Tuesday, 15 March 2011
Programme for Government: Motion
Enda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
"That Dáil Éireann welcomes and supports the Programme for Government agreed by the Parties in Government of the 31st Dáil."
Ireland is facing an economic and social crisis with few parallels in our history. More than 430,000 people are on the live register, more than 160,000 of whom have been unemployed for more than a year. We are again facing the prospect of forced emigration with an estimated 2,000 people set to leave every week over the next two years. Unsustainable tax and expenditure decisions have undermined the public finances, leaving an expected Exchequer deficit of more than €17.5 billion in 2011. A failure of regulation and irresponsible behaviour in financial institutions have brought about the effective collapse of our banking system. International and domestic confidence in the credibility of the State and its capacity to manage the financial crisis has been undermined. The State's creditworthiness has been lost as a result of the decision to bail out the creditors of private institutions. We are no longer able to borrow at reasonable rates of interest on the open market. Ireland's reputation in the European Union and across the world has been badly damaged.
Faced with this national emergency, which is the direct result of bad policy decisions and poor leadership, the Irish people voted for change, not just a change of faces around the Cabinet table, but a new approach to politics here. In overwhelming numbers, the Irish people voted for Fine Gael and the Labour Party to implement that change. Based on this strong mandate, the Fine Gael and Labour parties have agreed a programme for national recovery. The programme is based on a realistic and honest assessment of the crisis facing the country.
The programme for Government aims to restore confidence in the country at home and abroad. We will rebuild Ireland's international reputation. Starting with the St. Patrick's Day visits this week, the Government will lead a sustained campaign to restore confidence in the country as a place to invest, locate a business or visit as a tourist. The programme offers hope, particularly to young people who fear for their future in Ireland. It aims to persuade our best and brightest to stay with us and help lead the process of change and renewal.
It places immediate focus on the jobs crisis. Within 100 days we will introduce a jobs budget that will help keep our young people at home building the future of their own country. We will reduce the lower rate of VAT and will halve the lower rate of employers' PRSI. We will create 15,000 new places in training, work experience and education for people out of work. Through NewERA we will revitalise our national infrastructure networks - water, energy and broadband - to create thousands of new jobs and increase our competitiveness.
We will set up a strategic investment bank and new mechanisms to deliver credit to small businesses. We will prioritise building relationships with emerging markets, which hold huge potential for investment and trade in the future. We will reduce costs for business and support local SMEs to build and grow their businesses, and compete on world markets. We will put a new focus on venture capital and commercialising research, ensuring innovative ideas translate into new companies and jobs. We will implement ambitious job-creation strategies in each sector - in agrifood, tourism, the IFSC, digital industries, green enterprise, international education and many others.
The programme for Government recommits Ireland to solving the fiscal crisis and honouring our sovereign debts. Closing the gap between tax revenue and expenditure requires painful but necessary decisions over the years ahead. It is important to emphasise that this gap exists independent of the banking sector and must be closed if we are to return to the markets at the end of the EU-IMF programme. We will reduce the gap in a planned way, minimising the impact on the most vulnerable, while retaining incentives for enterprise and work. We will also establish an independent fiscal advisory council to ensure that the budgetary mistakes of the past decade are not repeated.
We also need to limit additional taxpayer commitments to the banking sector to levels consistent with Ireland being able to return to the bond markets at the end of the current EU-IMF programme of support. The programme for Government sets out the strategies we will pursue to secure a solution which is perceived as affordable by the international markets and the Irish public. We need to restructure and restore confidence in our banking system without further damaging the credibility of the Exchequer. As part of this process, we need to restore Ireland's standing as a respected and influential member of the European Union.
The work has already begun. Last Friday, I attended a meeting of the European Council and of the Heads of State or Government of the eurozone. On Thursday evening, I met the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso. We will continue to work with our partners to improve Ireland's situation, including improving the terms on which it receives loans from the European Financial Stability Facility and securing support to bring the crisis in our banking to a close. Negotiations are continuing to that end and it would not be appropriate for me to spell out the detail at this stage. However, I reassure the House that I will not compromise on our 12.5% corporation tax rate. As the programme for Government makes clear, this is a core element of our fiscal strategy. The Government has a strong mandate from the people for the negotiation strategy we are now pursuing and I am confident it will deliver an outcome which works for Ireland and for our EU partners.
We also need to bring to an end a situation where the European Union is presented as being over there and not here in Ireland. European law is Irish law and, as the elected representatives of the people, it is important that the Oireachtas plays its full part in overseeing its enactment. That is why the programme for Government contains an extensive set of measures to overhaul how European business is handled. All committees must play a role in scrutinising EU law as an integral part of their business. All Ministers will be obliged to appear before their respective committees or before the Committee on European Affairs, prior to travelling to Council meetings where decisions are likely to be made. I will brief the Oireachtas prior to attending meetings of the European Council.
Our system of Government must modernise, adapt to new financial circumstances and start to deliver better services with scarce resources. We will introduce the most ambitious programme of reform since the foundation of our State. We will make the system smaller and more efficient by substantially reducing employee numbers and by changing the way in which work is done. Front-line staff will be given more power to make decisions and we will bring in new personnel with new ideas to strengthen the public service. We will bring in new skills and rigour into policy-making across all Departments. There will be increased delegation of budgets and accountability for results at every level of the public sector with clear consequences for success and failure.
Resources will be put into the hands of citizens to acquire services that are tailored to better suit their needs and are less expensive for the taxpayer. We will conduct a comprehensive spending review to examine all areas of public spending and to develop multi-annual budget plans. We want a more effective, leaner, and high-performing public service, which is in the interests of citizens and public servants alike, and is no less than the people deserve. This will mean empowering our Civil Service whereby the legal responsibility between Ministers and their civil servants is spelled out, and there is greater flexibility and mobility across the entire public service. We intend to use the full potential of the Croke Park agreement to deliver on these reforms. We will capture the appetite for change now evident within the public service, and ensure that improved service delivery, and organisational efficiency and effectiveness are achieved. Circumstances have now provided us with a unique opportunity to streamline our public service, and to strengthen its performance. This will be done with renewed urgency under the guidance of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, and the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes.
The credibility of this reform agenda requires politicians to take the lead. We need to change forever the way politics works here. Reform is required to restore trust in politics and politicians. That is why reform will start with politics. The election of this new Government, composed of parties which between them obtained 55.5% of the popular vote on 25 February, has brought the composition of the Government into line with the recently expressed wishes of the people.
It has also given the Government a powerful mandate to introduce fundamental reform in the institutions of the country and in the way they work. Such reform is essential to restore trust in politics and in Government. It is also essential for other reasons, namely, to ensure the resolution of the fiscal crisis is seen to be carried out as far as possible in a way that protects the most vulnerable people in our society, of whom there are many; to maintain and enhance our competitiveness; and to put value for money, efficiency and effectiveness in public spending at the top of that agenda.
Our commitments start with ourselves. We have already reduced ministerial pay and we are reforming the system of transport for Ministers, which was decided today. We will also make sure that political expenses are vouched for and we will axe severance payments for Ministers. No political pensions will be paid to sitting Deputies and in future no retired politician will get a political pension until the national retirement age.
We will further reduce the cost of our political institutions by abolishing the Seanad, if the people approve it in a referendum, and by reducing the number of Deputies after the publication of the results of this year's census. We are also committed to making the Dáil more effective. For example, the Abbeylara Supreme Court judgment limited the ability of Dáil committees to investigate crucial issues of public concern. We intend to bring a referendum before the people to amend the Constitution to give Dáil committees full powers of investigation, for which many Deputies have called over many years. We will have fewer, but stronger, Dáil committees which are properly resourced.
We will introduce legislation to apply a radical extension of the parliamentary questions regime to State bodies and bodies with majority ownership or funding by the State, requiring them to provide answers to written questions within a specified number of Dáil sitting days. We will of course recognise the special position of bodies with a commercial mandate operating at arm's length from Government. We will require the CEO of every State funded body attend the relevant committee on a regular basis to answer oral parliamentary questions, on a similar basis to the attendance of Ministers before the full Dáil.
We will legislate to restore the previous position in regard to the Freedom of Information Act and we will extend the remit of that Act and of the Ombudsman Act. We will also introduce whistleblowers legislation and amend the Official Secrets Act. We will introduce spending limits for all elections, including presidential elections and constitutional referendums. We will also reduce the limits on political donations to political parties and candidates and we will require disclosure of all aggregate sums above €1,500 and €600 respectively. We will bring forward the necessary legal and constitutional provisions to ban corporate donations to political parties.
Last, but by no means least, in addition to bringing forward referendums ourselves we will establish a constitutional convention to consider comprehensive constitutional reform, including a review of our Dáil electoral system, reducing the presidential term, providing for same-sex marriage, removing the clause on women and encouraging greater participation of women in public life and possibly reducing the voting age.
Although we face difficult times, the programme will bring equality and fairness back to the heart of Government. We want a fair society where people trust and have faith in the institutions and services of the State and where those services demonstrably work for them. We will introduce universal health insurance with equal access to care for all. Nobody will be left behind. We will ensure universal coverage by paying for those on lower incomes and providing subsidies for those on middle incomes. Within the term of this Government, we will deliver universal primary care, which will remove fees for general practitioner care and ensure that patients have access to a wider range of health services and professionals in their local communities.
As we rebuild our economy we are determined to look after those who are most vulnerable, ensuring all our people live with dignity. We will bring forward a realistic implementation plan for the national disability strategy, including sectoral plans with achievable time scales and targets. We will ensure that money spent on disability services is clearly set out and audited. Any decent society must value, respect and protect older people. We will complete and implement the national positive ageing strategy to this end.
It is time to bring a renewed focus to tackling poverty, educational disadvantage and social protection. We know that children remain the group most at risk of poverty in Ireland, with more than 90,000 children living in families that cannot afford basic necessities like food, warm clothing or heating. We have to break that cycle of poverty. This Government will adopt a new area-based approach to child poverty, which draws on best international practice and existing services to tackle every aspect of child poverty which is of concern to a great number of people.
Tackling educational disadvantage is key to increasing opportunities for future generations of young people. The review of the DEIS programme will provide a platform for new initiatives to deliver better outcomes for students in disadvantaged areas. We will protect families whose homes are at risk through a combination of new reliefs, existing supports and forbearance measures. These are tremendous challenges, but my Government is absolutely committed to meeting those challenges and delivering on our programme.
The Irish people have spoken and their verdict is reflected in the programme for national recovery before the House. The programme has been agreed by the two largest parties in the Oireachtas, Fine Gael and the Labour Party, ensuring that we now have a Government capable of strong and stable leadership. We have a Government with a mandate and willingness to face the hard decisions and offer real leadership to the Irish people. I am under no illusions about the scale of the challenges that lie ahead. I make no effort to hide the scale of these challenges from the Irish people.
As Taoiseach, it will be my privilege to be open and truthful with the Irish people as we tackle these challenges over the next number of years. I have great faith in the Irish people and their ingenuity, passion, sense of decency, resilience in the face of difficulty and pride in their country. I believe the programme meets the high standards the Irish people rightly demand of their Government. I commend the programme for Government to the House.