Thursday, 20 September 2012
Last night the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Shortall, voted confidence in the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, but it was clear from her speech, the tone of her remarks and the fact she failed to mention the Minister by name that she does not have confidence in him. Not only did she fail to mention him by name but she also outlined in her speech a series of issues of concern to her which were not being progressed within the Department. This is hardly a sign of her faith not only in the Minister but also the entire machinery of government. She outlined her concern about the "lack of priority afforded to producing the free GP care legislation", which is one of the commitments of the programme for Government. She also expressed concern about the introduction of the universal health insurance. After 18 months as a Minister of State, she continues to ask basic questions about the model on which universal health insurance will be based. We can deduce from this either that no work is being done in this area or that she has been excluded from negotiations even though she has responsibility for primary care.
Has the Tánaiste held any discussions with the Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, about her working relationship with the Minister, Deputy Reilly? Has she ever discussed with the Tánaiste the concerns she outlined last night? Has she discussed her concerns about the delays in giving her delegated powers? Has the Tánaiste ever initiated discussions on what is apparently a broken working relationship in the Department of Health?
I listened to the contribution by the Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, to last night's debate, as well as the contribution by the Minister, Deputy Reilly, and the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch. I also heard the collective voice of this House, which voted by a margin of 2:1, with every Government Deputy commending the Minister on the reforms that have been undertaken to date, more in 18 months than the party opposite did in the 14 years it was in charge of the Department of Health and Children-----
-----and supporting the reform programme this Government is pursuing in health. What we have seen from this Government over the past 18 months is an urgency and impatience to reform our health service with less money and fewer staff than the party opposite had available to it. The country and I expect these reforms to be delivered.
-----there is a mother with a child who has a nasty cough and she is wondering whether she can take that child to the doctor. This is why, for the first time, we have a Government that is committed to introducing-----
-----a system of universal health insurance with equal access to care for all. Under that system there would be no discrimination between patients on the grounds of income or insurance status and the two tier system of unequal access to hospital care will end. That is what we committed to doing in our programme for Government and that is what we are going to deliver. I have discussed the delivery of that several times with the Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, and the Minister for Health at the relevant Cabinet sub-committee and with my other colleagues. I assure the House that we are determined to deliver on that commitment and I expect-----
Last night the Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, expressed concern about the lack of priority afforded to producing the free GP care legislation. The Minister of State in charge of this area says that not enough is being done for that mother and her sick child, but the Tánaiste speaks about urgency and impatience. What has he done to address the completely fractured working relationship between the Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, and the Minister, Deputy Reilly? Has he made any intervention on a constructive basis to ensure she has the support and delegated powers she needs to do the job and help any mother or patient to get GP care? She is in charge of the job but she feels she is not getting the support she needs to do it. Do not speak about urgency and impatience when the Minister of State in charge of doing the job feels she cannot do the job.
When it comes to gall, Fianna Fáil has it in abundance. After 14 years of doubling the expenditure in health and doubling the number working in the system, it left us with a health service that was worse than when it got it.
They are getting on with the job of repairing the health service that Fianna Fáil broke. I expect and am confident that they are going to deliver on that.
Deputy Calleary may be suggesting relationship counselling or some kind of mediation for the two individuals concerned. I reiterate our welcome for the publication of the proposed wording of the constitutional amendment on children and congratulate the Government on its publication. It is without doubt a significant and long overdue step towards enshrining children's rights in the Constitution. However, as the Tánaiste will be aware, the reality of life for many children across this State is a world away from the aspirations of the proposed constitutional amendment.
More than 100,000 children in the State live in poverty. This number has increased in recent years because of the policies of Fianna Fáil and of the Tánaiste's own Government. If we are collectively serious about making the best interests of the child a paramount consideration in public policy and the law, we need a strategy to tackle child poverty.
I ask the Tánaiste for a number of commitments. Will he undertake to children-proof the forthcoming budget? Will he promise that the budget will contain no measure to place yet more children in poverty? Will he go one step further and set out the Government's strategy for dealing with children living in poverty?
I thank Deputy McDonald for her welcome for the publication of the constitutional amendment to enshrine the rights of children, for the first time, in our Constitution. I welcome her support and that of her party for the Government's effort in that regard. I hope we will, collectively, succeed in having the referendum passed and having, for the first time, the rights of children enshrined in our Constitution.
The Government gives a high priority to children and to their welfare, safety and rights. That is why, for the first time in the history of the State, we have a Cabinet Minister who is responsible for children and youth affairs and a Department that is responsible for children and youth affairs. Every measure taken by Government and every proposal, whether budgetary, financial or legislative, is examined by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and by her Department before the measure is discussed at Cabinet. The views and observations of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and her Department are taken into account in any decision we make. That will be the case in budget matters and any other matter that comes before Government.
The Government is determined to turn the economy around. We inherited a situation where our economy was on the floor. We have a job of work to do, in which we are making progress, to turn the economy around and to create employment and the wealth and income to lift people out of poverty. Our efforts at economic recovery are not an end in themselves. They are a means to achieving a more equal and fairer society in which we have fewer poor people.
I wish he would stop it. The Government's last budget was judged, not only by Sinn Féin but also by organisations such as Barnados, as having heaped huge hardship on children. Stealth taxes and cuts to public services and social welfare all had an impact on child citizens. Of course, we had the debacle of DEIS schools and the attempt to take teachers away from some of the most disadvantaged children in the State.
I do not have confidence in the robustness of the process for children-proofing the budget.
The constitutional referendum will not be a simple plebiscite of the people and a popular vote. It puts it up to the Government to put its money where its mouth is. If the Government is serious about protecting the rights of children, it will protect the services they rely on and the income of low and middle income families - that is, if the Government is serious. Fine words and whingeing about Fianna Fáil will not put bread in the belly of a single child.
I ask the Tánaiste for a concrete commitment that when the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform make their pronouncements, no measure will be contained therein that will put even one additional child into a position of poverty. Can the Tánaiste give that commitment, and do so without referring backwards to the people in Fianna Fail?
There were no cuts in social welfare rates or cuts in payments to children in last year's budget.
Child poverty is an issue the Government is concerned about. As any parent knows, the most prudent thing one can do for children and their future is to ensure there is good management of financial affairs, now and in the future. That applies equally to a household or to a Government dealing with the national finances.
That is why the approach of the Government to the national finances, the creation of employment and national recovery is to ensure a sound future for our children and adequate provision for them, adequate education and child support services and adequate income supports. We are committed to that.
Last year, we saw an unprecedented public revolt and mass boycott against the unjust household charge the Government imposed. Faced with that revolt, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government went into hiding for a period but the Government finally admitted that the charge was unfair and unjust and promised something fairer. In recent weeks, it is becoming clear, through various leaks from the Government, that what is proposed will not be fairer. As we who opposed the household charge predicted, ordinary families, even at the low rate of 0.25% of the value of the property which has been leaked, will be paying between €500 and €800 per year in property tax.
With 1.6 million people having less than €100 left when they have paid their bills every month and 900,000 people living on or below the poverty line, including 100,000 children, how does the Tánaiste expect people to pay this charge? Does he not realise that if the Government presses ahead with this tax, hundreds of thousands of families will be pushed into poverty? One cannot get blood out of a stone. Does he not realise that the revolt and protests against the household charge will be nothing compared with the public revolt he will see if the Government imposes hundreds of euro more in austerity taxes on ordinary low and middle income families, the unemployed and people facing mortgage distress? It makes a mockery of the Government's claims that it will protect children if it imposes a property tax that will drive the parents of those children into poverty.
Will the Tánaiste assure the House that he will not impose further unsustainable financial burdens on ordinary families, the unemployed, low and middle income families and people facing mortgage and financial distress?
-----advising householders not to pay the household charge.
More than 1,045,000 householders ignored the Deputy's advice and paid the charge. There are, however, large numbers of people who took the Deputy's advice and who are increasingly finding they have more to pay now than they would have last year if they had not listened to the Deputy and some of his colleagues in the first place.
It was always the case, and the Government made this clear at the outset, that the household charge would be replaced by a property tax. Deputy Boyd Barrett professes to be a socialist and I have never met a socialist who does not feel a property tax should be proceeded with. Can the Deputy tell me if he favours the introduction of a property tax and if he is in favour of such a tax, can he give us the benefit of his guidance on what he thinks would be a fair property tax? The Government is working on this and we would value the Deputy's opinion so let us have it. We have already made clear we intend to introduce a property tax and would value the Deputy's input, instead of him jumping up and own and organising protests about something that has not been introduced at all. Let us be constructive for a change, let him leave down the picket sign and take up the pen and set out for us his proposals on a property tax and what he thinks would be a fair system. If he is not in a position to tell us now in the House, he could let us know over the course of time so we could have the benefit of his wisdom on the matter.
The Tánaiste should not insult the people of this country by suggesting that the more than 1 million households that refused to pay the household charge before the deadline his Government set on 31 March earlier this year did so simply because we advised them to do it, they did it because they recognised it was an unjust and unfair charge. As a result of that boycott and revolt, the Tánaiste's Government was finally forced to admit it was unfair and unjust. I want to know, and hundreds of thousands of families across the country want to know, if the system that will replace the household charge will be even worse than the €100 charge that was imposed on them last year. All the indications are that it will be three, four or five times what the Government tried to impose on them last year.
Why does this Government not levy taxes on those who can afford it rather than continuing to hammer those who cannot? They are hanging on by their fingernails and being driven into poverty because the Government's determination to bail out the banks and protect the super wealthy.
I will give a little history and accuracy. The commitment to introduce a property tax was contained in the programme for Government and the respective manifestos of the two parties that now form the Government. When the household charge was introduced, we made it clear it was introduced as an interim measure pending the introduction of a property tax. The details of how that property tax will be composed and what it will be based on is a matter that is currently under consideration by the Government. Again, I invite Deputy Boyd Barrett, or any other Member of the House who has a concern about the property tax issue, to let us know a couple of things. Is the Deputy in favour of the introduction of a property tax and will he let us have his proposals on such a tax? He should set out what it should be based upon and what level it should be charged at. He wants to tax the super wealthy - let us have the detailed proposals and we will consider them. He can outline those proposals in the House or make a submission to us.