Tuesday, 19 January 2016
Confidence in Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection: Motion [Private Members]
It does not give me any pleasure to put forward a motion of no confidence in any Minister or Member of the House - it is not what I am about. I speak regularly to Deputy Burton and she is very courteous to me, as I am to her. There is no animosity between the Tánaiste and myself. However, when they listen to what I have to say and to why I am angry and upset, many people may understand why this motion has been put forward.
The practice of Government Ministers appointing party favourites to State boards and quangos before a general election is a long-standing and established tradition. Fianna Fáil, which has been quick to condemn the Tánaiste in the wake of David Begg's appointment as chairman of the Pensions Authority, secured similar roles for 60 of its own supporters before it lost office in 2011, when Labour and Fine Gael promised us a new and very different type of politics that would challenge the political cronyism surrounding State board appointments.
The Tánaiste has always been a most vocal critic of political cronyism. Back in 2004, when she was the Labour Party spokesperson on finance, she said she would vigorously oppose some proposals in the new Public Service Management (Recruitment and Appointments) Bill. Addressing the Dáil, she said she was particularly concerned that special advisers may be able to circumvent the rules on open, competitive recruitment. She also said that public confidence must be maintained in the honesty and fairness of the public service recruitment system and she expressed grave concerns that political appointments would be made via the back-door route.
Ten years later, in the wake of the McNulty debacle, the Tánaiste was still speaking against political cronyism. She claimed to the Dáil that it was she who proposed a new process of appointments to State boards whereby Ministers choose from a short-list provided by the Public Appointments Service and she promised a system of appointments which would provide the best range and mix of people.
However, there was no range of people under consideration when she bypassed the normal appointment procedures to offer personally David Begg the Pensions Authority post, a role he has admitted he had not wanted and for which he did not apply. Last week, on national radio, one of the Tánaiste's own Labour Party Deputies asked why the rules are in place if we are not going to abide by them.
One of the most infuriating comments that has been made in recent days is the suggestion made by Mr. Begg himself that the €20,000 a year role is not lavishly paid. What an appalling insult. I could fill this Chamber a hundred times over with pensioners, people on invalidity payments, people on disability payments, low-paid workers and the unemployed, all of whom earn less than €20,000 a year. What about single mothers who would be glad of an additional income of €20,000? These people know the meaning of a pittance, but David Begg does not. These people are surviving on a pittance every week. The Tánaiste's behaviour in making this appointment, regardless of Mr. Begg's suitability for the post, flies in the face of all her promises of equity throughout her career. I have cited some of the points she has made.
At present, I am handling several cases of homelessness among young single mothers in Waterford. A major problem facing these young women and the issue driving them into homelessness is that the Government policy set down by the Tánaiste's Department delays the payment of a deposit for a property for weeks or even months. Even if these mothers could raise a deposit themselves, the current rent levels set by the Department for a single parent and child is €475, despite the average cost of a two-bedroomed house in Waterford being €700. Can we not understand why people are homeless and being driven out onto the streets?
These young mothers are shunted off to bed and breakfast accommodation indefinitely and expected to lead a normal life without a proper kitchen or laundry facilities. They have nowhere for their children to play and no hope of getting a home of their own. They have no fridge in their room to store milk, not to mind food for their children. They are living on sandwiches and takeaways and walking the town with their babies and toddlers each day in an effort to kill time as their children are not allowed to play outside their bedrooms. This is a hopeless and horrendous situation for any parent to be in. I estimate that my office has helped more homeless people in the past three months than in the entire first year I was in office. This is largely due to the policy the Tánaiste is standing over, while she appoints her buddies to comfy roles for what has been described as a pittance.
I am tired and worn out from meeting people in hopeless situations. These people have no money, no food and no clothes for their children. I work out of an office, part of which is used to provide breakfast to children each morning because they have no breakfast before going to school. How would that €20,000 fit with that family? How would it fit with the thousands of families in poverty in Ireland? The Tánaiste can see why I am angry and upset. Any Deputy in this House worth his or her salt must be experiencing the same problems of desperation, poverty and deprivation in this country. However, the Tánaiste has decided one of her buddies, who is retiring on a large pension, will be given more than what is given to an old age pensioner, somebody on social welfare, somebody on invalidity or somebody on disability, and he describes this as a pittance. Is it any wonder people are upset? The Tánaiste should listen to any of the radio programmes broadcast today and listen to what people are saying when they ring in to them.
Whether David Begg is suitable for the job of chairing the Pensions Authority is not the question here. What needs to be questioned is how the Tánaiste can hold her head high and claim she has shown equity in making this appointment. During her term as Minister for Social Protection, the rate of child homelessness has soared. The policies of her Department during her term have flown in the face of our obligation under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to guarantee every child a minimum standard of social protection. Allowing the Minister to continue in this role and to continue, unashamedly, to endorse political cronies shows the worst form of contempt for the thousands of children whose lives have been devastated by the very policies she stands over.
I started off this debate by making the point that I hold no animosity towards the Tánaiste. She is very courteous to me and is a very nice person. However, I live in the real world. I live in a city that has had the highest rate of unemployment and subsequently one of the highest rates of poverty, deprivation and child poverty. Therefore, I know what I am talking about. I do not come in here and speak lightly on this. I have never made a personal attack on any Minister or Member of the Dáil. However, I am furious now. People have come to me and said they do not understand this. Their social welfare or children's allowance or child benefit was cut and they cannot understand how we can give somebody who has a huge pension €20,000 on top, the equivalent of what they are not getting. This has resonated with people throughout the country today.
David Begg is not the issue. I do not know whether he is suitable for the appointment. The problem is that none of us knows because he did not have to go for interview or have to submit his portfolio to stateboards.ie. He did not do that. I am sorry to have to point this out. I am comfortable with putting forward this motion. This is not something I would choose to do, but I am doing it for the hundreds of thousands of people in need and the one child in ten who is going to school in the morning hungry and without proper clothing. I am doing it for the 750,000 people in this country who, as any organisation can confirm, are on the edges of poverty, below the poverty line or about to go into poverty. That is the reason for this motion.
I strongly support my colleague, Deputy Halligan. It is important to look at the wording of this motion, that Dáil Éireann has no confidence in the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection. I will discuss this key phrase, "social protection", later. Insiders have contaminated politics for many years. Politicians of all parties have grossly abused their power. I insist that they surrender the right to make political appointments. This demand includes the end of the practice of parties in government putting their favourites on the boards of State bodies, into the Judiciary, the top ranks of the Garda Síochána and the Central Bank commission. Independent bodies must be set up to exclude all politicians from the ranks of those making such choices. Political patronage and cronyism must end. That is what this motion is about and these are the key issues in regard to the broader debate.
This debate is not just about one Minister, but includes the Government and other Ministers. In recent days, we have seen a blatant display of cronyism. This has contaminated politics. We need to end the practice of political appointments. We also need to develop and focus on selecting people with ability based on merit. Ability and merit should be at the heart of all appointments. Political patronage should end. We have many highly talented people with expertise in our wider society. People selected for these boards should be selected on merit. The key words for this debate are merit and transparency.
It is about merit and ability, without cronyism.
In the past 24 hours we have seen how three other Ministers or Ministers of State used this get-out clause to make appointments to top State posts. The Tánaiste bypassed the public process and the others involved are the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, and the Ministers of State, Deputies McHugh and Nash. The latter is here tonight. We are talking about transparency versus cronyism and people in broader society deserve better. We were promised a breath of fresh air and new politics in 2011. Many of us on the doorsteps gave such a commitment following the crash and the leaders in that campaign were Fine Gael and Labour. Where is this new type of politics? Even the Government backbenchers are extremely unhappy about this issue.
Not only are we saying we have no confidence in the Tánaiste, we are also challenging the insiders in this House and across society. We need to reinforce transparency by means of a proper and mandatory application and interview system, as is the case with every other job. In most parts of society, if a person is going for a job, he or she does an interview after sending in a CV. Independent experts usually supervise the allocation of the job, so why does it have to be different for people appointed by Ministers?
There are wider issues of social protection. Any vision from a Minister for Social Protection should contemplate protecting people, particularly the vulnerable in society. Only last night we heard about bed bugs, mice and cockroaches. There are 800 families in temporary accommodation. We heard about leaking water, mould and faulty electrics. This is not 1913 or the Lock-out. This is 2016 in Dublin and the Labour Party should face that reality. It is an absolute disgrace that young children are living in conditions like this when a Labour Minister is responsible for social protection. Where is the social protection for those children? Where is the support and care for those families? One child in three in this country is deprived of basic necessities. This fact was highlighted in the Growing Up in Ireland report in the context of the major inequality in Irish society. The Ombudsman for Children has indicated that approximately 138,000 children are living in poverty. Where is their social protection? Consistent poverty rates have increased from 6.8% to 11.7%. Where is the social protection in that? It is predicted that 37,000 children will live in poverty by 2020. Some 1,054 children are homeless at present and the rate is rising. I am not speaking about just one Minister but rather a Government and its ethos or vision. This is about the need for a radical vision that will bring real equality and rights for children. We need real social protection.
The European Anti-Poverty Network in Ireland stated in a recent report that 1.4 million people, or almost 31% of the population, suffered from deprivation. A quarter of the population cannot afford to heat their homes adequately and 37% of children suffer deprivation. The worst deprivation is felt by lone parents, the unemployed and people not at work because of illness or disability. I will return to the disability issue later. This is a stark reality but the Government wants to dip people's pockets time and again. The numbers at risk of poverty, or those below 60% of median income, have fallen slightly, although they are still above the 2008 levels. The numbers experiencing consistent poverty have doubled since 2008 to 8.2%. The Government needs to remove almost 193,000 people from poverty and half the current number to meet its target of 4% for 2016. These are the facts.
The Government and mainstream political parties must ask where the money will be obtained and how services may be funded. According to the Department of Finance, the top 1% or 21,650 earners have an annual gross income of €8.7 billion, with the average earnings of €403,703 per year. That is more than ten times the average industrial wage. According to the Revenue Commissioners' latest available statistics, corporate profits are increasing, with gross trade profits increasing to €73.8 billion in 2011 from a previous figure of €70.8 billion. There is wealth in the country but there is a lack of emphasis in challenging those in possession of it.
A very important element of social protection is the health of people living in disadvantaged areas. We must target health policies and services in such disadvantaged communities. We must put these people first as they have a complex social and medical need. These people have higher rates of health-related problems and three times the mortality rates of more affluent patients. Males die 18 years sooner than those in more affluent groups. I raise that reality in the context of the broader motion. We need social protection for our people and particularly our children. We need social protection for the whole of society.
I will focus mainly on the Government counter-proposal, which describes the transformation of the Department of Social Protection. There is no doubt it has transformed but elements have not transformed for the better. I will draw attention to a few of them. The €70 million contract awarded to a UK company in respect of JobPath is absolutely outrageous. The jobs are being created for UK staff to run the process and deliver what was recognised as a failure in the UK. JobPath is already a wasteful disaster. Much of the process relating to it amounts to box-ticking. When the Minister announced JobPath she stated that it would provide intensive individual support, advice and coaching to all on the programme and that JobPath would also help participants to address social inclusion barriers, improve personal well-being and tackle personal difficulties such as problems with literacy, numeracy and addictions.
I can tell the Tánaiste that there is no advice or coaching being delivered. The group CV workshops are not supervised and there is no work to overcome social inclusion barriers. The only barrier I can see arises if somebody refuses to take on a training programme that is totally unsuitable. There is no context to skill experience. The provider has the brand new offices, signage and the €70 million for the contract. Each intervention with a jobseeker is charged to a contract and the jobseeker may often be forced into an unsuitable outcome. There is no initiative to identify skill gaps or to have a targeted approach to fill such gaps with appropriate training. For the life of me, I do not understand how when something has failed, we must persist with trying it again and seeing if it fails again.
There have also been changes to pension calculations that are grossly unfair.
A woman came to my office last week who had paid in excess of 30 years worth of pension contributions and got a reduced pension. When one compares that in terms of fairness to someone who has never worked before the age of 55 and works continuously until pension age, one sees that they get a full pension. It is calculated on the basis of the very first payment a person makes. If a person starts off as a student, takes time out to go to college, takes time out to look after children or other caring responsibilities or even takes a couple of years abroad, they can put themselves in a perilous position because it is calculated over all of their working life. This is grossly unfair. Increasingly, I am coming across people who are furious about that. It is transformation alright but it is not transformation for the better.
The third area I wish to speak to is the approach to rent assistance. I began raising this with the Tánaiste more than three years ago because I could see what was happening. It was subsequently tweaked a bit but the problem that there would be an acceleration in the number of people who could not make up the difference and would end up homeless was evident. There were improvements, certainly in the past year, when section 38 was more extensively used. I used it a lot through my office. If there is a risk of homelessness and there are particular circumstances, a case can be made to the rents unit. This has now changed very significantly in places like Kildare where the HAP programme is being rolled out. While there are merits in that programme, the section 38 element is being rowed back on. For example, a single adult who attempts to rent a property will be allowed €520 plus 20% over the cap. This is €624. Find me something for less than €1,200 in my area. If you can do it, you are a better person than me. We will accelerate the homelessness problem by virtue of this initiative that is rolled out as a solution when it will only cause even more problems. We saw the disgraceful programme last night on RTE. There is a price to be paid, not least the price for emergency accommodation and the damage that is being done to children. If one looks at the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, one will see that it does not go beyond Dublin. If a person ends up homeless in Kildare, there is no joined-up arrangement and they can end up without a social welfare payment in addition to being without a home. The person is told to go off and self-accommodate. I have begged some of the Dublin agencies to take Kildare families and they have generously done so. This is a disaster and its origin is in the Department of Social Protection and the arrangement around rent assistance.
At the end of every electoral term and just before the general election, there is a rush to appoint people to positions. Sometimes they are suitable but sometimes they are not. I hope we are not going to see that in the next week or two. In respect of finding a mechanism or way around appointing someone, someone for whom I have great regard and who I think has great abilities, those abilities are undermined by virtue of the fact that the system is bypassed for what is perceived to be an insider. It does not do politics or the Tánaiste any credit. I am sorry to say that I have no difficulty voting no confidence in her.
I rise in support of this Private Members' motion of no confidence in the Tánaiste. We were promised a democratic revolution after the last general election. Of course, this is certainly not the case as we have seen time and again since then. In the past week, we have seen that cronyism is alive and well and at the heart of Government and that a "get out" clause is being used not just by the Tánaiste but by other Ministers to appoint party members and cronies to State boards. We were told that we would have transparency and accountability, a democratic revolution, Dáil reform and appointments to State boards that would be fully transparent. In the case of Mr. Begg, Ms Mangan and others, we find that there was no advertising, stateboards.ieand the Public Appointments Service were not used and there was no short-listing of candidates. These were personal appointments by the particular Ministers.
Even if the advertising took place and stateboards.ieand the Public Appointments Service were used, it would be a smokescreen for cronyism because we know about the formula this Government is using in respect of appointments to State boards - two for Fine Gael and one for the Labour Party. We have seen this not just in this Government but in previous ones. We noticed that Fianna Fáil is criticising the Tánaiste in respect of this. This is like the pot calling the kettle black. Other speakers have said that coming up to the last election, Fianna Fáil made something like 60 appointments to State boards.
The appointment of Mr. Begg in particular has raised significant problems. He had the audacity and gall to suggest that €20,000 was not a crock of gold. I would have thought that as a former trade union chief, he would be well aware of the fact that 125,000 workers earn less than €20,000 per year. Surely he would be aware that a family of two adults and two children on social welfare exist on less than €20,000 per year. How dare he suggest that €20,000 is not a crock of gold. It may not be to him but to thousands upon thousands of part-time workers, low-paid workers and families on social welfare, it is effectively only an existence.
I believe that Mr. Begg is particularly unsuited to this job as chair of the Pensions Authority. Mr. Begg was a member of the board of the Central Bank from 2003 to 2007. This board allowed the financial system as a whole to borrow 50% of GDP. We are not talking about individual banks. We are talking about the financial system as a whole. This board, including Mr. Begg, allowed that system to borrow 50% of GDP. Nobody called a halt, not even Mr. Begg. That level of borrowing was ruinous. The recently retired former Governor of the Central Bank, Professor Patrick Honohan, said that this level of borrowing was hitherto unprecedented. This level of borrowing led to austerity, the bust and the devastation of families across this country. I believe that Mr. Begg, who signed off on the financial stability reports of the Central Bank during those years, is particularly unsuited to and not qualified for this particular appointment.
Broken promises and the breaking and reneging on of commitments made in the course of a general election have also been part and parcel of this Government as of previous Governments. The Labour Party in particular has broken every promise and commitment it made during the course of the last general election. It was opposed to water charges but the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, is implementing water charges. Does the Tánaiste remember the "Tesco" advertisement? It said there would be no cuts to child benefit but there were cuts. The Department of Social Protection has been devastated by this Minister. I support the motion.
In the dark recesses of the Internet I found a great, aspirational document about how political cronyism can be dealt with. It is the Labour Party manifesto for the last general election, entitled "One Ireland: Jobs, Reform, Fairness". Section 9 of that manifesto is entitled “Reforming Politics” and it states:
Time for change
Labour’s pledge is that Ireland will never again be vulnerable to the kinds of abuses of corporate and political power that have risked our country’s sovereignty. To restore confidence at home and abroad in public governance, Ireland must make significant changes in the culture and framework within which business is conducted...
The first steps
- End political cronyism by opening up positions on state boards to all qualified candidates, and require appointments to be scrutinised by the Dáil...
Ending political cronyism
Labour will end the system whereby appointments to state boards are used as a form of political patronage and for rewarding insiders. In future, appointment to boards must be based on a demonstrable capacity to do the job.
That was then. A few months ago in respect of the McNulty controversy the Tánaiste said: “What I am determined to see is that we have procedures and processes which are clear to everybody.” Thanks to the Government we have procedures and processes which are absolutely clear to everybody. It is also clear to everybody that the Government and the Tánaiste in particular, the Leader of the Labour Party, chose to bypass those particularly clear processes.
The Tánaiste stands condemned by her own words and by the platform on which she and her party were elected. This is absolutely inexcusable but that has not stopped the Labour Party trying to find a way to excuse it. The excuse of choice as far as I can tell from the Labour Party is that articulated by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, saying it is not against the rules, which is what the Ministers opposite were trying to express a moment ago. Is that the best the bringers of the democratic revolution, the promisers of political reform, the slayers of cronyism in Irish political life, can do? It is the equivalent of the dog ate my homework. We know it is not against the rules. Nobody is saying it is against the rules. There is a problem with the rules but that is not the point. Is it right or wrong? Is it cronyism or not? Would the Tánaiste have appointed, in the manner in which she has appointed David Begg, someone of similar or the exact same qualifications who was not personally known to her and was not a political supporter of the Labour Party? The answer is obvious.
The second excuse of choice is that articulated by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy White, on the radio this morning, that nobody has credibly challenged David Begg’s qualifications. I have no idea if David Begg is suitably qualified or not. I am not sure any of the Ministers opposite have any idea whether he is qualified but I am very strongly of the opinion that David Begg has not been appointed because of those qualifications, appropriate or not, but because he is known to the Tánaiste and because of his support for the Labour Party and what the Tánaiste previously referred to as services to the Labour movement. For that, one can read services to the Labour Party in keeping a lid on the Labour movement throughout the time the Labour Party has been in government and he has been general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, working to prevent his members protesting and striking against this Government.
We all know the Government has a big majority in this House. We hope that perhaps some Labour backbenchers will wrestle with their consciences, that their consciences may for once win out and they may not vote confidence in the Tánaiste. We know it is likely that tomorrow night, with the Government’s big majority, the Tánaiste will get a resounding vote of confidence in the Dáil. That the Government can have such a poll here only speaks to how wildly out of touch are all the establishment parties. There is a poll running in the TheJournal.iein which 80% of people say they have no confidence in the Tánaiste. If there are further revelations tomorrow about other appointments, that figure will rise. In five or six weeks’ time people will have a chance to vote no confidence in this Government, the Labour Party, and the Tánaiste. They will have the chance to say "No" to broken promises and political cronyism and to demand a political revolution against the establishment parties, to clear them out and build a different type of politics and society.
To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:“has full confidence in the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection and commends her role in the Government’s achievements including:— a comprehensive package of reform implemented by this Government including restoring freedom of information, regulation of lobbying, protection of whistleblowers, extending the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman, reform of the Public Appointments Service system, open Government initiatives and notes that the Public Sector Standards Bill 2015 is currently before Dáil Éireann;
— the introduction of the landmark Action Plan for Jobs and Pathways to Work programmes to tackle the unprecedented jobs crisis;
— the decrease in the unemployment rate to 8.8%, down from the crisis peak of 15.1%;
— the creation of 135,800 extra jobs since the Action Plan for Jobs and Pathways to Work programmes have been launched, with every region experiencing jobs growth over that time;
— the increase in the minimum wage for the second time, meaning that, by the end of this Government’s term, it will have increased by more than €3,000 a year;
— the transformation of the Department of Social Protection through the roll-out of the Intreo one-stop-shop employment and support service to support jobseekers getting back to work; and
— the turnaround in the Social Insurance Fund from a deficit of almost €2 billion to a projected surplus in 2016.”
I am pleased to have the opportunity to support the motion that the House has confidence in me as Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection. I was appointed Minister in 2011. By then, Fianna Fáil had cut social welfare benefits in a succession of budgets by €16.30 a week. It got rid of the Christmas bonus, slashed jobseeker's payments, disability payments, payments to carers and more besides. In the programme for Government negotiations, my colleagues and I insisted there would be no reductions in core welfare payments on our watch. We also insisted that public servants would be protected as far as possible and that there would be no increase in income tax rates or reduction in tax credits.
Now, five years later, I am very proud to say that together with our coalition partners we have managed to end the worst recession in Ireland in living memory while remaining true to those core commitments. Core welfare rates have been retained and because this Government has driven recovery and returned the public finances to health, I was in a position over the past two budgets to make a series of targeted welfare increases. These included the 75% restoration of the Christmas bonus in December, and an increase in the State pension, although small, this year.
I was also in position to increase child benefit and restore respite care grant in full, increase fuel allowances and the living alone allowance. During my time as Minister, I have had to deal with an unprecedented level of unemployment, the toxic inheritance of Fianna Fáil's reckless economic management. I was clear in my own mind from the start that I wanted the Department to go about its job in a different way, to move from being a passive provider of benefits to an active and engaged public employment service that served not just as a safety net when people fell, but as a trampoline to help them return to work, training and education.
To do this, we opened Intreo offices throughout the country where people can get personal assistance in getting back to work, training and education. We expanded training and work experience schemes and introduced incentive schemes such as JobsPlus to help employers hire people who had been long-term unemployed. As a result, unemployment has fallen dramatically in all parts of the country and all sectors of the economy. The job is not yet done but we are well on the way.
In 2011, we were approaching half a million people unemployed. Now we are just a few years away from full employment. In 2011, we were bankrupt; we could not pay to keep the country running and we could not borrow. Now we have sent the troika home, our borrowing rates are hardly more than 1% and the budget is close to balance.
In 2011, we were in deep recession. Now we are the fastest growing economy in Europe. In 2011, the Social Insurance Fund, which pays for crucial benefits for workers, was in crisis, with its deficit peaking at €2.7 billion. This year, it will be in surplus to the tune of €217 million.
The Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government cut the minimum wage. This Government has increased it twice and put in place a mechanism which will allow for further increases in the future. The Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government imposed USC on all incomes over €4,000. This Government has taken half a million people out of the USC net and reduced the rates on low and middle incomes. The Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government savagely cut public servants' pay in 2009 and 2010. By contrast, the Haddington Road agreement reduced pay only for those earning more than €65,000 and we have already started the process of reversing the Fianna Fáil cuts. In short, we are in a much better place than five years ago.
I do not claim all of the credit for this for the Labour Party or for the Government but we have played our part - an important part in what has been a major national achievement. It is a national achievement that has seen people give immensely to get the country back on its feet.
Apparently, it is my appointment of David Begg which prompted Deputy Ross to place the original motion of no confidence. Perhaps I am not the best person to make this observation but I will make it nonetheless. In all my years in this House, I cannot remember a no confidence motion which was so threadbare, flimsy and insubstantial.
Even Deputy Ross accepts that the guidelines on appointments to State boards were fully complied with. Very few people quibble with David Begg's suitability for the role because he is eminently qualified. Unsurprisingly, Deputy Ross does not see it this way. I say unsurprisingly because Deputy Ross does not like trade unions and he does not have much time for David Begg. Even if we accept that, however, I still find it extraordinary that Deputy Ross and his supporters - some of whom apparently like to think they are left-wing - would use the procedures of this House to pursue what seems to be nothing more than a personal vendetta against a man who has given decades of service to Irish workers.
We can recall who Shane Ross championed for senior roles in Irish life. He was the boomer for the bankers during the boom, week after week. He championed Seán Fitzpatrick, in particular, but to be fair to Deputy Ross, he was not alone in singing the praises of Anglo Irish Bank. In 2006, Fianna Fáil appointed another Anglo Irish Bank banker, Tiernan O'Mahoney, as chair of the Pensions Board but at least Deputy Ross is consistent, he was wrong then and he is wrong now.
I selected David Begg because I believe he is the best person for the job. He has years of experience in working for employees' and workers' rights, including the right to an adequate pension that provides security of income in retirement. David Begg served in the Communication Workers' Union and later in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. He has also had experience as an employer, as the CEO of a major international NGO, Concern Worldwide. He sat for many years on numerous boards and, in all of these roles, he developed expertise on a range of issues, including pensions.
As Minister for Social Protection, I was very grateful for David's help in resolving the pensions issue at Waterford Glass.
This House will recall that Waterford Glass closed at a time when its pension fund was underfunded. Many workers were in danger of losing their life savings. It is thanks to David Begg and others in the trade union movement and the work of Kieran Mulvey, as mediator in the case, that the workers in Waterford Glass secured their rightful incomes into the future.
This House will be aware that I appointed David Begg in accordance with the guidelines for appointments to State boards, as agreed by the Government. The regulations provide that a Minister may appoint a chair of a board without asking for the help of PAS in circumstances where an individual is "evidently and objectively highly qualified".
In the past few days, I have heard suggestions that this provision is a get-out clause or some kind of aberration. It is nothing of the kind. It is a provision agreed by Government to provide for exactly the sort of circumstances which apply here. The chair of a State board must be a person of integrity. He or she must be someone with expertise and experience in the issues which the board has to deal with.
David Begg is all of these things. He is a totally trustworthy man, a person of great ability and experience, with years of public service. I wanted and expected someone with those qualities as chair of the Pensions Board. I confess I wanted someone who has years of experience of dealing with pensions from the perspective of workers but who also understands the bigger picture. I am extremely confident that David Begg will work closely with the Pensions Authority and other members of the board to build on the pension reforms made in recent years.
As we seek to improve levels of pension provision, the role of the authority will be key in the reform and simplification of the pensions landscape, in ensuring schemes operate efficiently and effectively and in providing a regulatory structure which gives pension savers confidence in the system. We need to improve awareness of the private and occupational pensions system, both to ensure that those with pensions know exactly how their pensions will work for them and to increase pensions coverage amongst those who currently have none. Mr. Begg will bring a strong focus on the needs of consumers, pension scheme members, pensioners and trustees.
Ministers are responsible to the House for their actions and David Begg's suitability for this role means I am more than happy to do so in this case. In addition, the individual concerned must appear before the relevant Dáil committee and I expect that David Begg will do so later this month.
It seems very odd that somebody like Deputy Halligan, who, generally, I have found to be a decent person and who came to me and privately championed a resolution for the Waterford Glass pension crisis which left thousands of workers in the company without their pensions, would not acknowledge that David Begg worked day and night to get a solution for Waterford and the work that was done with other people in the trade union movement in Waterford city.
I welcome the opportunity to express my full confidence in Deputy Joan Burton as Tánaiste in the Fine Gael-Labour Party partnership Government and indeed in her nominee to the position of chair of the Pensions Authority. I also express confidence in the plan we have implemented to bring the country back from the brink of economic catastrophe.
Fine Gael and Labour put these plans together at a time of very deep crisis as we entered office: our banks were on the brink of collapse, our public finances were in chaos, our international reputation was destroyed and our people were both out of hope and out of work. The previous Fianna Fáil-led Government's reckless mismanagement of the country's economy saw Ireland excluded from being able to borrow on the international markets and the humiliating troika bailout of our country that made headlines around the world.
On this day five years ago the country was gripped by an economic crisis. The public finances were out of control and jobs were being lost at an alarming rate. On entering office, we set out a plan and, working with the people, we have worked our way back towards recovery. Today we see the early results because today Ireland is the fastest-growing economy in Europe. Government borrowing has fallen from 11% of GDP in 2010 to less than 2% last year. Since the low point of 2012, some 135,000 new jobs have been added to the economy. Unemployment is down from a peak of over 15% to 8.8% and will continue to fall in the time ahead.
However, there would be little point in creating new jobs if those on the dole queues could not fill them. The reform of our welfare system under the Tánaiste, Deputy Joan Burton, remains an essential part of our long-term economic plan to reach full employment and keep this recovery going. The Tánaiste has driven this reform agenda over the past five years as Minister for Social Protection. The reforms she has introduced were absolutely necessary considering the unprecedented unemployment challenge we inherited from the previous Fianna Fáil-led Government.
What was worse than the 15% unemployment was that many people and entire families were abandoned on the dole queues by a passive welfare system. Fianna Fáil's disastrous hands-off approach to social welfare policy that avoided taking any decisions or implementing any difficult reforms led directly to families - parents and their children - being trapped in cycles of joblessness, poverty and welfare dependency.
Instead of investing in job-support services and helping to get people who were long-term unemployed back into the world of work, the Fianna Fáil Party just hiked welfare payments without reform which ensured that even during the so-called boom years Ireland suffered from one of the highest rates of jobless households in Europe. Our commitment to everyone is that we will not go back to that style of government. I want to see people independent in work and not dependent on welfare. We believe that a job is the best route out of poverty, that work should pay and that people should not be abandoned on the dole queues. This Fine Gael-Labour Government will break that endless cycle of poverty by getting people off those welfare queues and into jobs.
The first Pathways to Work strategy has been successful in reducing by almost 40% the numbers of people unemployed since 2012. The establishment of the Intreo offices throughout the country and new activation programmes and supports such as JobBridge, JobsPlus, Springboard courses, MOMENTUM courses, the new housing assistance payment and the Youth Guarantee are all engaging with unemployed people every day to bring them back into work.
I saw this in opening a number of Intreo offices with the Tánaiste. We spoke to the group leaders who meet groups of people who are unemployed. They deal individually with people who might have a particular motivation, incentive or aspiration to follow an upskilling or training course, learn a language, computer skills or whatever to get into the world of work. These developments have also contributed to decreases in long-term unemployment from 9.5% to 5% and in youth unemployment from 33% to 19.2%. While we have made progress, we recognise that this rate is still too high. We are determined that nobody will be left behind by the economic recovery now under way in the country.
Changing the perception of and culture in the new Intreo welfare offices has changed the way that employers look at lists of people who sign on because they see them as people with the potential to fill very responsible positions in their own areas of employment. We have first-hand evidence of multinationals committing to take X number of people from the live register of unemployed people because their CVs are such that they can be upskilled or retrained and given opportunities to fill very responsible positions.
The Government is not yet finished the job. We are determined to keep this recovery going through a simple long-term plan based on three fundamental steps: more jobs spread right across the country, making work pay and as a consequence sensible investment in public services. The employment of teachers, nurses, gardaí, resource teachers and special needs assistants is vital in making people's lives that much better. More people in work creates the resources to cut taxes for working people and to invest in better services, creating a virtuous circle of rising employment and improving living standards and people's lifestyles.
Yesterday in Naas we launched the national plan for jobs. Our aim is to create a further 200,000 jobs by 2020. As part of that we will bring back 70,000 people who have left Ireland for whatever reason and are now working abroad. By making work pay through tax and welfare reform we can boost the economy, create more jobs and secure the recovery for everybody.
We have begun to tackle the marginal tax rates on middle-income earners and have reduced the marginal rate of tax to below 50% for all earners under €70,000. It is our intention to continue to phase out the USC in future budgets, while also reforming the income tax system to cap the benefits for the highest earners and to keep the income tax system broad. While making these necessary changes to the tax system we want to protect the progress made in restoring the public finances thereby allowing us to invest sensibly in public services in terms of gardaí, teachers, nurses and so on.
In the future the Government has set out to cap public spending increases to below the underlying growth rate of the economy to ensure we never slip back to the days of boom and bust. As a Government we aim to eliminate the budget deficit entirely in 2017.
The Government that I am proud to lead and work with the Tánaiste as leader of the Labour Party has a clear plan to keep this economy going to build on the progress we have made as a nation.
Since her appointment as Tánaiste, Deputy Burton, and I have worked very closely in the delivery and management of the Government's work. The Tánaiste and I have a shared determination to continue to work to secure the economic recovery of this country and to see that the benefits of a strong economy are used to improve the daily lives of all the people. We are both fully committed to asking the people, in due course, to re-elect this Fine Gael-Labour Party Government, so we can finish the job we started in 2011, having been given the mandate by the people to fix our public finances and put our country back to work.
When I listened to the contributions from Deputies opposite, I saw no vision nor did I hear any plan. I listened to opportunism and gamesmanship on a whole raft of issues. We will not take any lectures from my good friend over there, Deputy Ross. He has judged character before when making comments from that very seat. I recall when he was the cheerleader for some of the people in Anglo Irish Bank who used the facility of the Fourth Estate - Deputy Ross's other professional capacity - to put pressure on other banks to appoint dynamic bankers with stellar careers from Anglo Irish Bank into senior positions. That record is there for all to see in black and white, which I am sure Deputy Ross understands.
This Government stands by its record of jobs, stability, growth and recovery. Accordingly, I am very happy to support the Tánaiste, Deputy Burton, as Deputy Leader of the Government, and to commend her continued success to the House.
I am pleased to speak on this motion of no confidence in the Tánaiste. The timing is remarkably fitting. We have come to the end of five shameful years of a Labour Party in government which has left many people worse off than they were even in the difficult times when it took over.
On the State board's appointment issue, which brought about this motion, I have a press release from 25 November 2014, entitled, Howlin Publishes State Board Guidelines. It stated:
Speaking after Cabinet, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, commented:
These guidelines set out clearly how the new appointments process for State Boards will work in practice. They will assist all Departments to engage effectively with the Public Appointments Service to draw up clear specifications of board roles. These can then be openly advertised so that the expressions of interest can be sought from the widest possible pool. The Public Appointments Service will then assemble a shortlist of suitable candidates for the Minister to select from.
The Minister added:
This new process will improve corporate governance on our State Boards, widen the pool from which members of State Boards are drawn, and ensure that the process around appointments to State Boards is [wait for it] transparent. I would urge anyone interested in serving on a State Board to visit stateboards.ieand express an interest. [Unless one is on the inside track with the Labour Party or other Ministers.]
The note for editors accompanying this press release stated:
The guidelines published will secure a high degree of transparency in the selection of candidates for appointment by the relevant Minister. ... Under the new arrangements assessment of the suitability of a candidate for a board position will be performed by Public Appointments Service.
That was 100% good spin. Many people probably bought it and thought it sounded good. Many people would have said the Government was genuine in its efforts to reform appointments to State boards.
On 26 November 2014, I issued a press release entitled, Howlin Blows Chance to Reform State Appointment Process. Despite the PR and the spin, it was clear to me Ministers had a back door available to them to allow them sidestep the legislation in its entirety. In that press release, I stated:
Minister Brendan Howlin announced a new model for dealing with these matters. He introduced guidelines which he would request Ministers to implement. [He was only going to request Ministers and even if they accepted the guidelines, they were still only guidelines and not statutory.] I believe these voluntary guidelines will not be satisfactory and the public require a clear statutory process that they can be satisfied will be implemented in full.
That is why on 26 November 2014, I introduced the State Boards (Appointments) Bill 2014 in the Dáil. I stated at the time:
The essential difference between this legislation and the Government’s proposals is that Fianna Fáil believes that this matter needs to be dealt with on a statutory basis and not by way of guidelines, merely drawn up to assist Ministers. If the Government is serious about political reform and commitment to real openness and transparency it will accept this legislation.
From day one, the Government was pulling a fast one. It fooled many of the people on that occasion but not all the people. At this stage, I do not believe the Government has fooled anyone because the public has actually seen through it. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, or Minister Howlin, as he refers to himself in his own press releases, did a snow job on the public and the media, trying to convince them with what he was doing with appointments to State boards. However, the substance was always known to the members of the Cabinet. These were only guidelines which they could ignore if they liked and they could carry on in their merry way, as we have seen them doing.
It was a sham from the very beginning.
I listened with incredulity when the Tánaiste spoke earlier. She demonstrated why she is at the end of the road after five years. When one is five years in government, one becomes detached and removed. One starts to believe one’s own publicity. The Tánaiste probably believes those press releases by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, to some extent, as well as her own ones.
This evening, the Tánaiste said that five years later, she was very proud that she and her coalition partners managed to end the worst recession in Ireland in living memory. Talk about conceit and arrogance. Nobody is worried whether she feels proud or not. The Tánaiste did not end it. In fact, she made the recovery worse, making it a two-tier one, dividing society in the process. She claimed she and Fine Gael solved the economic crisis when it was the people who did and suffered in the process. She said the people should be grateful to her for solving the economic crisis. I advise her to continue to say that every day for the next six weeks because she will get her answer then. If she goes around telling the people how wonderful she is and how proud she is for solving the economic crisis, she will get her answer. If she keeps up that level of arrogance, the people of Ireland will show her their way of dealing with such arrogance.
She also told another big lie this evening. She knows that when she came into government, there was a troika agreement in place. It was a three-year agreement with a date by which the troika was to leave Ireland. This was set out in an international binding agreement before the Tánaiste ever came into office. However, she told us that the Government sent the troika home. The Government had no say in it whatsoever as there was an international binding agreement with a date for the troika’s exit written in stone with which the Government complied in full. The troika left on the appointed day, as set out on the first day it arrived. For her to be so arrogant and actually to believe she sent the troika home speaks for the level of self-delusion in this Government.
With respect to matters at national level over which the Government has control, this is where it will come a cropper with the public. Many things on the international sphere have gone well for Ireland and Irish people are happy to see an improvement in the international and national finances but people are not feeling it in their households. I would look to areas, including housing, and now we have the housing crisis, over which Labour Party Ministers have had control. The Labour Party Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, is responsible for housing. The Minister, Deputy John Burton - or I suppose she believes she should be called "Tánaiste" all the time - is responsible for social welfare and social protection payments. Those two Labour Party Ministers between them have created a homelessness situation that has never existed in Ireland to the extent we have seen it in recent times.
We were accused of building too many houses when we were in government, and it is took some turnabout for this Government to turn a surplus of houses into a homelessness crisis in a short period of five years. There are two reasons this has happened. One is that the Government allowed NAMA to sell off many houses at knockdown prices to vulture funds from American, Canada and China. Furthermore, the local councils were not given the money to take up the houses that NAMA was offering them. Between the way the Government has run NAMA and the way it funded the local authorities, we now have a ridiculous situation where the Minister with responsibility for housing, rather than spending €30,000 repairing and refurbishing a vacant council house to provide a permanent home for people to live in, would prefer to spend €190,000 on a temporary prefab house. They are nicer looking than the old prefabs that we had years ago but that is what they are. They are fabricated off site; they are simply put together. The Government would rather spend €190,000 on a prefab temporary structure than €30,000 to refurbish a vacant house and there are 3,000 such vacant houses throughout the country. The Government prefers to do the photocall for these wonderful houses. I will not talk about who got the contracts for that housing but most people will know that one does not have to look too far from the friends of Fine Gael in Government on this issue.
Why have we a housing crisis and why are people on the housing waiting list finding it difficult to get a house? The reason is that Minister, Deputy Burton, has refused to deal adequately with the rental supplement during the past few years. When rents were increasing, she refused to do it. She has bought into the Fine Gael mantra that one cannot interfere with the market. That is what the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, says about the banks, that one cannot interfere with them. That is why an Irish owned bank, AIB, is paying three times the interest on deposit rates to depositors in Germany than it will pay to Irish people who are living in Ireland. Perhaps it is the Taoiseach's way of saying "Thank you" to Angela Merkel. He is probably heading off to Davos tomorrow or the next day for a little tap on the head from some of these wonderful big bankers in Germany.
They did in their hats stand by us.
This leads to the issue of being under control. There are 130,000 people on the housing list. I listened to Members talk about the television programme they saw last night. I had three different groups in my office this morning in connection with housing before I left for Dublin. One person was a woman whose husband is paralysed and in a wheelchair and they have five children. All she wants is for a shower to be installed in her house, but the Government is cutting back on its expenditure in that area. There was another couple who have children and they were promised a house, but it was taken from them because they were told they did not have the funds to purchase the house that they had hoped to buy. The third case involved a young fellow who was in the care of the State but on reaching the age of 18 there was not a proper plan in place for him. He is 21 years of age now and he has been living in a stable in County Laois for the last three months. Unscrupulous landlords are renting stables. Three stables are being rented and none of them has a toilet or a water supply; there is a shared facility for the three of them. However, the Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, sees it fit to pay rent supplement on that substandard accommodation. If the Minister examined what she was doing in terms of the rental supplement, she would pay for proper accommodation that is available and not force people to live in a stable.
Those three groups were in my office at 9 o'clock this morning. We as Deputies are picking up the legacy of the homelessness situation created by the Labour Party Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, who is not getting his act together to deal with the housing issue, and the Minister for Social Protection who is responsible for the rental supplement. What did the Minister for Public Expenditure and Control, Deputy Howlin, say today? He said that is a matter for the next Government, that it will be a priority for the next Government, but it is a priority for the people here and now. We have the homelessness situation and the lack of house building over which the Government has stood idly by during the past five years when it could have used good funds instead of paying higher interest rates to German people to put money into AIB. It would have been better off investing money in housing in Ireland.
I would also point to the addressing the jobs issue, which the Government promised, but every time those in Government talk about it they ignore the fact that one of the reasons the number of those in receipt of jobseeker's allowance has reduced is because the Government has ensured that most of them had to take a one way ticket to Sydney, Perth or to other countries. It has a policy of forcing young people to leave the country.
With respect to the Minister's record in the next six weeks, I look forward to her meeting the people and talking about the two-tier recovery. There is a two-tier recovery and the Labour Party should be, and is, ashamed of the fact that it stood by Fine Gael giving tax cuts to the wealthy while it made people on low incomes suffer. The Government has had five regressive budgets, documented by the ESRI, Fr. Sean Healy and everyone else, and the poor people have suffered most under the Labour Party's reign. I will not even go into its broken promises, about which another former Minister from the Labour Party said that is what one does in a election. Deputy Rurarí Quinn said there would no increase in third level fees. The Labour Party broke every promise. It has no credibility and its Ministers should be ashamed of themselves. They should go now and not even wait until next month.
Yes. The Tánaiste, as everyone else, understands the nature of politics. Motions of confidence are put down and the Government will praise her. The Government will vote in favour of the motion and the Opposition will outline all of the Tánaiste's flaws and failings and we will vote against the motion. That is sometimes part of the theatre that goes on in here. However, underneath the theatre there are genuine reasons Opposition Members have no confidence not only in the Tánaiste but also in this Government. We see these reasons, as I am sure Government party members see them every day in their work in their constituencies.
The Tánaiste can argue all she likes that a recovery is under way but the reality is that the recovery is a two-tier one. I am sure if she goes into her constituency - I say the same to the Minister of State in the Department, Deputy Kevin Humphreys - they will see the two-tier recovery. They will see those who are benefitting and those who are worse off than they were five years ago.
I find it hard to stomach some of the Fianna Fáil rhetoric, even from the previous speaker, Deputy Sean Fleming, about public appointments, when in the dying days of the previous Fianna Fáil-led Government in December 2010, 90 appointments were made to State boards, including the Pensions Authority. Fianna Fáil introduced a Bill to implement statutory recommendations rather than the guidelines that were introduced by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, yet the party did nothing when it was in government. I take everything Fianna Fáil says on these issues with a pinch of salt.
The reality is that the Tánaiste, as the deputy Head of Government, and as the leader of the Labour Party, must bear responsibility for what is happening in society. There is huge suffering. We have touched on homelessness.
We have touched on issues that affect terminally ill children and those with medical cards, as well as involve cuts for carers, in child benefit and the death grant. These are all choices the Government has made and which the Tánaiste has stood over. Many of the cuts were made by her Department, including those to the back-to-school clothing allowance.
Before I came into the Chamber I spoke to an individual who said I could read his e-mail, but I will not name him. His case is an example of what I have outlined. He is living in Cork and was in private rented accommodation. He has a partner and two children, both of whom are under the age of four years. Unfortunately, they have been living in a hotel for the past four months. Following the announcement of the impending legislation their then landlord put up their rent. Following advice, they sought help from the Department, the local welfare officer and Threshold, but, unfortunately, they could not continue to rent the property. They have been on the local authority housing list for five years and ended up becoming homeless. They were in such desperation, living in a hotel room, that on 28 December the young man in question tried to take his own life. Thankfully, he was found in time by his father-in-law who had to kick in the bathroom door. Because he was unconscious paramedics were called who said he was probably two to three minutes away from death. Thankfully, he has come out of that situation with a real determination to get his life back on track. However, he is not getting any help. He has been to the local authorities and the local welfare officer, but under the existing guidelines and the limits in place, he cannot find a property to rent in Cork city . That is the reality.
Until the Government recognises that housing is a huge issue, those who must continue to live in hotels will, unfortunately in some cases, see no way out and no light at the end of the tunnel. People are losing their lives which, sadly, is a legacy of the Government. Members of the Government parties can talk about the improvements made, but they must also recognise that the Government got things wrong. I do not take issue with anyone who puts up his or her hands and says, “I got it wrong.” I will finish on this point. In fairness to the then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, when he tried to cut funding for DEIS, he put up his hands and said, “I got it wrong. I am going to reverse it.” There have been too many arrogant Labour Party Ministers, including, in particular, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly. There is no love lost between us. Unfortunately, he will not put up his hands and say, for example, to the individual about whom I have just spoken, “I got this wrong. We are going to reverse it and to try to find some credible solutions.".