Thursday, 11 October 2012
I want to request the Tánaiste’s help in clearing up the confusion that has arisen among public sector workers regarding their allowances. The Tánaiste will be aware that on 19 September the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, who had targeted savings of €75 million in abolishing 1,100 allowances, announced he could only find one allowance for existing workers that could be cancelled and the savings would only come to €3.5 million, a significant gap. Subsequent to this statement, both IMPACT and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions conveyed to the Government and the Minister there were further possibilities and that the Minister had not gone far enough, should have dug deeper and there was room for consultation. The Minister indicated he would undertake such consultation. Suddenly, on 28 September, nine days later, the Minister found he cut 90 allowances instead of one. That is a 9,000% improvement in nine days. The public and private sectors could take some lessons from that.
What procedure will the Government adopt to reduce these allowances? Is the procedure going to be within the terms of the Croke Park agreement? What savings does the Minister now envisage achieving? According to reports, one allowance he is proposing to cut, if cut last year, would have saved the country the grand sum of €2,500. Another one would have saved less than €20,000. Is this a genuine attempt at reform? Or is it, in the words of a Fine Gael backbencher quoted in this morning’s Irish Independent, a window-dressing exercise to take the heat out of the situation?
The allowances we are referring to were agreed over the years. Many of them were agreed during the 14 years that Deputy O’Dea’s party was in government.
The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, conducted an extensive review of allowances across the public sector. In many cases, these allowances were historically granted in lieu of pay increases and now form part of core pay. Cutting core pay is not compatible with the Croke Park agreement. What the agreement has demonstrated is there is more than one way to reduce the public sector pay bill. By the end of this year, the public sector pay bill will have been reduced by €3.1 billion. As of last March, there were 28,000 fewer public servants than at the peak in 2008, yet front-line services continue to be delivered for more people as there are more schoolchildren, more hospital patients and more clients of social services.
The Minister has asked the individual Departments to pursue the elimination of allowances with their respective staffs. Up to 180 allowances will be discontinued for the future. Departments have been asked to examine existing allowances. The procedures to be followed will be the industrial relations ones that come within the terms of the Croke Park agreement. As I said, €3.1 billion in savings has already been achieved using the Croke Park agreement.
Sorry, but the Tánaiste did not answer my principle question which was about savings. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform set out saying he was going to save €75 million but then found on 19 September he could only save €3.5 million. Obviously, he now has found extra allowances. How much in savings does the Minister expect to make as a result of these newly identified allowances? It must be remembered they were identified in nine days. Will the €3,500 per annum education training allowance payable to hospital consultants be continued? It would be perverse if it were, in view of the fact that the €16.90 per week paid to lowly paid paramedics is already in the Minister’s sights even though it has been ruled to be part of core pay.
For the first time a Government is addressing the issue of allowances in the public service. Fianna Fáil had 14 years. During that 14 years, when many of those allowances could have been addressed, rationalised-----
Some of these allowances there is no case for, some of these allowances are perfectly in order and some of these allowances have effectively become part of core pay and must be disaggregated.
For the first time, the Government is addressing the issue of allowances. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, has already made it clear that 180 of these allowances are to be discontinued for the future. He has asked Departments to examine existing allowances and to pursue these under the terms of the Croke Park agreement. This is part of an overall strategy of reducing the public service pay bill, which has already been reduced by €3.1 billion.
Is the Tánaiste in any way concerned at the contempt of the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, for those who question him? They include, obviously, the former Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Róisín Shortall. They certainly include Opposition Deputies whose responsibility it is to hold the Minister to account and to raise the appropriate issues. Now, that contempt is also clearly held for the Standing Orders of the House, in spite of the Ceann Comhairle's efforts to compel the Minister to reply appropriately to a Deputy. The Minister's attitude could be best summed up by saying, "How dare you question me?" I believe this has been nakedly exposed by his refusal to answer clear and concise questions and the obfuscation he employs in the answers he gives. Last evening, the Minister issued a further so-called reply to me following the Ceann Comhairle's ruling yesterday to the effect that he was in breach of Standing Order 40A. That further reply oozes contempt. I will be further referring the matter to the Ceann Comhairle today. We have further evidence this week of the Minister's arrogance in the report of his so-called meeting in Leinster House earlier this week with the founder and principal of one of the country's foremost children's charities.
Whatever one's view of what took place at this week's Committee of Public Accounts, when the Secretary General of the Department of Health and the director general designate of the Health Service Executive appeared before the committee, there is undoubtedly a concern, which I have heard expressed by those of all views across the Chamber, that the engagement got off to an unprecedented bad start. Given that the Minister for Health is the person who will appoint the members of the new HSE directorate, including the director general, and the growing evidence of the Berlin Wall that he is building around himself, his Department and the HSE, has the Tánaiste any concerns about the fact that only those already working in the HSE who already hold the grade of national director can be considered for these crucial posts? Should these opportunities not be open to public competition? Is the Minister really a fit person to make the judgment or to make the appointments while he is obviously building defences around himself?
When the Government was formed we committed ourselves to operating in a transparent way to ensure that all Ministers would be accountable to the House and, through the House, to the public. We introduced reform against a background of many years of complaints. There were inadequate procedures in place, so that if a Minister came in and did not give a full reply or if members of the Opposition or a Deputy asking a question were not satisfied with the reply, there was no recourse. We introduced a new procedure or Standing Order and we asked the House to agree that where a Member was not satisfied with a reply from a Minister, the Member could take the case to the Ceann Comhairle and the Ceann Comhairle could make a ruling on it. I am glad we did so and that the new procedure is being used. I believe this is the best and most respectful way that the Government can treat Members who have questions to be answered. Every Minister is accountable to the Dáil and its Members and is required to answer questions. I hope the procedure Deputy Ó Caoláin has used in respect of his questions to the Minister for Health will be used again by other Members because we believe in accountability and in providing answers to questions.
The Committee of Public Accounts is probably one of the most respected institutions in the country. It has a long record of doing fine work because it operates - it has operated until now, anyway - on a non-partisan basis. The procedure has been that a member of the Opposition is appointed to chair the committee and to conduct the business of the committee in an non-partisan, all-party way to hold individual Departments, the Accounting Officers of Departments and the Accounting Officers of public bodies to account for their financial management.
I have no wish to add to the controversy of the past couple of days on the conduct of business in the Committee of Public Accounts, save to say that I appeal to all, including the Chairman of that committee, to ensure the committee is not used in a partisan way and that the traditions of the Committee of Public Accounts are used to deal with the matters of financial management with which the committee is supposed to deal.
I, too, have welcomed the Standing Order change. When the Tánaiste speaks of "we" in respect of ensuring that there is a mechanism for Members to compel Ministers to reply, I agree and I welcome the ruling of the Ceann Comhairle in this regard. The Tánaiste says "we welcome" and "we support", but if he saw what the Minister, Deputy Reilly, offered me last evening on the back of the Ceann Comhairle's decision he would know that "we" does not apply to the Minister at the helm of the Department of Health. I have to say that it is a serious matter indeed, and I hope it will be appropriately addressed, because it underlines again - this is why I am highlighting it among other matters this morning - that the Minister, Deputy Reilly, is not a fit person to be at the helm of the Department of Health. That is simply the bottom line.
In the course of my questions I asked the Tánaiste if he held any concerns about the Minister's ongoing attitude. Let us make no mistake: there are Members in the House, including members of the Tánaiste's party, who view what occurred at the Committee of Public Accounts as indicative and demonstrative of what is wrong at the helm of the Department of Health and of the Minister's disposition permeating to all at the highest level within that Department.
I would ask the Tánaiste to note that there are reports this morning that there is growing disillusionment within his party at the Minister, Deputy Reilly's, continued stewardship of the Department of Health.
That is real and the Tánaiste cannot deny it. He cannot hide or run away from it. It is real and it is there. He should recognise what is happening there. There is only a limited timeframe in which the Tánaiste would have the opportunity to act as the leader of the Labour Party in this coalition-----
On accountability, as I have said, every Minister is accountable to this House. The Government has put in place new procedures to enhance that accountability.
I am glad to see them being used and I hope that they will be used more frequently.
With regard to the Minister for Health, this House disposed of that issue in a motion.
The motion was put, the vote was taken and the conclusion was reached.
Deputy O'Caoláin has no concern for the Labour Party. The only concern that Sinn Féin ever has is to promote Sinn Féin at every opportunity and to seize on every issue-----
I want to ask the Tánaiste about the Government's commitment to what it calls reform of the public service, and particularly of the health services. His use of the word "reform" is beginning to gain Orwellian characteristics in that it seems to mean the very opposite of what it suggests, that is, savage cuts being imposed on front line services and on some of the most vulnerable sectors of society. I would like the Tánaiste to prove me wrong on that point. More important, a group of parents and their children who are in the Gallery would like the Tánaiste to disprove that assertion.
They are the parents of children with severe intellectual disabilities from our constituency in Dún Laoghaire. They have found out in the past few weeks that respite services provided in Dunmore House, part of Carmona Services, are being slashed. What was previously a 24-7 respite service is proposed to be watered down to a fraction of the service that it previously was such that, for example, one mother who had an allocation of two days a week and one weekend per month of respite will now only have one day a month and one weekend every two months. Another mother told me that if these cuts go ahead, she will have to cancel an important medical procedure next week as she will have no one to mind her child on the day of her appointment.
This is the extent of these brutal cuts, what the Tánaiste calls "reform". These result from cuts in funding by the HSE to these services and the public sector recruitment moratorium. Simply, will you tell me and, more important, tell the parents in the Gallery and the others who are users of this service and their children-----
-----that you will reverse these cuts, that these services will not be touched and that you will honour your commitment to protect the most vulnerable in society, particularly vulnerable children and their families?
Carmona Services and Dunmore House is a very well run facility in the constituency Deputy Boyd Barrett and I share. They have been offering a seven day, 24 hour respite service for children with an intellectual disability. All agencies, including St. John of God's, which runs Carmona, have been asked to look at efficiencies in how they run these services.
The management at Carmona looked at the seven day, 24 hour respite service and found that they were not operating it at full capacity between Monday and Thursday. Therefore, it was decided that the service would open until 6.30 p.m. from Monday to Thursday and 24 hours from Friday to Sunday, and that it would still respond to emergencies.
There is a group of parents who are affected by this decision. The management of Carmona Services have offered to meet the parents concerned and to resolve the difficulties that are arising. That offer of a meeting with the management of the service has not been taken up to date. That meeting should proceed. Deputy Boyd Barrett should encourage the parents concerned to meet the management of the service. That is a more productive way of solving what is a real problem than coming in here and seeking to make a political football out of it.
The reason I have brought this issue in here is because 16 parents came into my clinic on Monday looking for help. I did not raise the issue; they did. What they want from the Tánaiste is an assurance that these cuts will be reversed - if it is necessary to lift the public sector recruitment embargo in order to provide the services as they have been, that he should do that - and for him to state here clearly and publicly that he will provide the resources and staff to maintain the Angel's Quest Respite Service for 140 families and their children.
If the Tánaiste does not do that, it makes a mockery of all the Government's talk of reform of the health services and all of his talk of commitment to protecting children's rights in the forthcoming referendum. What good is a commitment to children's rights and to protecting children if the Government is slashing the services to the most vulnerable children and their families in the State?
By the way, the parents are quite willing to meet the management of Carmona Services, and will meet them. What they need from the Tánaiste and from the Government is a commitment that the staffing and resources will be provided in order to maintain the Angel's Quest 24-7 respite service for these people who desperately need it and whose lives will be devastated if these cuts go ahead. Would the Tánaiste please give them that assurance?
My primary concern in this issue is to ensure that the best service is provided. That is why I believe that the best way to deal with this issue is for the meeting, which the management of the services has offered, to go ahead.
The reason Deputy Boyd Barrett raises this issue is to make a political football out of it.
The reason I say that is that I have in my hand an e-mail which was sent by one of those associated with Deputy Boyd Barrett on this matter, and it reads as follows:
Unfortunately, management had not contacted the group on Monday and it was, therefore, too late to call off the Dáil Éireann Leaders' Questions programme which is going ahead on Thursday.It goes on to refer to discussions with Deputy Boyd Barrett and with Sinn Féin. Then it states:
Given the service reduction is taking place in Eamon Gilmore's back yard, the group cannot guarantee that political opportunity will not spill over into the subject of the children's referendum [to which Deputy Boyd Barrett has now referred] on top of the opportunity to add further adverse publicity upon James Reilly and Eamon Gilmore's lack of a suitable response.
The difference between me and Deputy Boyd Barrett is that when I am notified of a problem, I try to resolve it but when he is notified of a problem, he tries to exploit it for political advantage. It is rank political opportunism.