Wednesday, 21 March 2012
At the outset, I wish to take this opportunity to extend my sympathies and those of my party to the family of the late, great Jim Stynes, who passed away on Tuesday after a long illness. He was a true sportsman who used his other skills to help others, particularly children and young people, who were disadvantaged. He was a proud Dublin man and an Irishman who became an Australian national hero. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.
Since the Government announced the introduction of the €100 household charge, it has been mishandled in a ham-fisted manner. It smacks of arrogance, carelessness and incompetence. Even though the announcement was made last July, the majority of households nationwide have yet to receive information leaflets and only ten days remain before the deadline. There has been no proactive campaign and not everyone has access to the Internet for information on how to pay or is aware of what choices are available. For example, as the Tánaiste is aware, there is total confusion about people being allowed to make payments at the post office. The Irish Postmasters Union has been commenting on this for weeks and its general secretary summed it up when he stated, "Minister Hogan...appear[s] to be going out of [his] way to make it difficult for people who want to pay to do so with ease". The only response from the Minister, Deputy Hogan, has been a pronouncement from on high that there would be no extension to the deadline. This is despite the fact that up to 11 a.m. this morning, his Department has indicated that only 280,000 have registered out of 1.8 million households that are obliged to register. Intense anger is growing across the country about the manner in which this charge has been handled.
The Government's attitude is practically Orwellian and the mantra appears to be "Big Phil is going to get you". The mantra emanating from the Government appears to be that no matter what, whether through utility charges or pay cheques, there will be nowhere to run or to hide. Big Phil is watching you and he will make you pay.
I am sure the Tánaiste will agree this approach simply is not working. It is no way to treat the vast majority of law-abiding reasonable, responsible people who wish to obey the law. The Tánaiste should remember that before the election, the Labour Party sought exemptions for those in negative equity, those who had paid stamp duty and so on. Yet, when Fianna Fáil tabled amendments to the legislation in this House, the Tánaiste and Labour Party Members voted against them, despite also calling for such exemptions themselves.
Fianna Fáil tabled further amendments on welfare dependants and medical card holders, which also were voted down by Fine Gael and the Labour Party.
The Tánaiste might clarify whether it is possible to pay via the post office. I understand that Seán O'Rourke was obliged to clarify this point on the "News at One" radio programme after interviewing the Tánaiste. I believe the Tánaiste inadvertently may have made a mistake by stating that one could do so. Seán O'Rourke stated that lest anyone else be further misled, the Tánaiste may have made a mistake and that one cannot pay via the post office.
Will the Government agree to an extension of the deadline beyond 31 March in order that people be given a reasonable opportunity to pay and that such payment may be facilitated in much easier ways? Such an extension would allow greater information to be disseminated, would outline the choices for payment and would facilitate easier ways of paying.
First, I wish to join with Deputy Martin in expressing sympathy on the death of Jim Stynes. He was a great sportsman and great ambassador for this country in Australia. I am arranging, through our ambassador in Australia, for the State to be represented at the funeral as I am sure Deputy Martin would expect.
I acknowledge there have been difficulties with the payment of the household charge. I acknowledge there have been difficulties in respect of the communication of the household charge to households. To some extent, this is understandable in a situation in which this is a new charge, as is the method of its payment. The position is the legislation that was introduced and the arrangements put in place by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government provide for a deadline of 31 March, by which time the charge is to be paid. No change has been made in that deadline. I spoke with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government about it earlier today and no change is planned to that deadline.
It is possible to make the payment at the post office. I understand that arrangements have been made for the forms and so on to be in place in post offices and that people can make payment at post offices. This is in addition to the arrangement that is in place for paying it online. I acknowledge that not everyone is in a position to do this or to pay it by post.
I suggest to the Tánaiste that one reason there is a difficulty with this charge is that both the Labour Party and the Fine Gael Party made cast-iron guarantees and promises to people that such a charge would not be introduced. At the time, the present Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, stated that a flat charge "is the unfairest possible way of all to introduce a property tax". Basically, if one states one thing before a general election, only to do the exact opposite having gone into government, it annoys people. The Tánaiste and Deputy Rabbitte may smile, but that is a factor. I was out and about last week and that is the common view. It creates difficulties for one when one executes a 180° U-turn and then tries to introduce something against which one railed recklessly a short time ago.
I note the Tánaiste stated he spoke to the Minister. What was the nature of his conversation with the Minister, Deputy Hogan? Is the Tánaiste suggesting to Deputy Hogan that he should extend the deadline? Is this now the Tánaiste's position? I listened carefully to what he said and the language was very coded. He simply stated there has been no change. He did not state there would not be any change and did not indicate what was the nature of his conversation with the Minister, Deputy Hogan. My party intends to bring forward simple legislation to amend the Act to extend the deadline to the end of September. Would the Tánaiste agree with that and would he be prepared to support such a simple amendment to facilitate people?
Basically, can the Tánaiste explain what is his present position? This morning, I heard the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, state she thought there should be far easier ways to pay this charge than has been the case heretofore.
The Tánaiste has now acknowledged the change in respect of the post office. He should spell out to the Dáil what he said to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan. In coded language, the Tánaiste has criticised the operation of this charge thus far. Is it his view that an extension should be put in place and facilitated?
They also require clarity in respect of the matter. That is why the Government has been clear about this matter. The deadline is 31 March and the household charge must be paid by that date. I acknowledge that there have been difficulties in respect of the method of payment. If Deputy Martin insists on making this a partisan issue, then there is a simple way to proceed.
This is a charge the current Government was obliged to introduce because the previous Administration agreed with the troika last year that a property tax would be introduced in 2012.
The household charge is an interim measure pending the introduction of a property tax, and it must be paid. The property tax is being worked upon at present. There are those intent on giving the impression that if enough people do not pay the household charge, then no one will be obliged to pay it.
I join previous speakers in paying tribute to the late Jim Stynes who was a sporting hero, an Irish hero and a great Dubliner. I am sure that the thoughts, sympathies and solidarity of the Members of these Houses are with his family at what must be a very difficult time for them.
There are ten days left before the deadline and just over 80% of households have not paid the household charge. It is fair to state that the Government's handling of this issue has been shambolic. It is also fair to state that its desperation is evident, particularly when one considers the increasingly shrill tones used by Ministers in trying to frighten citizens into paying the charge. I put it to the Government that it should stop trying to bully the electorate and should instead try listening to it for a change. The reality is that in the context of this issue - as was the case with the DEIS schools - the Government has got it wrong.
It is not simply a matter of the way in which this issue has been handled. People know that the household charge is unfair, unjust and should be withdrawn. SIPTU, Unite, the CPSU, the Dublin Council of Trade Unions and others have called for this tax to be scrapped. Will the Government face facts? Will the Tánaiste inform me whether it is really intended to bring hundreds of thousands of citizens before the courts in respect of this issue, particularly when not a single banker has been jailed for causing the crisis in which we currently find ourselves? It is not a case of extending the deadline and neither is this a controversy with regard to whether the charge can be paid in a local post office. Will the Tánaiste accept that this unfair and unjust charge has failed and that it should be scrapped?
I look forward to hearing from the Deputy about Sinn Féin's proposals for a property tax. Information in that regard would be very helpful in the context of the discussions in which we are involved.
The Government is not in the business of bullying anybody. However, we do want to be straight with people. Deputy McDonald, her party and those others who are campaigning against the household charge should do likewise. There is no point in misleading people into believing that the charge will not have to be paid, that it will be wished away or that it will be made to vanish. Households are required to pay the charge. If it is not paid, the normal penalties and interest charges that apply in respect of unpaid taxes will come into play. Those such as Sinn Féin and others who are encouraging people not to pay the charge are simply misleading them. As a result, households will incur increasing debts. That is not fair on the households concerned. It is fair enough if individuals adopt a political position of opposing the charge. Members can oppose it in the House and so on. However, Sinn Féin and others are going to great lengths to encourage and advise people not to pay the charge.
Far from misleading people in respect of the matters to which the Tánaiste refers, we have clearly stated that the Government intends to levy this tax and that it will pursue people for fines and penalties. We also understand that it will introduce amending legislation to coerce the public into paying such penalties by making attachment orders to their wages or welfare payments.
The honest thing to say is that there are people who simply do not have the €100 required to pay the charge. There are others who will not pay the charge because they view it - quite correctly - as a flat and unjust tax. It is also honest to say that the Tánaiste is standing over something which he knows, in his gut, is unfair.
This charge has been delivered in a shambolic way and people have responded accordingly. It strikes me that the sensible and equitable thing for the Government to do at this juncture would be to admit - as it has done previously - that it made a mistake and withdraw this charge and the threats to the effect that people will be pursued, either through the courts or via attachment orders, in respect of the charge. Such a move would be the stuff of honesty.
Deputy McDonald should explain how it is acceptable that households on the part of the island governed and administered by her party should pay €1,500, while directly across the Border in Donegal-----
That is for sure. They certainly are not comparable. There is no comparison between the €1,500 charge which applies in Derry and the €100 charge which obtains in Donegal.
It is the height of hypocrisy for the Deputy to come before the House and utter all sorts of hyperbole about hundreds of thousands of people being taken to court, coerced, etc.
Hundreds of thousands of people are not going to be taken to court and everybody knows that. If the charge is not paid by the deadline, however, people will incur penalties and interest. The latter is normal in respect of unpaid tax. The Deputy's party should not-----
I join colleagues in offering, on behalf of the Technical Group, deepest sympathy to the family of the late Jim Stynes. Jim was a great sportsperson who played for Ballyboden St. Enda's, Dublin and Melbourne. He was also a great sporting ambassador for Ireland.
Today I raise the very important issue of the child sexual abuse report published yesterday. I am pleased the Vatican has admitted great shame over sex abuse in Ireland and I welcome the apology. It is still not accepting the reality of past cover-ups of sexual abuse of children, and that reality must be faced. There is also a common misconception that victims have been well looked after by the church but the church's legal teams are fighting tooth and nail to limit the financial exposure, with the victims suffering again. Is this true remorse and does the church need to address this issue?
With regard to guidelines, I welcome the improvements in good practice but we should not delude ourselves, and there is still a little boy or girl out there suffering from child sexual abuse as I speak. We have had many reports and recommendations but we must take action. What action will the Tánaiste take?
What is the Government's reaction to this report, particularly the aspects covering the silence and cover-up regarding child sexual abuse? Does the Tánaiste accept there are many good priests, nuns and lay people in the churches who were shocked by the actions of senior people in their church, and they too felt let down? Does the Tánaiste accept the State has a serious responsibility with this matter? Does he agree with the comments of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, who today said that the State had failed these children too? What will be done about that?
The report issued yesterday was produced by the Vatican following the visitations with the Irish church and seminaries. It is, essentially, a report by the church authorities on the church itself. Therefore, it is not really a matter for the Government to have a view on it in so far as the report is about internal church matters.
I should be clear that the sexual abuse of children - the rape of children - is a crime. It is not a matter of theology and it is not a matter which is exclusively in the domain of a church. That is why this Government has been absolutely clear on this issue and in a statement last September we made it very clear that crimes which have been committed against children are matters that should have been reported to the Garda and authorities, and those who sought to obstruct such reportage were seriously wrong. I hope that arising from the report issued yesterday and other statements, there will never be a question in future of crimes of the kind we have seen and which were dealt with in the Cloyne report and elsewhere not being reported to the Garda and authorities.
As far as the Government is concerned, we are proceeding with the Children First guidelines, the measures announced by the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald and, later this year, with a referendum on children's rights.
I thank the Tánaiste for his response and welcome his comments on such acts being a crime against children. Following this report, those of us in this State must improve child protection measures presented in the seven and a half page report. Does the Tánaiste accept this is about victims and their families, who need genuine support, compassion and practical action from the State? On the broader issue of child sexual abuse, how does the Tánaiste plan to deal with the sexual abuse cases which occur in broader society, with some saying in the region of 90% of all child sexual abuse happens in families, among relations and neighbours and in the wider community? How will the Government help and protect those children from such abuse?
Will the children's rights referendum deal comprehensively with children at risk in the family environment, which is a crucial aspect of 90% of child abuse cases? There is an untold story in this issue, which is the sexual abuse of children with an intellectual disability. Will the Government be a voice for those children? The Tánaiste has said this report has nothing to do with the Government but I ask him not to dismantle child protection services in the name of austerity in the current economic climate.
Deputy McGrath has asked a series of questions on how the Government is dealing with the protection of children and services for them. This Government established a new Department of Children and Youth Affairs and appointed a Cabinet Minister to oversee the issue of protecting children and the delivery of services to children and youths. The Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, has announced Government legislation relating to the withholding of information and I described earlier the kind of crimes committed against children. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, has also brought forward legislation in this regard, and the child and family support agency will add to this. Supports are being provided for families, which is very important and has been a priority for the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald. There is also a very strong emphasis on a new inspection regime dealing with the provision of services and supports for children.
In summary, this Government has given a top priority to the protection of children and the provision of support for children, and in time that will be reflected in the referendum on children's rights that is being progressed by the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald.