the jobs initiative that will have a direct impact.
Deputy Martin’s allegations of subterfuge and issues being kept from people are entirely groundless. Any individual, Minister or Department can have views on Government proposals and the Minister for Social Protection, in writing a letter expressing concerns about possible impact on her Department, acted quite normally.
Deputy Micheál Martin: ——by the relevant Minister and by officials that this levy could have a serious negative impact on personal pensions. The Taoiseach decided to reverse a decade old procedure and he withheld this information from the public until he had pushed the levy through. That is a fact.
I have asked three times in this House for the Taoiseach to publish all background material on the pension levy. He decided not to do that. It took freedom of information requests to get that information out at the weekend. I have had to put down three freedom of information questions to different Ministers to try to get the background to this decision. The Taoiseach should not try to pass this off as some routine labour protection measure.
In essence, the Taoiseach has not told me today. He did not answer the question I asked. Why did he ignore the warnings of the Minister for Social Protection and officials? Will he publish all materials pertaining to this decision? The Taoiseach covered up on this deliberately.
The Taoiseach: I recall that the then Minister, Deputy Martin, time and again on this side of the House, and particularly at the Joint Committee on Health and Children where he denied any responsibility for not reading his brief——
The Taoiseach: I am sure he is interested in a jobs initiative that will result in at least some employment in his constituency. There are people in Cork South-Central to whom one can validly state that if Deputy Martin had his way, this jobs initiative would not take place at all.
The Taoiseach: No less a personality than Deputy Ross at the back pointed out constructively that there is a great deal of fat in this system and as a consequence, the Minister for Finance has written to the industry.
Deputy Gerry Adams: On Wednesday last I raised the crisis which is developing in the health services because of the shortage of junior doctors. I stated that there would be at least 400 vacancies and that this will have a devastating effect on front-line services beyond 11 July. I asked the Taoiseach to make a statement on this and he declined to do so. It struck me that the Taoiseach did not know what was happening. It struck me also that the Minister for Health did not know what was happening.
Deputy Gerry Adams: The Taoiseach stated that the Minister for Health would deal with this on Friday last. Today, without the heckling, listen to what I am going to say to you. You did not come into this House.
Without coming in here, without leaving himself open to questions and to scrutiny, on RTE last night the Minister for Health stated that we may well end up with some accident and emergency departments which cannot be safely manned. He stated that he could certainly say this much, that it will not be any of the major ones, and that it is the small rural hospitals where we are going to have real difficulties. He then went on to say that the crisis will be fixed in so far as it can be fixed.
I asked all the chaps and chapettes who are heckling here last week to go in and check what is happening with their local hospitals. This is not good enough. The Government needs to allow a debate on this issue and the Taoiseach needs to be able to tell us and the Deputies here.
The Taoiseach: First, this problem in the shortage of non-consultant hospital doctors or, as they are called, “junior doctors”, is not related to funding and is not related to a recruitment embargo or a moratorium. It is related to an inability to attract enough of doctors to our hospitals. It is an issue that has affected not only this country, but other countries as well.
Third, I want Deputy Adams to understand, in fairness, that the HSE mounted a serious recruitment campaign in India and Pakistan and several senior consultants and a number from the HSE travelled to India and Pakistan. That recruitment drive identified 400 suitable and qualified doctors who could work in Irish hospitals and who are interested in coming here. In many cases these are doctors with quite a few years of experience gained in hospitals already.
The issue is to see how best to secure these doctors to work in Ireland in a manner that will give complete assurance regarding the safety of patients and the standards that are required. I am sure Deputy Adams would not require anything else. The problem centres around the fact that under the present arrangements such doctors would have to do an examination that is not totally suitable and that legislation does not allow for a temporary registration facility which is the best way to accommodate incoming doctors in that regard. While the Minister, Deputy Reilly, is currently putting in place a facility to allow the doctors to face an exam more tailored to their level of experience, he may well amend the law to provide for a temporary registration system for doctors. It is not about a moratorium, funding or an inability to recruit. It is about finding a facility that we have let slip in this country by the abolition of temporary registration and the fact that in many cases, as the Minister has pointed out, doctors required to do an examination across the entire medical spectrum might not pass such an examination. The example he has given is that someone doing surgery might be required to pass an examination on something they have not had surgical experience of for quite some time.
The Taoiseach: The Minister, Deputy Reilly, has identified this problem and the delivery of a solution to the problem is his number one priority. He is receiving every assistance from those involved. However, when speaking on RTE last night the Minister made it clear that it is unlikely he will be able to fill all the posts by 11 July given the scale and the nature of the problem he faces and he outlined what the facts are in this regard. I wish to make the point clear: it is not about recruitment inability, a moratorium or funding. It is about the fact that we do not have a temporary registration facility, which other European countries use to fill spaces at the changeover of non-consultant hospital doctors, in the way we should have.
The Minister has identified the root of the problem. There was a recruitment drive in India and Pakistan and 400 were identified. It is to have the facility now that will allow the Minister to accommodate this and the Government decided on that this morning. Let me assure Deputy Adams there will be no compromise on either quality or safety nor should there be.
Deputy Gerry Adams: It is absolute rubbish to say there will be no compromise. We held this exercise last week as well. I asked a straight question about what hospitals will not be safely staffed. The Taoiseach did not answer the question. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation stated today that 329 citizens are on trolleys in hospitals throughout the State. This is before the crisis kicks in. The fact is there are people out there. As a health professional the Minister, Deputy Reilly, should have known this before he took up his position as Minister. He was briefed and I have before me the redacted freedom of information request and his briefing. One the first day he came in as Minister he was told about this crisis. Approximately 150 of these doctor positions were substantially vacant and now it has risen to 400. The question was about which hospitals will not be safely staffed. People need to know. I have other questions.
Deputy Gerry Adams: I will chance my arm. Will the Taoiseach ensure that nurses are given an enhanced role and that consultants will fulfil their contracts and carry out their work in public hospitals? It is work they are contracted to do.
The Taoiseach: Deputy Adams strayed from his original question into the consultants contract issue. I assure the Deputy as I answer today I cannot give him the information on what hospitals will be disrupted by virtue of the non-consultant hospital doctor problem.
The Taoiseach: We cannot have a situation where doctors are employed in an unsupervised capacity in hospitals. It will be a couple of weeks before the Minister will be in a position to inform the House of that. He has identified the problem and he has identified the solution. The Government made a decision on it this morning. As this moves through the system and when the Minister becomes aware of which hospitals are not capable or do not have the capacity to provide a supervised setting for non-consultant hospital doctors, he will so inform the House. However, there will be no compromise on safety or standard.
Deputy Shane Ross: Although I would have preferred if it were not in the context of being used as a battering ram to hit Deputy Martin. I wish the Taoiseach had remembered the comment when he appointed Deputy Martin’s nominee to the PAC last week.
Deputy Shane Ross: ——for what the Minister for Finance did last Thursday when he announced that he would burn the Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide bondholders. It is the first time since the Government came to power that it has put the interests of the taxpayer in front of the bondholders and the banks and this should be applauded. Having said that, I wish to ask about the follow through. It appears there has been a deafening response from Europe. Will the Taoiseach confirm, as it appears, the ECB was not informed about this in advance? It is important to know and it would be a welcome departure and re-emphasis of Government policy in that we are moving to stand up to the ECB, to stand up to Sarkozy and to have our own independent policy on the bondholders and Europe.
Our European policy and the policy with regard to the ECB up to now has been singularly unsuccessful. However, if the Minister, the Taoiseach and the Government are taking the attitude, as the Taoiseach stated here last week or the week before, that it must take note of the attitudes of the peripheral countries, then it should be welcomed. Is this part of a new departure or is it something old? What will happen if the ECB says “no”? Will we unilaterally burn the bondholders?
The Taoiseach: I held some brief discussion with Deputy Ross about the Committee of Public Accounts. He is an experienced Deputy and I am sure he will do very well on that committee in the investigations they carry out.
The Taoiseach: I am sure he will do well out of that. There has been no change, rather a consistency from the Government in respect of Anglo Irish Bank, Irish Nationwide Building Society, INBS, and the bondholders. The Minister for Finance clarified that he will raise the matter of the different circumstances of senior bondholders in Anglo Irish Bank with the ECB in autumn. Those in the ECB were not aware of the Minister’s comment.
The Taoiseach: They were not forewarned of his comment because his comment was consistent with what has been the position of Government: the bondholders in Anglo Irish Bank are in different circumstances to those in Allied Irish Banks and Bank of Ireland. Those in the ECB made it clear on the day of the publication of the stress tests of the Irish banks that, irrespective of a potential downgrading by the ratings agencies, they would continue to guarantee liquidity into the Irish banking system. In the context of where Ireland finds itself at the moment this is a demonstration that the bailout facility can work and that where a country is capable of making the changes, challenging though these may be for its people and economy, it can head in the right direction toward being in charge of its economic affairs again. From this perspective the Minister, Deputy Noonan, has pointed out the consistent Government view of the different circumstances that apply to senior bondholders in Anglo Irish Bank.
Deputy Shane Ross: I thank the Taoiseach. It is a helpful response and it is welcome to be certain that the Minister did not tell the ECB in advance. It shows an independence of which we should show more. Unfortunately, the Minister came straight back, went to Europe yesterday and fell back into the friendly embrace of Madame Lagarde again.
Deputy Shane Ross: Come on. This is not just about Madame Lagarde, and I do not want to personalise it too much. Despite this extraordinary courting of France in which we have been engaged, we did not get any cut in the interest rate yesterday. What has been the result of these constant meetings with the French Minister of Finance and in what way have they paid off for Ireland?
The Taoiseach: French courtship has been a matter of considerable comment over the centuries. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, gets on very well in a professional capacity with all of his colleagues in Europe. The French have been very helpful in respect of Ireland’s case and those of other countries in terms of the changes on preferred creditor status in regard to the European Stability Mechanism. France and Ireland get on very well in areas besides the rugby field such as the agri-economy and our support for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and other areas in regard to the development of the Single Market.
The French Minister of Economic Affairs, Finances and Industry, Ms Lagarde, has a complete understanding of the challenge facing Ireland and was very strong and forthright in her view on the positive change brought about the Ministers in Luxemburg in regard to the change in so far as preferred creditor status is concerned. For a country like Ireland, which has no wish or intention of being involved in a permanent bailout facility such as the ESM, this is a positive move by the Ministers for Finance and is something in which the French played a central and strong part.
The question of the interest rate did not arise and was not discussed yesterday because of the overriding imperative of dealing with the situation regarding the Greek Government and economy. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, in going to Luxemburg, was very clear in his view that what was needed from the Luxemburg decision was, irrespective of what decision might be arrived at in regard to Greece, that Ireland and countries like Ireland would be protected. He has achieved that and is to be commended on so doing.
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