Wednesday, 25 September 2013
On 7 March last the Taoiseach stated "I want to make it clear that the taking of houses from people is something we do not want to see and the banks themselves would see it only as a last resort". Today's edition of the Irish Examiner contains a heart-rending story about a couple in Kanturk, Martin and Claire O'Sullivan, who have three children under eight years of age and who are facing eviction from their home, the mortgage relating to which is approximately €180,000. They took out their mortgage with Smart Mortgages and their monthly repayments in respect of it are €1,000. Unfortunately, Martin, who is the sole earner, became unemployed and they are not in a position to meet their repayments. The couple have offered to make repayments of €400 per month, but this has been rejected by the mortgage company, which sent them a letter stating that the sheriff will be coming to evict them from their home.
By any standards, this is a shocking story and what has happened flies in the face of the kind of reassurances we were given in the House and elsewhere that this type of thing would not occur. Despite the change in the law, which has made it easier for banks to repossess properties, and the dilution of the code of conduct, which has essentially put them in the driving seat, it was stated that every effort and intervention would be made to prevent people from losing their family homes. The family in question have appealed to the Taoiseach to intervene. They are not alone. We know from the most recent CSO figures that 97,800 private residential mortgages have been in arrears for more than 90 days. Standing aside or remaining out of the fray will not help the families to whom I refer. There are options available. The intervention of State agencies is essential to help these families. I request that the Taoiseach appoint someone from his Department to ensure the Government and its agencies intervene in this case and provide a sustainable solution. I also request that all options be explored to prevent this couple and their three children from being evicted from their home.
I have seen some reports of the case to which Deputy Martin refers. While I do not want to discuss the details of any particular case, the situation stands as we have already said. House repossessions should be a very last resort. As the Deputy is aware, the Government provided a range of options for consideration in cases where persons are in mortgage distress. I understand exactly what the Deputy has said in respect of this particular couple. One of the mechanisms included in the relevant legislation by the Government is specifically designed to deal with cases where a situation such as that under discussion might arise. I refer to the right of a judge to put a legal stay on matters surrounding the repossession of a house until all options have been explored. That right applies in this case. I do not know what evidence or suggestions were presented or made in the court in this instance. There is a specific right included in the legislation whereby, in circumstances in which all options have not been explored, a legal stay on the repossession of a house can be put in place. That is why the opportunity should be made available in this particular case for a practitioner to consider the options available, the offers that were made by the couple involved on behalf of themselves and their children and the fact that the man is back in full employment. That would lead to a situation where all the options would be properly explored and followed through. No repossession would take place until that happened. The services of and options provided by the personal insolvency agency can be used in this instance and there is obviously also a consequence in that regard.
I do not have in my possession the details of the court case to date. In the context of specific cases of this nature, however, a right was included in the relevant legislation for a stay to be placed on prosecution and execution until all the options can be explored. I feel for this man, his wife and their children. I am not sure whether they or their advisers have engaged with the process of having a practitioner consider the matter or whether they have applied to the court to have that right applied to them. As stated, the Government has made it perfectly clear that the repossession of houses should be a very last resort. The couple involved are obviously not the owners of multiple properties and this matter relates to their family home.
The problem I have with that is that the Taoiseach seems to be washing his hand of the issue and passing the buck to the judicial system to deal with it at its discretion. I do not think that is a satisfactory response in this particular case. As recently as 9 July, the Taoiseach stated that everybody in this country recognises the value of the family home: "Everybody in this country recognises the value of the family home, perhaps more so than any other country." I put it to him that those words are meaningless if they are not followed up by solid intervention by Government agencies to prevent that which I describe from happening.
If the eviction takes place, the couple involved will invariably end up on the housing list and the county council will be obliged to purchase a house for them in good time or at some stage. In the event that the couple are obliged to rent a property, rent allowance will have to be paid. If the eviction is followed through to its conclusion, it will end up costing the taxpayer more. Of course, that does not take into account the distress and anxiety caused to this family and others like them. We suggested that an independent mortgage resolution office should be established and that such an entity would have real independent oversight with regard to the relationships between mortgage companies, banks and their customers.
The lack of such independent oversight is a major flaw in the regime currently in place. The banks and the mortgage companies are in the driving seat 100% on these issues and the State cannot just leave it to the discretion of the judicial system alone. There must be more solid intervention using the full apparatus of the State.
Will the Taoiseach intervene? Will he appoint an official in government or in his Department to intervene in this case? Do I take it from his original reply that he will not do that? Can he clarify that? Will he appoint someone to explore options in this case and to intervene on behalf of the family?
As I have pointed out to the Deputy, house repossessions are a very sensitive issue in this country. I think everybody agrees that, over the years, even when we did not have the extent of lending we had during the so-called Celtic tiger years, there were always a small number of house repossessions. When I served on the local authority many years ago, it applied in a small number of cases in particular circumstances.
I do not know the details of the case the Deputy mentioned. I understand it involves a man, his wife, their three small children and their family home. They took out a mortgage and made repayments. They took out a second facility and it is the provider of that facility which seems to have taken the case here. If I understand it correctly, this case went to court. To deal with this in a completely independent fashion, the Government put in a right for that man and his wife and for anybody in this circumstance to have the court set aside all legal proceedings about repossession until all the options are explored. It is not true to say the banks have 100% authority here. That is why the Insolvency Service of Ireland was set up.
While the banks have a say in this, there is a follow through to a bankruptcy claim or whatever. I do not know what the legal adviser to the man and his wife and family has done about this, but that right was put in place in a completely independent fashion in the knowledge that house repossession is a very sensitive issue in this country. I know that it is where I come from, and Kanturk is no different.
All the options should be explored in this case. One option put in deliberately by Government to help protect consumers is to give them the right and the time and space for every opportunity to be explored and delivered on. These people have made an offer. As I said, the courts are entirely independent but that right was inserted in the law by Government to allow for the protection of people from house repossessions until all options are properly explored.
Parents of secondary school students are very concerned following the ASTI's rejection of the Haddington Road agreement and the very real possibility of industrial action commencing on 2 October. I do not know about the Taoiseach but I do not believe for a second that any teacher wants to strike or to engage in industrial action. Teachers want to teach and deliver the best education to their students. We all know education is being damaged by the Government's austerity approach with the loss of classroom teachers, the withdrawal of guidance services and the tying up of teachers' time and energy with extra administrative work. It is these actions, not the actions of teachers, that have caused damage to our children's education.
Rather than address these concerns and those of parents, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, true to the form of the Taoiseach's Government, charged in like a school yard bully and escalated the situation by threatening compulsory redundancies. Let us remind ourselves that this is the same Minister who presides yet again over chaos in SUSI, who broke basic promises on student fees and who is currently considering increasing primary school class sizes.
Will the Taoiseach intervene to ensure there is no industrial action on 2 October? Will he ask his colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, to desist from his threats and suggest to him that it might be better to adopt a more reasonable and constructive approach?
I do not accept the Deputy's assertions at all. She was one of the people who wished the negotiations in respect of the Haddington Road agreement would fail. She denounced them before the ballot was ever held and showed scant regard for teachers, parents or pupils with her comments at the time.
The ASTI has 17,000 members. They have been balloted and have made their views known on the Haddington Road agreement. Some 300,000 public servants have accepted this agreement in the knowledge that this country was left in an unholy and unprecedented economic mess and that we must sort it out. That means the targets and the objectives set out must be achieved along with savings of €1 billion. I commend the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, and Mr. Kieran Mulvey on the extensive and complicated negotiations they had with the trade unions and the trade union members who accepted the Haddington Road agreement.
The ASTI members have made their views known on what they wish to do. On 23 September, the standing committee of the ASTI met and decided to begin industrial action in schools with effect from 2 October. The Deputy asked if I could prevent industrial action. This is a decision of the executive board of the ASTI which will see ASTI members withdraw from all meetings outside school hours, which will impact directly on parents. It will also see ASTI members refusing to participate in training for the new junior cycle, which will impact on parents and their children in second level schools, and it will see ASTI members refusing to take on any management responsibilities without being paid. That is the situation the executive of the ASTI has decided on.
I ask the ASTI to examine the cost to its members of remaining outside the Haddington Road agreement. Far from being some sort of perceived schoolboy bully, which the Deputy mentioned, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, has merely pointed out the reality of the situation. This is the Haddington Road agreement and it will not be renegotiated. Clearly, the ASTI and its members must consider the implications for persons who stay outside the agreement. That is all the Minister said, which is his responsibility. In the context of 300,000 public servants having debated, voted on and accepted this, I ask the ASTI to consider the implications for the students, their parents and its members.
The 300,000 public sector workers, about whom the Taoiseach spoke, would tell him that at the time he negotiated Croke Park and then Haddington Road, there was a very clear threat of coercion from Government. It was obvious and it made no secret about it. It came out with the big stick and shook it at public sector workers.
I am simply pointing out to the Taoiseach that which is blindingly obvious, that he is continuing in that vein. It is deeply irresponsible of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, in a situation such as this, where teachers are stressed and parents and their children are very concerned at the prospect of industrial action and strike, to stride in and rather than resolve the matter with the ASTI which has made it clear it is available for discussions, to strike a macho pose.
The Taoiseach has shown scant regard for the children, the teachers and the education system itself. He is the boss and is in charge.
Nobody wants strike action when 2 October comes. The union is available to talk constructively and maturely. Can the Government meet that challenge? Can the Taoiseach make sure talks of that nature happen immediately?
I am not sure where Deputy McDonald was for the last period. She seems to forget that the Haddington Road agreement was the subject of the most intensive negotiations and discussions-----
-----between the trade unions, the public servants, the Minister, the Labour Relations Commission and everybody else. That went on for six months. The only pay cuts that were introduced applied to those on more than €65,000 per annum. It is an important consideration that Deputy McDonald should bear in mind.
I have the opportunity and the privilege of meeting so many people who want to invest in this country and create jobs here. They want the highest quality of students to emerge from our second level schools and go on to employment or third level institutions.
For that reason, the people who stand in front of our classes are absolutely fundamental for the future of our country. The young students who are starting in second year and in the junior certificate need the training of the teachers to be able to deal with the new implications of this. We need to consider the disruption that applies in a practical sense. Parents are now expected to attend meetings during school hours even though this disrupts all of family life. The decision taken by the membership of the ASTI, as a consequence of the standing committee's instruction to members, will have other implications as well. I want to make it clear that the Haddington Road agreement will not be renegotiated. It is clear that the protection of that agreement will not apply to people who choose or wish to stay outside it.
The Deputy might ask me to intervene following the ballot in which the agreement was rejected by ASTI members, but that is not my function. There were six months of negotiations involving all of these people.
I have to say I respect the teaching profession. I am always enthused by international people speaking about the confidence of our young people. The teaching profession is a fundamental part of that triangle. At this time of economic challenge for our country, I ask the ASTI to reflect seriously on its decision to withdraw from all meetings outside school hours, to refuse to participate in training students for the new junior cycle and to refuse to take on management responsibilities without being paid. At a time of national response when we are clearly making progress, difficult though it is, I am disappointed that this decision has been made. It is not my decision.
I want to make it quite clear that there is no point in giving me orders of the House which restrict the time for Leaders' Questions if people are not going to adhere to the time limits. That applies to everyone.
We are just weeks away from what may be the hardest budget in the entire recovery from our economic collapse. The Taoiseach will be aware that the ex-IMF mission chief to Ireland, Professor Ashoka Mody, made a compelling case on "Prime Time" last night that the austerity drive should be relaxed, at least temporarily, to give the economy a boost in the arm.
The good news, as the Taoiseach will also know, is that according to the Government proposal to the European Commission last April, we are set to exceed the troika target for next year by €1.3 billion or €1.4 billion. The troika target in the memorandum of understanding, which is referenced in all of its quarterly reviews, is for the general Government deficit to be no more than 5.1% of GDP for 2014. The latest figures available to Members of the Dáil show that being exceeded by €1.3 billion or €1.4 billion. In 2012, the plan was to exceed it by €600 million or €700 million. That was updated by another €600 million or €700 million this year. As we all know, the key to our economic recovery is growth. It will drive job creation and, critically, it will help us to outgrow the huge national debts this country is facing. Therefore, I fully agree with the compelling case made by Professor Mody, which is that we should exceed the troika target for 2014 by several hundred million euro, but not by €1.4 billion. Perhaps we could exceed it by €300 million or €400 million, and use the €1 billion that is left to reinvest in economic growth. There are three parts to my question. When I spoke to people in preparation for Leaders' Questions, I was advised to ask the Taoiseach just one question, but I will take a leap of faith and ask a question with three parts.
First, does the Taoiseach agree that the proposal put to the European Commission in the stability programme update exceeds the 5.1% target by €1.3 billion or €1.4 billion? I ask that question so that we can have a baseline. Second, does the Taoiseach agree that this comes from a Fianna Fáil figure from 2010? It is the only place where I can find it.
I have read Professor Mody's comments. Commentators are great. I understand the Deputy responded to him on a television programme. We are borrowing €1 billion a month. This cannot continue. We have to deal with it. We have set objectives in terms of having our deficit reduced. The full economic perspective of the Government will be set out in the budget. At this stage, neither the commentators nor the Government have at their disposal all the figures necessary to complete the Cabinet's responsibility in drafting the budget for 2014. I have no faith in Fianna Fáil figures for 2010.
When the Minister for Finance spoke yesterday, he said clearly that the Government fully understands the challenges and difficulties being faced by so many people. When the full figures emerge from his area of responsibility and that of the Minister, Deputy Howlin, he will have to take account of the difficulties and concerns that many people face. Clearly, if moneys are available at the end of the presentation of all the figures, the Government will make a decision on the extent to which those moneys can be applied for job creation and getting people back to work. To be honest, as I stand here we do not have all of those figures. Tax returns are starting to come in. Other elements are needed by the Ministers, Deputies Noonan and Howlin, in terms of setting targets for departmental spending over the next 12 months and in terms of the revenue stream that will come in. Deputy Donnelly has spoken in response to Professor Mody's comments. Clearly, the fairest possible balance needs to be struck in the interests of moving our country through this budget, exiting the bailout in December, sending out an international signal that one country has emerged from this and getting back our economic independence. While there will be more challenges ahead, we will be able to move on to make our own decisions in the interests of our people.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I am concerned that if we do not look at investing a chunk of the amount by which it looks like we are going to exceed the troika target, we will follow the path of Japan, which had a huge economic collapse and a huge property collapse. It followed a very conservative route of paying down household debt and gradually closing the deficit. It did some of what needed to be done, but without the economic stimulus.
Japan stagnated for about 20 years. It is climbing out of it now but it stagnated for a very long time. My fear is that, based on our current trajectory of incremental improvement, which is obviously to be welcomed, we will still stagnate and the long-term unemployment rate will be several percentage points higher than it needs to be. In fairness to the Government and the previous Government, it has been shown categorically to investors and the markets over recent budgets that Ireland is capable of turning this around. I appreciate that the numbers are still moving, which makes it very difficult for us all, but does the Taoiseach agree that the figure presented by the Government in April to the European Commission, which is the only figure we can go on, exceeded the minimum troika requirement by €1.4 billion and, therefore, we can hope this presents the Government with a chance to still exceed the target and engage in serious economic stimulus around household debt and entrepreneurship for 2014?
I think everybody can agree that the future prospects for the country depend on growth and job creation to restore confidence and give people the opportunity to have a career and contribute to their local economy and, as a consequence, to the country. Deputy Donnelly is aware that, in the past 12 months, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform announced a €2.25 billion stimulus for issues like Grangegorman, the building of a range of schools under the public private partnership programme and major road developments in different parts of the country. These are all helpful in terms of construction jobs, employing people, providing infrastructure and spending capital where employment is involved.
Since the figures were submitted to the European Commission, there have been new movements in the area of growth and the tax position. Quarter 2 national accounts data show that domestic demand is stabilising and is moving to a modest recovery path. We are now clear that 3,000 jobs are being created every month in the private sector, which is welcome. We are happy to note the reduction in the unemployment figures, from 15.1% last year to 13.4% in August. We are happy to see 14 consecutive months of a reduction in the live register, and every 10,000 people who come off it represent a saving of €90 million. Personal consumption in quarter 2 is up by 0.7% on the previous quarter. The construction sector started to expand again following growth in quarter 1. Investment in machinery and equipment also grew. These are signs of confidence. Of course, it is not where we want be. The latest data over the summer show positive retail sales, with a year-on-year increase of 1.3% in July. It is not a case of domestic demand continuing to contract.
When the full picture emerges of the tax stream, growth figures and projections for the period ahead, the Government will want to meet its targets and will make its decision as to how to continue to build on the platform of confidence that is rising in different sectors on the basis of whatever flexibility is available. It is clear that too many people are still unemployed and that other countries have an impact in terms of their capacity to purchase what we produce. Europe as a unit also needs to make a range of decisions. When all the figures become available, the Government will tease this out and make its decision collectively in the best interests of the people and our economy.