Wednesday, 13 July 2011
Over the past four months there have been many debates and questions in the House on the issue of Europe's response to the financial crisis affecting many countries. As the Taoiseach knows, I have said repeatedly that the failure to implement comprehensively and quickly the agreements reached in February and formalised at the 11 March summit was foolish and damaging. However, the agreements reached on Monday were positive and encouraging for anyone who cares about the economy of the European Union and all of its member states. Clearly, this has never been just an Irish crisis and, finally, indications are that Europe is getting back on track after months of drift.
In this context, the decision of Moody's last night concerning Ireland's rating is very frustrating. While it may be understandable in the context of the speculation about a default in Greece, it flies in the face of unquestionable evidence of Ireland's resolute actions and Europe's support for Ireland. I welcome the strong and clear statements by the Department of Finance and the NTMA pointing out the failure of Moody's to note the many positive, fiscal and economic indicators. The strong support of Commissioner Rehn and of Prime Minister Juncker is also very welcome. Moody's is an agency that was once one of the chief enablers of unsustainable credit growth across Europe, but now, effectively, it is threatening more and more states with badly reasoned and cavalier ratings.
When we strip this latest development back to basics, we find a failure of Europe as a whole to live up to the vision of its founders and a failure to take the resolute action needed to underpin the eurozone and show the world that Europe will do what is needed to maintain the Union. In essence, it is a failure of collective European leadership. Will the Taoiseach agree that what we need now is for the leaders of Europe to seize this crisis, do what they should have done months ago, put in place a comprehensive pan-European solution and stop tinkering around the edges?
I accept what the Deputy says as being constructive. This is in keeping with the position of the Government, as outlined by me and many other Ministers over the past number of months, that the situation in so far as Ireland's deal was concerned could be improved upon and that Europe and its leaders needed to make serious decisions about what is becoming an even more serious situation. I read the Moody's report in respect of Ireland and noted that it states that Ireland is achieving its targets and that there could well be upward pressure on the rating, provided the Government is in a position to deal with its deficit and takes control of its economy. That is where the Government priority lies.
I understand there have been calls for a meeting of the Council on Friday. There is no point in going to a meeting on Friday unless there will be a decision or set of decisions on the European situation. As the Minister for Finance outlined on his return from the two-day meeting, the Ministers for Finance discussed a range of opportunities and possibilities to deal with the European situation. Moody's problem is not with Ireland. Ireland's problem is with Europe. Moody's has pointed out that Ireland is in a very different set of circumstances from other countries. Therefore, if a Council meeting is to be held on Friday, it must be one that will grasp the nettle and set out Europe's response to the contagion which is clearly causing anxiety and concern. With Italy having a debt of €1.8 trillion or 120% of GDP, the situation is obviously a cause for serious concern. In so far as that is concerned, Deputy Martin's suggestion is constructive.
If a Council meeting is to be held on Friday, I will participate strongly in it on the basis of what we have been saying for the past number of months about the overall level of pricing, the need for flexibility and the opportunities that exist to ease Europe's problem and, as a consequence, Ireland's problem. That still leaves us with our domestic difficulties in terms of the budget deficit and the preparation for the budget for 2012. In respect of Europe measuring up, as I have said at Council meetings and as many Deputies have said, it is now time, as a consequence of the concern and anxiety that exists internationally and as reflected through the markets' lack of confidence in particular areas, that the matter is responded to comprehensively and decisively by Europe. Ireland will contribute to that.
I thank the Taoiseach. Yesterday, President Van Rompuy mentioned the possibility of an emergency summit on Friday. I agree with the Taoiseach that this will only be helpful if the leaders of Europe take the "in principle" agreements reached between the Finance Ministers last Monday. They must act on what has been a substantive and profound shift in approach to the crisis taken by European leaders because of the threat of contagion to Italy and Spain. We must turn those agreements into concrete actions at such a summit.
The spread of the bond market crisis to Spain and Italy is quite similar to what has happened in other countries, including Ireland. That is down to an abject failure at European level to nail down a comprehensive policy. In advance of any meeting - and what we hope will finally be action on debt sustainability, pricing and a reduction in the interest rate - will the Taoiseach, in the interest of clarity and at this critical time in terms of our strategy, publish the offer that was made to the Government by President Van Rompuy at the meeting on 11 March? I have asked about this before and it is important in terms of transparency in order to give us an insight into Mr. Van Rompuy's thinking back then in seeking to resolve this issue for Ireland and his thinking on the broader crisis. It is in the best interests of everyone that the text of the offer by Mr. Van Rompuy be published.
It is not relevant to the situation because the overall position was that there were other demands on Ireland to increase our corporate tax rate in respect of receiving any interest rate reduction. What was in question in respect of President Van Rompuy's suggested compromise was not circulated to every leader and was an attempt by him possibly to come to a conclusion on the issue. However, my dealings with other leaders made it clear this would not be the case.
While I accept the Deputy's interest in this matter, my priority now - if a meeting is held on Friday, whether a full Council meeting or a meeting of the eurozone countries - is to ensure the issues that have been put on the table by the Minister for Finance for some time in terms of the overall pricing, maturity, and flexibility on all of these issues is decided upon decisively by the European leaders. There is no point in having a meeting which will not bring about a conclusion in a comprehensive sense to something that will not go away unless it is dealt with. From our point of view, we have continued to discuss the question of the interest rate reduction with our colleagues, but we are now in a situation where Europe itself must respond to a European problem. That is reflected in Moody's analysis and downgrading. Moody's problem is not with Ireland; it recognises that this is a European problem which must be responded to in a European sense.
Le meas, caithfidh mé a bheith an-díreach ar an cheist seo. The Taoiseach should not even think of going to the summit on Friday - and I say that with respect - if he is going to do what his Government has been doing thus far. It is completely out of its depth on this issue. The Government, including the Tánaiste and Minister for Health, has been misleading the Dáil on a range of issues, such as Roscommon hospital and other hospital services, the payment of low paid workers, the provision for special needs assistants and the commitment not to reduce welfare payments.
It has also misled the House on this crucial issue of the debt with which our people are burdened. The crisis grows deeper and it is the people, not the Government, who are paying the price. Before the end of this year - and this is a political choice the Government is making - we will have paid €800 million to unguaranteed senior bondholders in Anglo Irish Bank. Is it not time to change direction? Is it not time to send out a clear message that the Government will not use the people's money to pay for the greed of these private bankers but instead will look after Irish interests and the interests of Irish people?
Más mian leis an Teachta go mbeidh mé díreach, beidh mé díreach. What the Government has been doing at Council meetings is pointing out consistently the need for an improvement in the circumstances of the bailout deal. Long before other Finance Ministers were articulating this, the Minister for Finance, on behalf of the Government - as is his responsibility - was pointing out the need for a reduction in pricing, greater flexibility and for matters like security dates and so on to be considered. That is what the European Ministers talked about on Monday and Tuesday. If a meeting is called on Friday, that is what will be discussed.
In respect of Anglo Irish Bank, the big decision about the large payment the Deputy mentioned is not due until November. The Minister has signalled for some time that discussions will take place with the European Central Bank in the early autumn on that matter. Tá sin an-díreach ar fad.
Let us not mislead people on this issue. Last week and each week before that we paid between €10 million and €12 million to these bondholders. The Taoiseach is misleading people - and I use that word advisedly - as is the Minister for Health in regard to hospital services, election commitments - which are personal, because all politics is personal - and also in terms of the commitments given in the programme for Government. The Minister for Social Protection is now telling us that welfare payments will be cut, which will affect the most vulnerable in this society. There are many people who never saw themselves as vulnerable, whether economically or in terms of their broad access to public services. There are many people paying for this crisis in a real way.
The Taoiseach is sincere in what he is trying to do, but he is in breach of every single commitment he made on all of the issues to which I referred.
The Government promised to burn bondholders. The Tánaiste spoke of "Frankfurt's way or Labour's way". The Government said it would protect the most socially deprived and low paid workers. All of these commitments were clearly given. It is no wonder the Taoiseach's masters in the European Union and the IMF will not listen to him. It is no wonder they can ignore him.
I am asking the Taoiseach to send a clear declaration now - not to quote some Minister or other - that no more taxpayers' money will go into these toxic banks but will instead go into public services and that the Government will stand up for the interests of the Irish people.
The situation that applies in every household in the country, in every small shop in the country, in every business in the country is that if one is spending more than one is taking in, one will not continue in business for long. This country has a deficit of €18 billion this year. In other words, we are spending €18 billion more than we are taking in. The reason for this is the legacy of an unfortunate Government which lumped bank debt onto sovereign debt and mismanaged the economy to the extent that we now must make serious decisions that have not been tended to for a long time.
For instance, in respect of the reductions in social welfare allowances, this was included in the 2011 budget with no underlining policy decision to bring about the €65 million savings involved. Surely the Deputy does not believe that we should, for example, continue to pay rent for handsets that can now be had for free under the deal being done with Eircom by the Minister for Social Protection. It is time to get real in the sense of what the Government has to deal with. We will not sort out our problems by living in a fantasy land where we can walk away from our debt and close schools, businesses and hospitals-----
We have to grapple with an economic challenge that no Government in the history of the State has had to deal with. We have lost our economic sovereignty. Perhaps some Deputies do not understand that, but it is a fact of life. We are being examined on the conditions of the IMF-EU bailout deal by the troika and we are meeting those challenges. Every one of the European institutions has backed us up on that. We cannot get away from the fact that the country is in hock and we must trade our way out of it. We must cut out waste and abolish quangos that are useless.
We must ensure that our people understand that these are very challenging times which will not go away by the Deputy standing up in the Chamber and asking us to forget about the crisis and walk away from the debt. That crisis will only get worse. We must deal with it in a fair and balanced way and we will.
On 22 June the Taoiseach gave a commitment that services for children with special needs would be maintained. He stated: "I also assure the House that all schools which enrol children with special needs will have special needs assistants' support." Why, then, is the Government cutting special needs services? Is this another example of a broken promise? The current Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, made a similar promise while in opposition. What does the Taoiseach say to the families who will be protesting at the gates of Leinster House today at 3 p.m.? I agree with the Taoiseach that the country is in hock, but it is about choices and how we spend our money.
What does the Taoiseach say to the school principal of a very disadvantaged school on the northside of Dublin who recently wrote to me saying that he was informed by the special education needs organiser that their class for children with mild learning disabilities is to be suppressed? He told me also that parents chose to send their children to his school for its inclusive education experience, as promised by the EPSEN Act. What is his response to these parents and teachers? What does he say to the family of Aoife, a child with special needs, who is being refused transport due to a technicality in the regulations while the bus passes her front door? What does the Taoiseach say to groups such as the INTO and Inclusion Ireland that are strongly opposing these cuts to the services for children with disabilities?
This matter has been dealt with on a number of occasions by the Minister for Education and Skills in responding to questions. The Deputy is aware that a cap of 10,575 posts was placed on the number of special needs assistants in 2010. The current number is 10,800, which means there must be a reduction in the number of special needs assistants, although overall there will be more SNA staff than ever before.
The Minister for Education and Skills has been very careful in his response to the Private Members' business, which is being discussed. In fact, the Minister has held back over 400 positions to deal with situations such as those mentioned by the Deputy. I invited Deputy Ó Snodaigh to send me details of a particular case, which appeared to me to be worthy of the services of a special needs assistant. I do not know the details of the cases raised by Deputy McGrath but I invite him to send them to me. The reason the Minister for Education and Skills held a number of these posts was that every school that requires it would have contact and access to a special needs assistant. If there are unfortunate circumstances, or particularly bad cases, there is a mechanism to deal with them. I gave the Deputy some examples of where SNAs were appointed regarding children with particular behaviours which in many cases might not warrant a full-time SNA.
The priorities of the NCSE were to ensure that the minimum SNA to special class ratio was maintained, that there would be support for children who are incontinent, and that children who qualify for full day cover would be assured of receiving it. The deferral of some of those positions was to deal with cases that are in need of the services of a special needs assistant. I invite the Deputy to send the details to me or to the Minister for Education and Skills and they will be looked at in the context of these criteria.
First, I have already passed the details of the three cases I mentioned to the Minister for Education and Skills and I was not impressed with his response.
I am going to be very blunt. If the Taoiseach goes down the road of cutting a service to children with special needs, not only are the children with special needs being damaged but when the special needs assistants lose their jobs, they will go back on the dole and will be in receipt of welfare payments. In addition, some will qualify for a medical card or rent allowance and that will cost the State more. From an economic point of view, will the Taoiseach accept that cuts in this service will damage the local community and the local economy?
In regard to his comments on special needs assistants, 8,000 to 10,000 children come into the system every year and a certain percentage of them, 400 to 500 children at least, will have a special needs requirement. Putting a cap on the number of SNAs will not work; it will be a disaster. Does the Taoiseach wish Ireland to be in breach of Article 28.1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which states that every child has the right to equal opportunity through education? Is that the Ireland the Taoiseach wants? Does he and the Minister for public expenditure and reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, want to be in breach of the EPSEN Act 2004 when the State has promised to assist children with special needs to leave schools with the skills necessary to participate in society? Does the Taoiseach want to end up in the courts again, at a cost of €20 million in legal costs, like previous Governments? Half of such legal costs would resolve the current SNA issue. Is that what the Taoiseach wants to do to children with special needs?
No, it is not, nor do we want to end up in court case after court case as applied previously. I raised those kinds of issues when I was in opposition. Deputies need to understand that it is not a case of continuing to write cheque after cheque for any sector.
There is clearly a need for looking at the way that services are provided for children in all the different sectors. There will be 10,575 special needs assistants in the system who will deliver a very valuable service and make a very valuable contribution to the children's education. The posts that have been held back deliberately by the Minister are to deal with priority cases that clearly should have access and, therefore, will have access to special needs assistants.
In a general sense, we need to look at the way services are delivered through our education system. The Minister has made the point that the population projections require a certain number of schools to be built for second level and primary level education and is making arrangements for that to happen, unlike the construction of vast sprawling estates where consideration was not given to the provision of any school, primary or secondary in the area. As a result land prices went through the roof and it became impossible to buy sites, which led to pressure groups advocating for transport or about overcrowded building and the use of prefabs.
In regard to the cases raised by Deputy McGrath, I will remind the Minister for Education and Skills that he has received a number of cases and if they are worthy and deemed to be a priority, as all children are a priority, no school will be without contact with an SNA if it needs it and no child will be left without contact with an SNA if he or she needs it. I share that view with all Deputies. It is critical not only to get the children to a point where they can develop their own potential at primary level, but that there will be some process to make progress when they move from the primary to the second level system. This is an area we will focus on, as this was not done in the past. We do not want to go down the road of endless court cases. Common sense must apply in all walks of life. An analysis of the way we deliver these services is worthy of consideration, which I am sure is being reflected in the Private Members' business.