Wednesday, 14 September 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Micheál Martin: ——with a commitment to honesty and transparency. The Taoiseach may not have seen it from his office but outside this House today there is a group of pensioners pointing out the truth of the effect of this Government’s raid during the last term on private pensions.
Deputy Micheál Martin: The Taoiseach, when asked again and again in May and June about this issue, dodged the questions and hid the truth. It took the Freedom of Information Act for us to uncover that the Government received and ignored repeated warnings about the damage this levy could do. The Taoiseach hid that information from the House. I sought this information in May and June and the Taoiseach refused to provide it.
Before the Taoiseach repeats his standard line minimising the impact of this levy, he should consider the following. One member of the group with whom I met today is drawing a pension of €10,000 per annum. The effect of the pensions levy, and the Government’s insistence, through legislation, that the pensioner pays, on this individual is not 0.6% as trumpeted by the Taoiseach but 10%. This man’s income falls from €10,000 per annum to €9,000 per annum for the next four years. This is just the start of it. At least 70,000 other private pension holders in this country will feel the full impact of the levy from 25 September onwards and that is just the first tranche.
For the purposes of political gimmickry, the Taoiseach ignored the advice of qualified experts in the Departments of Finance and Social Protection. The Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform were warned that this levy was coming at the worst possible time as employers and employees do not have the resources to make additional contributions. The result since its introduction has been no new jobs and more people on the live register.
It is clear the Taoiseach withheld crucial information about the danger of the levy when he pushed it through the House. It has become increasingly clear that the initiative was less about creating jobs and more about the image-building that characterised his early days in Government. Will the Taoiseach acknowledge that the impact of this levy on the 70,000 people, at a minimum, who will be hit by it at the end of the month will be significantly more damaging than he admitted at the time of its introduction?
The Taoiseach: Deputy Martin is welcome back. I would be the first to acknowledge that it would be wonderful to stand up here as Taoiseach and have very different stories to tell. The Deputy speaks of gimmickry, dodging the issue and truth. The entire litany of what he and his colleagues went through for 12 years——
The Taoiseach: ——has left this country in a mess this Government will have to sort out. Every single person wants to contribute to rectifying our country in getting back to a state where our public finances are in good shape, where jobs are being created and where a future is created for our young people.
The Taoiseach: That is what the Freedom of Information Act was introduced for by the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government in previous years. We will make changes to it in due course because the Deputy’s crowd tried to restrict it even further.
The Taoiseach: This comes from a Deputy who commissioned 130 reports that were never seen or looked at on shelves, all of which were produced at public expense. I recognise the challenge that so many people in our country face today as do they and they want the Government to sort out this problem. There is no point in living in fantasy land or behind the shadows here. The levy was introduced by Government decision as a temporary measure for job creation facilities and there is an impact.
The Taoiseach: I recognise that the introduction of a levy will impinge on people, as does every levy. We all understand that. It was made clear by the Minister for Finance that, given the circumstances in which the Government found the country following the recent general election, decisions must be taken that will point the country in the right direction.
Deputy Micheál Martin: The Taoiseach’s party political game-playing is cold comfort to the people outside on €10,000 per annum who, through the levy, will be reduced to €9,000 per annum. I find it incredible that he would stand up here and say that a Dáil Deputy should wait for freedom of information requests——
Deputy Micheál Martin: ——before he or the Minister for Finance would provide the information on the floor of the House to facilitate debate, on fundamental questions that go to the heart of this issue in terms of those concerned. It is a disgrace and it is incredible that he would have the nerve to say that in this House. How dare he say it. It shows an absolute disrespect for this House and for the right of Deputies to the most basic information on budgetary decisions. The pension levy was the Taoiseach’s idea.
Deputy Micheál Martin: He ignored the advice he received on the damage it would cause. He repeatedly sought to hide the information and to prevent it coming before the House. It was a disgraceful performance in terms of a Government that has trumpeted transparency in respect of more information that is allegedly supposed to come before the House.
I asked in May and June, during Leaders’ Questions, if the Taoiseach sought and received legal advices and, if so, if he would lay those advices before the House. It was mid-summer before we got that information through the Freedom of Information Act. The Taoiseach deliberately misled the Dáil and deliberately hid this information from the House because he did not want the truth to come out at the time.
The Taoiseach: It appears those in the Opposition are under some pressure. At least the information was made available to the Deputy through the freedom of information mechanism and it did not fall behind the radiator like some other documents he saw in the past.
The Taoiseach: The difference between this Government and the Government of which Deputy Martin was a member is that we are not afraid to make decisions. Yes, we take responsibility for introducing the pension levy and we make no apology that it is a temporary levy. We do not make any apology for using those resources for job creation initiatives. Of course I understand the impact of any levy on people. People walk into my office just as they walk into Deputy Martin’s office. If his row is about the extent of information, he has got it, it is published information.
An Ceann Comhairle: I call Deputy Gerry Adams. It is just as well the break was only for six weeks. I would hate to think what it would be like if Members had a three-month break. I ask for respect to those who are asking a question and wait for the reply from the Taoiseach.
Deputy Gerry Adams: Tá súil agam go mbeidh ciúnas ann nuair a labharóidh mé agus an Taoiseach. Cuirim fáilte ar ais roimh an Taoiseach. Tá súil agam gur bhain sé sult as a rothar i rith an tsamhraidh. Nuair a bhí sé ag rothaíocht, an bhfaca sé an bealach eile, an bealach chun an Stát a shábháil? Every day since we left here, the Government has given €315 million to the banks. Some €17 billion has been handed over to them. In the 20 minutes it takes for questions to the Taoiseach, €4.4 million will be given by the Government to them. How can he justify this? The Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Barnardos have said that one third of our children are without a warm coat or a hot meal and the 0.5 million people on the dole are being joined by people from TalkTalk and from the Gaeltacht regions. I met pensioners from Tara mines who have had a 10% reduction in their pensions. Surely, it is time to seize the moment, to change Government policy and put this money not into banks but into job creation to get our people back to work and to grow the economy, and to realise that we cannot cut our way out of the recession.
What will be the social consequences of all this? What will be left in terms of society, community, family and of social protections? What about equality for Irish citizens? I ask the Taoiseach to signal a step-change in Government policy, that is, money should not go into the banks but into job creation.
The Taoiseach: The Government made a series of strategic decisions to restructure the bank system and to recapitalise banks. We are all aware of the numbers of people who are in a distressed condition because of their mortgages. We have set out the issues that currently apply there, where discussions should take place in the first instance between the lender and the borrower. We are waiting for a series of recommendations from an expert group to report by the end of September.
I spoke to an employer over the weekend who interviewed three times for employees in a nursing home, was unable to get any Irish employee to take a job at €10, €10.50 or €11 per hour and must now bring in people from abroad who will work on those wages and send back contributions to their own countries. I am well aware of the extent of the live register but I am also aware that the direction of the Government will be to reduce the burden on employers, business and opportunities for employment and initiatives. To have a situation where we have 14.4% on the live register is completely unacceptable. One cannot change the direction of such a magnitude overnight or in 20 weeks but the focus of the Government is to sort out our public finances——
Deputy Adams is well aware that the extent of investment and investment opportunities from abroad is strong, as evidenced from the trade surplus based on our exports but our indigenous economy is flat and it is there that confidence measures must be placed. This is why the Government reduced the PRSI for employers. It is also why the Government reduced the VAT applied to the hospitality sector, which had such a direct beneficial impact on this summer alone. It is in those areas that we will continue to focus Government direction.
Of course I am well aware of the difficulties that many communities and people are experiencing these days. There is a rocky period ahead — there is no doubt about that — but the Government will not back away from its responsibility for giving our country back to our people, restoring our economic independence and forging a better future for everybody.
Deputy Gerry Adams: With respect, it needs more than rhetoric to do that. The Government is making political choices. For example, the Government has signalled that it will take up to €4 billion in increased taxes and cuts in the December budget. That will be the Government’s choice. The Taoiseach cannot blame Fianna Fáil for it.
I say this fraternally and, like the Taoiseach, with the best interests of the Irish people in my heart, but we want the Government to get people back to work. The Taoiseach is in Government with a whopping majority. Labour, the party of the working class, is in Government with him. Bring forward a jobs package. The Taoiseach greeted President Obama to this country and we were all glad to see him. The President has just announced a jobs package in the United States of America. He recognises that one cannot go forward unless one gets people back to work. This is our request, appeal, challenge and plea to the Government — get people back to work. Do not put the money into the pockets of top civil servants and top politicians, those who will walk off. Do not put the money into the toxic banks. The Government should put the money into getting our people back into good jobs.
The Taoiseach: I share the Deputy’s belief in the principle of creating the maximum number of jobs that we can. The arguments that we had before the summer recess about the interest rate reduction are not being raised now because it is being applied with great benefit to the country.
The Taoiseach: The Minister, Deputy Noonan, has welcomed the adoption of the proposals by the European Commission today in respect of the European Financial Stabilisation Mechanism, EFSM, loan facility. The reduction of the rate is worth about €650 million per year for each year that the loan facility is drawn down.
The banks have been restructured and recapitalised. As Deputy Adams is aware, €1 billion of private equity has gone into one of those banks. The Government has made the decision to have the portfolio of assets of Anglo Irish Bank in the USA offered for sale and strong bids are being submitted in that regard. Confidence measures are being evidenced by this kind of momentum.
We have got a very long way to go. I will say something to the Deputy as the leader of his party. If he is interested in job creation, in this Chamber in this session he will have the opportunity to point out credible opportunities that are realistic and can be considered for implementation by the Minister, Deputy Noonan——
The Taoiseach: ——and the Government in respect of the budget that must be introduced for 2012. Yes, there are serious constraints, in that a sovereign agreement between this State and the IMF troika was signed off on. We have renegotiated elements of that——
The Taoiseach: ——but there are clear criteria that we must and will meet. We do not want to focus entirely on those facts, because politics is about people, first and last. The emphasis of the Government, with Deputy Adams’s contribution and help if he wants to provide it, will be on job creation schemes, opportunities for personal initiatives and business to get our people off the live register, off the dole, and back into gainful employment. When that opportunity arises here, I hope the Deputy will take it wholeheartedly.
Deputy Finian McGrath: I welcome the Ceann Comhairle and the Taoiseach back after the summer break. I wish everyone well for this term. I wish to raise the issue of education and its importance to the country’s future, in particular as a major tool to get us out of this economic mess. I just left the Leinster House gates where hundreds of parents, teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs, are protesting the education service. Has the Government devised plans to raise the school-going age to five?
Deputy Finian McGrath: What are the Government’s plans to address the shortage of qualified maths teachers in second level schools? Does the Government plan to increase the pupil-teacher ratio in primary and second level schools to save €75 million and at the expense of 1,200 jobs? In this day and age, is it acceptable for children with a disability to be locked out of school on their first day back because there are no places, resource teachers or SNAs? Some of them have been offered a lousy one hour per week service. Does the Taoiseach accept this as part of modern Ireland? Would members of the Government accept the same reduction in services for any of their children? The parents’ tears on the first day of school were a scandal and a disgrace. It is shameful that families are suffering and their children are being locked out of schools. What will the Taoiseach do about these serious national issues? Will he stand up for education and protect our schools and pupils?
The Taoiseach: The Deputy asked a number of questions. The answer in respect of a Government decision about increasing the age of attendance is that no decision has been taken. The answer to the Deputy’s question about a Government decision in respect of changing the pupil-teacher ratio is that no decision has been made. I have outlined the situation in so far as SNAs are concerned.
The Taoiseach: The Minister for Education and Skills held back more than 400 of these appointments so that they could be allocated in cases where they are absolutely necessary. I had occasion to make contact with the Department of Education and Skills recently about two individual cases. As the Deputy is aware, the professional assessor decides on the basis of professional qualifications the needs for any individual child, and the special needs officer of the Department discusses the use and the allocation of the SNAs to the school. I made the point before the summer that if particular cases arise, they should be brought to the attention of the professional qualified assessors of need for the children in question. The Deputy and I meet those affected. The matter causes enormous stress for people in certain households.
There has not been a cut in resource teachers. As the Deputy knows, resource hours for pupils with special educational needs who require particular supports are allocated by the National Council for Special Education. The number of resource teachers to be allocated in 2011 has increased over that for last year. There are more resource teachers than there were before. There were 9,600 whole-time equivalent posts for 2010. For the new school year, this will rise to 9,950, representing an increase of 350 resource teacher posts this year.
On the Deputy’s question on mathematics, all second level schools were sent a questionnaire on 5 September relating to the qualifications of mathematics teachers. The results of the survey showed that of a total of 2,045 teachers teaching mathematics in 258 schools, 1,400 are fully qualified to do so, 596 have undergone some studies in mathematics and 49 have no third level qualifications or have conducted no studies in mathematics. I find it somewhat unusual that the employers — in this case, the boards of management and principal teachers — would not have queried the actual qualifications for teaching mathematics in the first instance. One is aware that the Minister for Education and Skills has announced a programme of up-skilling mathematics teachers, to start in January 2012. Having met various business representatives, I note some are very happy with the standard of students coming through while others are not. I was speaking to a businessperson some nights ago who was looking for 35 IT staff but who could not get anybody. There is a worldwide shortage of designers, planners and programmers. The Minister for Education and Skills is certainly considering this in the most serious fashion because it is fundamental to the well-being of our economy and the quality of our graduates over the coming years.
Deputy Finian McGrath: I thank the Taoiseach for his response. If he has made a commitment on the school entry age, I welcome it. It is all very well for the Taoiseach to say what he said but the reality is that 227 SNAs have gone out of the system. Why are hundreds of people at the gates today protesting about cuts to services for children with special needs?
I would like to ask the Taoiseach a couple of questions on his views on education. I ask him to change the mindset of the Government on education. Does he regard education as a cost or an investment? He should ascertain whether the governments of countries such as Finland have targeted children with special needs or the weak or poor children during their similar economic problems. We spend €9 billion on educational services, yet we cannot find a couple of euro to protect the weakest and front line services.
Does the Taoiseach agree it is economic madness to slash the education budget while at the same time handing over €100 million to private schools? Where does the Government stand on the Tánaiste’s strong concern over the two-tier education system, on which he commented before the general election? One private school in Dublin charges a fee of €5,160, gets €2.1 million from the taxpayer and employs an extra 12 teachers. If the Taoiseach slashed 50% of the funding for such wealthy schools, he could pay for all the SNAs and resource teachers required for children with special needs.
The Taoiseach: I do not regard education as a charge or cost but as an opportunity and as having potential. It is of great importance to the country. The National Council for Special Education has advised all the mainstream schools of their SNA allocations. Four hundred and seventy-five have not yet received an allocation for particular cases where they are clearly needed. Most of these allocations will apply outside the mainstream schools, in respect of which notification has already been issued. As I stated before, the Department decided approximately 475 of the 10,575 posts should be retained in order to allocate them over the coming school year in cases of emergency, where appeals are justified, or where there are acquired injuries or new school entrants, for example. That only makes common sense. The Minister for Education and Skills is very much aware of this.
The Deputy referred to Finland and what was done there. Clearly, over 20 years Finnish governments invested heavily in the training of teachers to teach. There is a need for leadership courses for principal teachers in schools so they can motivate their teaching staff who operate under great pressure. I am quite sure the Minister is clearly aware of this. I have no doubt the scheme being put forward by the Minister to improve teaching techniques and elements of mathematics teaching will bear huge dividends. As Deputy Finian McGrath is aware, Project Maths, through promoting an understanding of the relevance of numbers and their practical applications, will have a bearing on the quality and range of students emerging in the years ahead. As the Deputy is aware, issues such as vectors and complex numbers should all be understood in a general way by students. I hope this will happen through the Project Maths scheme.
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