Tuesday, 18 November 2014
Social Welfare Bill 2014: Second Stage (Resumed)
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare Bill. I welcome the Aire Stáit; it has been a long time since we had one in the Department of Social Protection. I congratulate him on his appointment.
I hope the Minister of State will seriously consider an issue I will bring to his attention, as I have spoken about it with a number of Ministers in the House but to date those comments have fallen on deaf ears. The Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection has decided to shelve any plans to means test child benefit. I have no difficulty with that. My fear is that because the issue has now been shelved, the reform of child benefit will be also taken off the table. That would be a missed opportunity that could benefit society as a whole.
Starting at the beginning of September, the Department of Social Protection has again recommenced its policy of issuing 600,000 letters to parents across the country, asking them to confirm that their children are in school. This is replicating a process already in place through the National Educational Welfare Board, adding significant unnecessary administration. There is a bizarre process whereby the Department of Social Protection, in issuing these 600,000 letters, is using enough paper to cover Croke Park 2.5 times in duplicating a system already in place. A principal is legally obliged to report a child who has missed 20 days in school if there is not a legitimate reason for the absence. Under the rules of child benefit, parents cannot legally draw down the payment unless the child is attending a school. Nevertheless, the two systems are unconnected. The control section of the Department of Social Protection issues these letters but it is replicating an existing system, which is leading to unnecessary bureaucracy. This is curbing the achievement of additional savings that could be made in the Department. Each year, the control section of the Department of Social Protection saves approximately €75 million to €85 million on child benefit alone. That is based on a nominal calculation but significant amounts could be saved by dovetailing the two systems.
There could be a major benefit not just in administrative savings and those related to overpayments and fraud but in long-term savings by identifying children in vulnerable households and ensuring they attend school. We all know the social and economic impact of keeping children in school and giving them the opportunity to access education. The current National Educational Welfare Board annual report describes a young girl called Jenny who is six years old. In December, the school principal contacted the National Educational Welfare Board, indicating she had been absent from school for 65 days. An officer from the board contacted the family, called to the house, wrote to them and issued legal threats. Eventually, the family ended up in court; the mother was fined €200 and the father was fined €300, and since they went to court, Jenny has attended school. Was that a good use of the limited social work resources available to the National Educational Welfare Board, the State's legal resources or the court's time? There were also associated costs. Most importantly, Jenny lost 12 months in school before the issue was resolved. Surely it would make far more sense if the threat of losing child benefit hung over the family if the daughter did not attend school.
We need to rethink how we are doing things in this country. We cannot have Departments in different silos and not being linked. We must start to get basic things right in this country by using the limited resources we have available to the State in a wiser way to benefit children like Jenny and every other Jenny in the country. I urge the Minister to seriously examine the issue and link the Departments of Education and Skills, Social Protection and Children and Youth Affairs, as well as the National Educational Welfare Board.
I will also raise the issue of the State non-contributory pension. There has been considerable discussion in the House in the past couple of weeks during the passage of the Finance Bill regarding the eligibility of retiring farmers to tax relief for a 15-year lease based on handing over the land to an active farmer. The debate has been about the definition of an "active farmer". That may be an issue in Deputy Kelleher's part of the country.
In my part of the country it is not a massive issue as we do not have many retiring farmers who lease out land and have a significant tax liability. A bigger problem is how farm leases are dealt with in the social welfare system, and I ask the Minister of State to examine this.
A father may not wish to sign over a farm holding to his adult child because he wants the security it gives, and there are numerous examples showing why it is wise to hold on to title in such circumstances. If he instead hands land to his child with a nominal long-term lease the Department of Social Protection will estimate the actual value of the lease and deduct that amount from the father's non-contributory old-age pension. The Department's view is that the father in this example is denying himself a source of income - he will be penalised financially for entering a lease with his son or daughter who is actively farming the land. The Department is forcing old people to forego the modicum of security such an arrangement gives and instead sign over the land as failure to do so is penalised.
Another example might involve an old bachelor farmer who is struggling to make a living and does not have anyone to take over the land. This farmer might lease his land to a progressive farmer in the area - the latter might wish to expand his holding, develop the land and ensure it is used efficiently. Every penny the bachelor farmer receives from this a lease will be deducted from his non-contributory pension but if he got a job he could earn €200 per week without it impacting on his non-contributory old-age pension. Every penny he earns through the lease, which is economically beneficial to the State in the long-term, will see the farmer penalised commensurately.
If we are committed to the objective of making changes that will release farm land to active young farmers I urge the Minister of State to examine how the social welfare system treats farmers in the circumstances I outlined. The system is delaying the release of land because it penalises farmers who hand over land to active young farmers who want to maximise its use. Difficulties and historical issues in the west of Ireland mean there are many farmers like those I mentioned and many fragmented holdings. The only way to make fragmented holdings viable financially is to allow them be subject to long-term leases. Far more use could be made of this land but the problem lies in the Department of Social Protection, not the Revenue Commissioners.
As we speak, 800 people are in hospital beds having been designated as delayed discharges. These people are fit to be discharged but there is nowhere for them to go. Around 600 of these people await a long-term nursing home bed but around 200 are waiting to go back into the community. Of the latter group, some need a family member to take them home but this cannot be done without additional home help so access to the carer's benefit is required. I know a person who applied for carer's benefit in October and received a letter from the Department saying medical approval had been granted but payment would not proceed until February 2015. At the moment in Longford the Department is processing applications received in July. Carer's benefit is black and white: one is either eligible based on stamps or one is not. There are not enough members of staff so applications are delayed at the moment by 12 to 14 weeks and this denies people the resources they need to support someone, usually an old or disabled person, in his or her home.
Carer's benefit is money well spent, as it saves the State a significant amount, but there is a bureaucratic delay at the moment. The application of which I spoke is black and white and has been medically approved so there is no reason payment should not follow within a couple of weeks. Staff in the carer's benefit section in Longford do a great job but there are too few people to process all the applications. The situation is equally bad when it comes to carer's allowance - people are awaiting this payment to allow them to take people home from hospitals. We have not provided the requisite level of staffing to process applications but we are prepared to pay €700,000 a day to keep 800 people in hospital beds. It seems we are not prepared to allocate a couple more members of staff to process applications. It makes financial sense and it means older people can stay in their own homes, where they want to be. I urge the Minister of State to consider this issue as it is causing serious financial hardship for families around the country. His Department is not allocating staff and I urge him to do so as it will save the Department of Health a great deal. Staff members working in Longford are doing a tremendous job under huge pressure and are getting it in the ear from people awaiting payment. It is a question of silos: the Department of Social Protection is not willing to process applications because it means a cost to that Department, but there could be significant savings for the Department of Health. I urge this Government to adopt joined-up thinking at long last.
I welcome the Minister of State. Social protection is a broad canvas and it involves the provision of social supports for people who have been badly mauled through loss of jobs, reduced incomes, reductions in carer's allowance, fewer teacher supports and so on across the system. It is difficult to know where to begin when analysing the large-scale framework of what must be done. When the Government's revenues collapsed in 2008 it was left with the task of finding other revenues to make up for the precipitous fall. At the same time the Government had to achieve efficiencies and cost savings in State expenditure.
Government revenue can come from only two sources. I have heard arguments for widening the tax base through property taxes, water charges and so on but such revenue must come from two sources. The word "source" is French and means a well from which water is drawn. The two sources I refer to are taxes on income and expenditure, both personal and corporate. VAT and excise duty are examples of taxes on expenditure.
A labyrinthine bureaucracy of property taxes and water charges involving complex systems of collection and documentation misses the point because such taxes must be paid from personal and corporate incomes. The collapse of the economy in 2008 meant personal incomes took a huge hit - they all fell and some disappeared due to job loss. Indigenous businesses, including small farmers and small and medium-sized enterprises, also saw their incomes hit. However, many multinational companies based in Ireland saw increases in revenues and profits after 2008. This was due to higher sales, transfer pricing, the placement of expenses in other areas and so on. They reported higher profits.
I could not understand why the Government with the largest ever majority in the history of the State did not tap on the door of the corporates and explain that the country was on its knees and that it needed to replace the revenues to maintain expenditure and, at the same time, get efficiencies and savings from those expenditures. In other words, the Government should have explained that the State needed revenues but the people were flattened and had nothing left. The Government should have asked them for a 2.5% reported profits corporation national recovery levy, for example. Guess what? They would have paid it, and they would pay it still. In fact, they are opening the discussions on paying it now. The statelessness of these companies is under broad discussion and there is an agreement and an acceptance that they will actually start paying taxes to the countries over which they hover and earn their revenues. We missed an easy opportunity in that regard.
This is about fairness. I am approaching the idea of what is fair in our society. Why are there 700 homeless children in Ireland tonight, as we heard on Leaders' Questions? It is plain wrong. We need to get a little fairness back into the picture. We need to think about the areas of distress, including mortgages. Fully 100,000 mortgage clients are still in distress, but many of them have not been declared in distress because the banks are playing silly billies as regards the type of accounting they do. I know this because I am helping people out in this area. The banks have not yet shown these people as having distressed loans. In these cases the loan principal should be written down. I know this from experience.
Some of the occupational pension schemes have been visited with major unfairness. At the moment, the Irish Aviation Superannuation Scheme is in a state of total unfairness but it is ready for sign-off, and that is wrong. Deferred pensioners who have worked for 35 or 40 years, perhaps, and who accommodated their former employers by leaving early in order that there would be less of a bill for salaries and wages, find themselves termed "deferred members" of the pension scheme. The are facing cuts of 60% and perhaps up to 80% of what they had a reasonable expectation of under the defined benefit scheme. That is wrong. It is simply not right. If the mothers of the advisers to these schemes saw what was going on they would tell their sons or daughters doing such professional work that it was all wrong and that it was essentially unfair and inequitable. After 35 or 40 years' service, pensioners have a reasonable expectation not to be financially blown out of the water to the advantage of other members who are still employees of the firms in question, such as Aer Lingus, or existing pensioners who may have managed to become pensioners in recent times by a fluke of the calendar, while the others are waiting a little to become termed "pensioners".
We need to stop wading through and creating massive amounts of paper on taxes, the local property tax and water charges. A massive bureaucracy is being created, when the matter is really rather simple. People and corporates with good incomes can pay taxes. We can do the sums on how much money is needed for capital investment, for example, for water structure reconditioning and reinvestment for the next ten years.
The great shame is - I am embarrassed when I discuss it abroad - that our Government, with the largest ever majority, failed to tear up the promissory bonds amounting to €25 billion of absolutely odious manufactured bonds. This enabled the euro system to create a firewall during the panic of 2010 and 2011, but it has been left on the backs and shoulders of the current generation, the next generation and the next generation in turn. Up to 1.5 million people are hurting, and 500,000 of them are abroad, having emigrated. There are 100,000 in mortgage distress. Approximately 350,000 or 400,000 human souls will be distressed for the remainder of their working lives because the banks are not doing what they should be doing and because they did not get capitalised from their creditors. We need to examine the big overall frameworks and achieve fairness and equity in a narrative sense. The idea of tinkering with all the labyrinthine and complex mountains of paper is all wrong and there is no need for it.
We will not be opposing this Bill. I put my thoughts together last week in advance of speaking on the Social Welfare Bill. That was before what happened here on Thursday with the sit-in or lock-in and what transpired over the weekend in terms of the protests as well. Some of what I wanted to discuss was already in my mind.
I have no wish to sound alarmist, but I believe that at this stage our society is at little fractured at the edges. This is something we cannot dismiss in this House. Social protection and social solidarity are words, but they mean things in respect of how we view society and how we want to structure society. Let us consider where we are after the difficulties of the past seven years and the hardship that people have been through. As parliamentarians we have much to learn, whether on the Government or Opposition side. We need to realise that a certain amount of healing is required in the broader community. Some communities have been badly affected by the downturn in the economy and the consequential policies pursued to address the underlying budgetary and fiscal problems, as well as the problems related to the banking collapse.
For all that, I believe this is no time to applaud ourselves for bringing forward social protection measures on an annual basis. They are inheritably important and should be done as a matter of course and form. We can argue around the fringes about the areas we should prioritise when we have to make difficult decisions, but the principles of social protection, supporting social solidarity and supporting those who most need the support of the State are principles that any decent society would apply as a matter of course.
When I say society is fractured, I mean it is fractured for many reasons. The downturn in the economy had an impact on people's hopes and aspirations during the good times as well as on their visions of themselves and where they were going to take their children in the years ahead. When all of that was taken from them, some found themselves requiring the State to step in and support them in some way or another.
Another group of people have been effectively condemned to social protection for all their lives. This is an intergenerational thing and something that must be addressed quickly, because in some parts of our city - not only this city but other cities as well - it is endemic in certain communities, where it is seen to be the norm to be on social welfare and leave school early. In these communities it would be unusual for a person to get to third level education. That is a failure on our part collectively in this Chamber and on the part of Governments which have sat across the floor for many years. It is time to recognise that it is not only about giving people an extra few bob in social welfare simply to keep them quiet. Something fundamental has to be done to ensure that we can inspire people, that we can give them hope and confidence and that we can lead them to believe they can better themselves. Social mobility - the yearning to better one's self, or for one's children to better themselves - is inherently important in human behaviour. However, this yearning to advance one's self is almost cut adrift in some communities now. There is almost no hope in some communities, and this something we must address quickly.
I know the Minister for Social Protection and I have no wish to make overtly political points. We do that across the Chamber from time to time - that is part of our role in opposition. With the best will in the world, the measures of €5 per month in child benefit payments, the back-to-work family dividend and so on are all welcome and much needed, but something more fundamental is required. We need a shift in policy to shift the thinking of many people such that they can have hope and see education as a pathway to something else.
Deputy Denis Naughten referred earlier to a young girl named Jenny who was absent from schools for weeks on end according to the report of the National Education and Welfare Board.
When I walk some parts of the country, I wonder why children I see around the streets are not in school. They are almost abandoned during the day. Are we doing enough collectively as a society to assist parents who are in crisis, families who are under huge pressure and children who are almost feral in some cases? When we look at society, we see it becoming harsher. A them-and-us attitude is beginning to establish itself. I always thought growing up that we were here collectively. We looked out for each other, supported each other and willed each other on, but a lot of that seems to be going in many communities. It is clearly something that is anathema to any republic. Cherishing all the children equally is fine in sentiment but more needs to be done to ensure it has a meaningful impact on people's lives on the ground.
The Government will point out its successes and we will point out its failures. That is the nature of the adversarial assembly we work in. No generation of politicians can adjudicate impartially on its policies and their success. It is those who live through the policies, in other words the next generation, who can impartially and fairly adjudicate success, failure or otherwise. We will obviously play the short-term adversarial politics in here, but that is our difficulty. We have no long-term strategies in place to ensure there will be a reward for those in the next generation. We look at who votes and who will reward a political party for the policies it pursues. That makes for a very short-sighted outlook in terms of what parties want to pursue in government. That is not a criticism of this Government, but an observation based on my 20 years in this place. It is very much focused on the electoral cycle. Many vulnerable people and communities are forgotten about in the meantime. Because they do not vote, they are not engaged. They are disenfranchised and disillusioned and we throw them the odd sop every now and again to appease our consciences and make us feel better. That does not really have a meaningful impact on their lives.
I make those points because we are discussing a Social Welfare Bill. Social welfare is primarily a way of ensuring that people get support when they need it. There must be something more, however, than just giving them the few bob and hoping they will not cause any problems. There must be something extra in it. Rights, responsibilities, opportunities, hope and inspiration are all critical components of that. However, the heart has been ripped out of communities and there is a fractured society out there. That is something we will live to regret. I thought "Strumpet City", where we had slums and deprivation and people saw no hope and no outcome in life, was in the past but we are fast reverting back to a situation in which whole communities feel absolutely alienated from every day discourse. They do not see this place as relevant to their lives. More often than not, they see it as an imposition and as a far-flung establishment. This is not the establishment, it is meant to be the parliamentary assembly for everybody out there. It should be a mirror image of our communities and we should have all sorts of people here reflecting what is happening in the community out there. However, when large groups of people see this place at a distance beyond belief from their lives we have major problems. Appeasing for the sake of it is not good enough. There must be direct action.
We are almost ghettoising people. I have had this issue with the local authority in Cork city for many years. We always lived with each other, helped each other and supported each other. It was something that was inherently ingrained in Irish society. Now, however, we put people in various areas according to their incomes and backgrounds. That is wrong. Local authorities have a critically important role to play in this regard. People need to see potential social mobility and that a young kid who comes from a difficult background can go to school, take the opportunities and, with the encouragement of parents and the community, move to third level and achieve something. However, I can show the Minister of State areas in which that would be a pipe dream. People simply do not see it as an obvious route to improving themselves because it is not done by anybody else in the community. We have schemes in place to assist people to go back to education and pathways to further education, but we must accept first and foremost what are the underlying problems. I do not know what the solution is but the problem is there in front of us and we seem too busy or disinterested to address it.
Various political parties claim to represent varying groupings. The simplistic view is that one is either on the left or the right. I am pro-business. Rewarding enterprise and encouraging initiative is critically important, but I also consider that 700 homeless people is anathema to the republic. In that, we have failed. We talk about big business and have press conferences and releases about its importance. Some people think that is great while others see it as the enemy of the person who does not have a job. I see them as compatible. The simplistic idea that one is either left wing or right wing and either has a social conscience or is for big business is something I am still trying get my head around. The bottom line is that our society must be nurtured back to life to ensure that every person can live to the maximum of their abilities, exploit their potential and seize opportunities. The Minister of State knows the communities in question. There are many of them out there and they are yearning for something to be done to ensure they can achieve something themselves.
The idea is that the Social Welfare Bill is debated here every year and we say people were not given enough and the Government says it would like to give more. If I was over there, the shoe would be on the other foot and I would be listening to the same thing from somebody on this side in respect of funding and supports. Overall, however, this place is not relevant to many citizens. If they are aware of it, they see it as a place we come to to make fine speeches and the perception is that we are all drawing big salaries. That is something we must fix very quickly. It is not because of what happened here last Thursday or what happened in Jobstown on Saturday with the Tánaiste. I thought about all of this in advance of those particular incidents, but they highlight something and are worth taking note of.
Homelessness is now reaching crisis proportions. I remember many years ago during the so-called Celtic tiger that we were condemned because 40 people were homeless in our capital city of a night. We had all the resources available to us and nobody should have been homeless. We now have 700 people of all ages and backgrounds searching for accommodation in the city. They are people who up until recently had homes and worked every hour God sent to put roofs over their heads. They now find themselves in that position. I do not care what legislative obstacles are in place, it undermines the confidence of people in the State's capacity to look after its most vulnerable citizens that we cannot provide them with the basics of elementary shelter.
This brings me back to the issue of priorities and my point about left- and right-wing policies and being pro-business or promoting social solidarity. There is no getting away from the fact that the Government made choices. Governments must prioritise and make choices, even in the most difficult times. The most recent budget sent out a signal that this Government was pursuing regressive policies and undermining social cohesiveness. The balance has been tipped. One hundred and fifty thousand people do not take to the streets on a wet Saturday for the craic. Many of those who marched against water charges recently did so because they have been put to the pin of their collar. They do not expect the Government to produce a magic wand. What they want is for politicians to at least appreciate and empathise with the financial difficulties and burdens they face daily. People are realistic and are aware of the challenges the Government faces and the difficult decisions it must take but they want it to at least listen to the message they are sending about the impact of Government policies, some of which I supported. We must listen to citizens because they are hurting after seven years of austerity. No one expects a miracle but people want the Government and parliamentarians on all sides to accept that enough is enough and they cannot give any more. The Government's priorities and its policies on taxation have focused too much on the haves and ignored the have-nots.
As I stated, we should always try to reward initiative and encourage enterprise. For this reason, it is impossible to justify the manner in which Governments have treated one group in the past six or seven years. I refer to the self-employed, who generated their own income, paid their taxes, did not rely on the State and, in some cases, employed others. When the economy fell off the cliff they were thrown to the wolves. Every Deputy has raised cases involving self-employed people who visited their local community welfare offices to beg for a few bob for Christmas. The poor treatment of the self-employed sends out a signal that risk-takers may reap the rewards when things go well but will be ignored and treated as pariahs and nuisances when things do not go well. This issue must be addressed, because if we want to encourage people to lift themselves up, we must assure them that some type of safety harness will be provided if they fail and that they will not be allowed to fall to the bottom.
With the next general election due to be held within 18 months, the Oireachtas is on an election footing and political parties are positioning themselves in anticipation. In recent years the basic principles of parliamentary democracy have been undermined, with the result that people no longer believe a word uttered by any politician. While everyone understands the need for political dexterity and the reasons for the odd political pirouette or U-turn, there is something inherently wrong when people no longer believe anything uttered by a politician. The core principles of democracy are undermined when debates are essentially games of one-upmanship. Parties should stand by their election manifestos. If they are accepted by the electorate, that is fine, and if they are rejected, that should be the end of the matter. We can no longer tolerate the idea that a party can pull a second set of principles from its pocket if the electorate does not like the first set. The single overriding factor is that people believe all politicians are the same. We used to hear that the two main parties were identical, but people now believe we are all the same, which is an inherently dangerous position. We have much to do to ensure that people feel part of society and are enfranchised, empowered and inspired. They need to believe there are opportunities for social mobility and to better one's self. The State must focus its resources on achieving these objectives, rather than becoming fixated on short-term policies and the results of focus groups. A strategic approach to constructing society in the years ahead is lacking.
I thank the Technical Group for allowing me to use some of its speaking time.
I propose to make a couple of observations and suggestions. The qualifying age for participation in community employment schemes should be reduced to below 25 years to include unskilled younger people. Rather than simply ticking boxes, the Department of Social Protection should match candidates to vacancies. I am aware of cases in which candidates with no spoken English were sent for interview accompanied by interpreters who could not speak English. Additional Government support should be provided to counties such as Kerry, where unemployment is high and no new jobs are being provided. Greater flexibility must be shown in the area of training and upskilling, and a greater variety of courses and training should be offered, as not everybody wants to do a computer course. In addition, more opportunities should be provided to learners to extend the period of a community employment scheme if such an extension would be of genuine benefit to them. The rates paid to participants on community employment schemes should be increased to make them more attractive. For example, an increase of €20 or €40 per week would make a significant difference to participants. Community employment schemes should be judged on the basis of a number of factors, not only progression, because it is difficult to achieve targets when no new jobs are available. More places should also be made available.
I remind the Minister that the rural social scheme is not an activation measure but an income support for farmers and fishermen. Parts of rural Ireland would be depopulated of small farmers were it not for the income provided by the scheme. Farming is an isolated occupation, and the interaction of scheme participants with their workmates and members of the local community has immeasurable benefits in terms of mental well-being. I ask the Minister to increase the number of places available on this exceptionally worthwhile and valuable scheme and thank all those who run the schemes.
Last week, I tabled a number of parliamentary questions on community employment schemes. Having met recently with a number of supervisors in different parts of the country, including County Kerry, I believe the Department is trying to wind down the community employment scheme. Will the Minister assure the House that the measures being introduced are not intended to wind down the schemes? As I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, will appreciate, community employment schemes have delivered valuable and worthwhile work in many communities over the years. I hope they will be expanded in the years ahead. The questions I tabled last week highlighted the reasons for my belief that community employment is being wound down. One can certainly make the case that this is the Government's objective.
One cannot discuss this Bill without highlighting what the Government is proposing to do with the Department's money. We have learned that people who pay water charges will receive a refund of €100. Where is the common sense in that proposal? Why ask people to pay money and subsequently fill out forms to obtain a refund of €100? This is a nonsensical, crazy and ill thought-out proposal, and any Minister who argues that it is prudent or sensible is living in la-la land or away with the fairies.
I compliment Deputy Kelleher for his excellent contribution in which he highlighted the importance of small employers. Many senior Government Ministers have one thing in common, namely, the fact they have never created a job in their lives and do not know what it is like to be a small employer. They do not know what it is like to survive, create jobs for and pay people every week and try to keep a business going. The Government is lacking in people who have common sense with regard to the difficulties employers have. Since it took office it has put more red tape in the way of small operators, which are the backbone of the country and create employment in communities.
I have to mention what the Government has done to community welfare officers. Small villages and towns always had a local community welfare office, staffed by personnel who would discuss the issues, difficulties, payments, rights and entitlements of people living in the community. Such offices have been closed and the services centralised because the Government is one of the most anti-rural Governments since the foundation of the State. It is keeping in line with what it has done from the very start, namely, attacking rural communities. Why would it say that policy was sensible? I recently obtained a list of the offices which have been closed in County Kerry. Their closure has been a tremendous loss to every village. The issue has to be highlighted.
The Labour Party, in particular, has exported our best and brightest over the past number of years, and has done so unashamedly. I do not know how the Labour Party can say what it is doing is right and is being done on behalf of the people. It has sold its souls to be in government, and what it has done is disgraceful. I heard a Government Minister say that young people made a personal decision to leave the country and did not have to go. That shows how out of touch Ministers are in this Government. My phone was inundated with calls when the Minister concerned made that statement. People would have loved to have stayed in the country, but could not because there was no work here for them. They were exported. The Government has sat idly by and let that continue.
Nobody could condone the protests which turned nasty and personal. I would never condone that type of behaviour. The opposite to that is a gathering of 4,000 people at which I and Deputy Ferris spoke in Tralee some weeks ago. They marched through Tralee in a highly organised and respectful manner. There was no hassle and no problems whatsoever. The Garda would tell one there was no litter thrown on the ground. That is what protest is about, namely, people coming out, voicing their opinion and having their say. The event was run excellently, safely and properly. When a very small element of people who have a different agenda become involved, unfortunately they give what I call genuine protestors a bad name. I do not like the manner in which the Government is trying to paint everybody with the same brush, because that is not the case.
If one keeps picking at a dog and tries to pull his tail, eventually he will turn around and bite one back. People are biting back at the Government, and are telling it it made a mess of Irish Water. It knows it has. It should think about what it has done. It has spent millions of euro installing meters and has done 100 U-turns over the past number of weeks. The bigger the protests have become, the more U-turns in which the Government has engaged. It has installed meters, but has now told people it will not turn them on and will not use them at all. It complained about e-voting machines, but this is a much bigger debacle. It is the e-voting machines issue multiplied by hundreds, and probably thousands. The meters have been installed, but the Government is terrified to turn them on because Fine Gael and the Labour Party know they will not be heard of for a long time if they do so. Any rowing back will be seen for what it is, namely, a cynical move to protect their political skins.
Sometimes national newspapers can get things wrong. I remember during the campaign by the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, to be leader of the Labour Party she trusted a certain national newspaper which supported her campaign in a very special way and did everything it could to ensure her election. It even christened her "Wonderwoman". I wonder whether the same newspaper would try to sell itself on the same slogan underneath a picture of the Tánaiste now. I do not think it would wash because people now realise that not only has Wonderwoman let the country down, but so too have the Taoiseach and the former Minister Phil Hogan. He has bolted himself away in Europe and left us with the mess he made.
Night after night we tried to raise this issue and show that what was proposed was wrong. The backbenchers are still in a coma, but are trying to awake from their slumbers because of the results of the local elections. It might be too little, too late. There has been mistake after mistake. Tomorrow and Thursday are about the Government trying to save themselves and explain what is wrong. It could have said it would not create Irish Water, a layer of bureaucracy and jobs and bonuses for the boys, and would not spend hundreds of millions of euro on metering water. It could have instead asked every household to make a modest contribution that would be sent straight to local authorities which would then fix underground pipes. It was as simple as that, but the former Minister, Phil Hogan, could not get it.
Hundreds of millions of euro have been spent, but not one pipe has been repaired. There are thousands of meters under the ground which may never begin running. Who will do it? If the Government will not turn on the water meters, will the next do so? It is an expensive folly for which the taxpayer will have to pay. The Government still cannot admit it got it wrong and Irish Water should be disbanded. It is not fit for purpose and should not be in place. There are people in jobs which should never have been created in the first place because it was a mess from the very start.
Our local authorities had water sections and experienced personnel who knew what needed to be done. All they needed were the finances to do it, and if a modest charge had been imposed on people they would not have minded paying. We could then have started catching the 40% of water we are losing every day and would not have to be as worried about water conservation as we are now. One has to be worried about water conservation when one is losing 40% of it every day, but all we needed to do was to fix the pipes. None of the backbenchers who were silent and in a coma would comment on that. All they did was stay there, with their eyes closed, and vote with the Government. Now many of them are telling us they are sorry, they should not have voted for Irish Water and supported the guillotine, and should have realised what they were doing was wrong. Why are they waking up and taking a U-turn? It is because of the results of the local and European elections last May, and the dread of the next general election. Where were they all along? They were in a coma.
The Government has been drip feeding information to the media. The larger the protests became, the more U-turns it found it had to make. What has happened over the past number of weeks is a disgrace.
I thank the thousands of peaceful protesters who made the Government wake up a little and who tried to wake backbenchers out of the coma they have been in for the past three and a half years.