Dáil debates

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

12:00 pm

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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The late James Dillon, who led my party in a distinguished fashion for a number of years, used to say that politics is a vocation that draws people into stormy waters as well as calm. This is true. Everybody who serves in this House, for any party or none, understands that. This profession has taken a beating on many fronts - some justified and some not. I have never accepted that it is unconstitutional for the Government to legislate to put an end to the payment of ministerial pensions to people who continue to serve in the Oireachtas. Prior to last year's budget, Fine Gael proposed as part of its pre-budget submission that legislation should be introduced to end the receipt of legitimate ministerial pensions by all serving Members of the Oireachtas. The Minister for Finance refused to divulge to me the legal advice that was given by the Attorney General in this regard. I understand it relates to the principle of legitimate expectation. In July of last year, the Government brought a Bill through the Oireachtas giving effect to a new law whereby from the first day of the next Dáil, no Member with ministerial experience who is entitled to a ministerial pension shall receive such a pension. The Government followed that by reducing the scale of the pensions paid to people who formerly served as Ministers.

Today, the Fine Gael Party has published a Bill that would immediately terminate the payment of ministerial pensions to serving Members of the Oireachtas. My challenge to the Taoiseach is to accept the Fine Gael Bill and thereby put an end to this practice for once and for all, in the interests of all concerned. The relentless pursuit of individuals could then finally be dealt. If this proposal is not accepted, I intend to place our Bill before the Dáil during next week's Private Members' business so that it can be voted on by Fianna Fáil and Green Party Deputies on the Government side. I ask the Taoiseach to accept this Bill as a means of bringing an end to this practice. I want him to understand that if the Government votes it down, all of those Fine Gael Members who are legally entitled to draw ministerial pensions will voluntarily give up such pensions, or give them to charity.

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Taoiseach; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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As Deputy Kenny said, we legislated on this matter when it arose last year. The issues that arose on that occasion related to an entitlement under existing law, regarding a pension being seen a property right. We are advised that as property rights are protected under the Constitution, any reduction or removal of pensions by legislation has to be proportionate. The reductions which have been imposed on other groups are of relevance in determining what is proportionate. That is the advice we received from the Attorney General. As the Deputy knows, it is the convention not to publish advice but that is the essence of it. The pension entitlement for former Ministers who are serving Members of the Oireachtas will be abolished from the date of the next election. That is the existing position. We were advised that this position is consistent with the law and is what was possible. Therefore, unlike the last election, persons who are deciding whether to contest the next election will not have a legitimate expectation that they will continue to receive a ministerial pension while in receipt of an Oireachtas salary. A similar approach was taken in 1992 when changes to the receipt of ministerial pensions for Oireachtas Members did not take effect until after a general election had intervened. One can presume the same legal issue arose then. I have not seen or studied any proposal from Fine Gael on this matter. I can have it examined but the position we have outlined is based on the advice of the Attorney General and, as the Deputy knows, the Government has to abide by that advice.

Photo of Séamus KirkSéamus Kirk (Ceann Comhairle; Louth, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Kenny can ask a brief supplementary question.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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This is not 1992; it cannot be and it is not business as usual. I have received legal advice on the Bill published by Fine Gael today which states that it is constitutional to pass the Bill now and end this practice for everybody who is currently so entitled. It can be done immediately. The members of Fine Gael are willing to give up voluntarily those pensions if Fianna Fáil does not accept the Bill which I have put forward, which will also deal with members of Fianna Fáil. There are some strong reports that the reason there is reluctance about this issue is that some members of Fianna Fáil who have considerable ministerial experience are in receipt of significant pensions. In any event, this is a matter which is not of 1992. This is 2010.

Photo of Séamus KirkSéamus Kirk (Ceann Comhairle; Louth, Ceann Comhairle)
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Could we have a question?

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Yes. The public at large is very angry about the mismanagement of the public finances. This is an issue which has been around for some time. It is unfair to have a situation where some do and some do not surrender their pensions. My view and that of my party is that the Government can legislate for this in the same way as the Taoiseach said property rights were affected in 1992. They will also be affected after the next election. All the members of my party who are so affected are prepared to give up voluntarily ministerial pensions. I understand the members of the Labour Party who are entitled to these legitimate pensions are voluntarily prepared to give them up. Is the Taoiseach prepared to speak in the House, call in the members of his party and arrive at a similar position if he is still reluctant to introduce the legislation or prepared to vote it down next week?

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Taoiseach; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I have made it clear to the Deputy that it is not a question of reluctance on the part of the Government, rather it is a question of the Government having to propose legislation that is lawful.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Let them challenge it then.

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Taoiseach; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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It is not a question of challenging it, but a question of having lawful legislation. I am not saying the situation is the same as pertained in 1992 or any other time. The same legal principles apply because a similar approach was taken then on the question of the abolition of pensions in respect of the legislation passed last year. The Minister for Finance outlined that position in detail. It is not a question of any party being reluctant to introduce legislation, but about having to address this matter in a legal and lawful way.

I have made, and continue to make, the point that one cannot abolish property rights. One then has to have a proportionate reduction in payments, which we have done. There has been a reduction of 25%, as people will know. If people wish to gift or make a further contribution based on the current situation, that is a matter for each individual to consider and reflect upon, and they should be given that opportunity. We have been very anxious to ensure that discretion is applied to every individual.

Photo of P J SheehanP J Sheehan (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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Beating around the bush.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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I also want to raise a pension-related issue, namely, the plight of pensioners and low income households in this country who are facing a double whammy this weekend. People will lose their fuel allowance as the winter scheme will come to an end at the end of April. However, the cost of heating oil will increase as a result of the introduction of the carbon levy. When the Minister for Finance announced the budget last year, he introduced a carbon levy which is coming into effect on Saturday, 1 May 2010 in respect of heating oil. It will increase the price of heating oil by 8.7%.

When the Minister introduced the budget, he promised that a vouched system of fuel allowances would be introduced for low income families who were affected by the introduction of the carbon levy. My colleague, Deputy Shortall, has been pursuing the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, and his predecessor about this issue for the past six months. During that time the Government has not done anything to introduce the allowance. There are 300,000 households in this country who will be affected by this next Saturday. The increase of 8.7% in their heating oil bill, coming on top of the increase in the price of oil of 37% over the course of the past year, means that the total increase for low income households which are dependent on home heating oil will be 45%.

The levy is due to be introduced next Saturday. Will the Taoiseach introduce the allowance, as was promised in the budget, or will he postpone the introduction of the carbon levy on heating oil until such time as the allowance is introduced to protect low income families from the effect of the carbon levy?

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Taoiseach; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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The current allowance for free fuel and the various supplementary social welfare schemes in place to assist low income families will be available and cover the period from autumn to March, which is the period when people are most in need of heating requirements. Therefore, the question of the provision of that scheme will be provided for in the normal way from then on. In the meantime, if there are any hardship cases, the exceptional needs payments scheme continues to be available.

Photo of Séamus KirkSéamus Kirk (Ceann Comhairle; Louth, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Deputy can ask a brief supplementary question.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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That does not address the issue at all. The winter fuel allowance which normally operates from October to April will expire; it is a standard fuel allowance which is available throughout the winter. Many families and, in particular, elderly people, who are more prone to the cold than others, will know that the end of April is not the appropriate time to end the scheme. If we have the kind of summer we had last year, many elderly people will have recourse to heating during the summer period.

The Minister for Finance promised an additional allowance specifically for low income families. He said it would be a vouched allowance but never spelled out what kind of vouched allowance it would be. There was to be a specific allowance to protect low income households from the impact of the carbon levy. This levy will increase the price of heating oil by 8.7% which, as I pointed out, comes on top of increases in the price of oil over the past year. It will present an additional hardship for people whose social welfare payments were cut by the Government in the budget and who had an additional cut in their payments as a result of the abolition of the Christmas bonus. They are now facing additional fuel costs because of the introduction of the carbon levy.

The Minister, Deputy Mary Hanafin, who is sitting beside the Taoiseach and is prompting his reply, promised Deputy Shortall last February that this scheme would be in place before the carbon levy was introduced. It will come into effect on Saturday. Will the allowance be in place by Saturday or will the Taoiseach postpone the introduction of the carbon levy until it is in place, in line with the commitment made by the Minster, Deputy Hanafin, when she held the social and family affairs portfolio?

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Taoiseach; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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The situation, as I have outlined it to the Deputy, is that in regard to the time from when the scheme operates allowance will be made for low income families. In the meantime the exceptional needs payment will be provided for anyone experiencing hardship through the supplementary welfare scheme.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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Community welfare officers are snowed under. They are overwhelmed.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Labour)
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The Government promised vouchers from 1 May.

Photo of Séamus KirkSéamus Kirk (Ceann Comhairle; Louth, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Taoiseach, without interruption.

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Taoiseach; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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There will not be a question of anyone being snowed under. It is a question of making sure that the exceptional needs payment system will meet any hardship in that regard.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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The Taoiseach has not even given this a second thought just because they are poor families and poor households.