Tuesday, 27 September 2016
I welcome everybody back and I am delighted to see that it is all systems go for this Dáil session. It is less than two weeks to budget day and there are many issues that need to be addressed. I put it to the Taoiseach that it is essential that there be a realistic response to the Peter Cassells report on the chronic underfunding of third level education and the perilous state of institutes of technology and universities from a funding perspective as we try to prepare the country for the future in attracting investment and producing quality graduates in the years ahead.
Core expenditure for each university student is down by 22% since 2011. The student-lecturer ratio has worsened dramatically from 1:15 to close to 1:20, which compares to an average of 1:14 across the OECD. Irish universities are declining in world rankings. Some institutes of technology are very close to trading insolvently and others are in dire financial straits and will need funding to keep them afloat. There has been little or no capital investment in third level institutions for some time. In a recent letter to the Taoiseach, which was signed by all university presidents, attention was drawn to the urgency of providing €30 million to €40 million for basic health and safety equipment in universities.
Apart from that, we clearly have more medium-term capital investment projects that will be required in both the institutes of technology and the universities. Investment in education is central to our economic future. It underpins it and is the key differentiator between this country and other countries in terms of both attracting inward investment and developing indigenous companies to produce our own world class products and solutions for the world at large.
There are three clear options in the Cassells report. All options include a significant element of State funding. The first option is almost completely State funded. Option two is also State funded, with the existing student contribution remaining, and a contribution from employers through the programme for research in third level institutions, PRTLI, international training fund. The third option is State funding along with a student loan system and deferred payment of fees. My personal view is that option two offers an immediate opportunity to respond. I put it to the Taoiseach very simply that this cannot be kicked down the road. This is something we must face up to in this budget because more than €600 million has been sought by the universities and the institutes of technology in the next five years. It is imperative that we make a realistic response to that in this budget, of the order of €100 million plus, to cover both strata at third level. I would appreciate if the Taoiseach will indicate whether he endorses and agrees with the Cassells report and whether the Government is prepared to respond in a realistic way to it in the forthcoming budget.
Tá fáilte roimh gach éinne thar n-ais. It is important to distinguish between two things. One is the requirement for short-term funding in respect of the third level sector and the other is in respect of the Cassells report which deals with the medium-term future of funding for third level institutions. Everybody can agree that the impact made by Irish students over the years has been quite extraordinary in many cases. Everybody can also agree that something needs to be done. In addition, everybody can agree that one cannot leave it and do nothing. It seems as if the disagreement is on where the money should come from. That is the reason the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, has looked at the issue in the longer term and is anxious to have the views of every Member through the Oireachtas committee.
In respect of the budget, which is a short distance away, the Minister is in discussion with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, about shorter-term funding for the immediate issues Deputy Martin raised concerning third level education.
I was in NUIG last night and in Trinity College and UCD recently. All of the presidents make the same case that they need big money and they need it now. We do not have an endless pot but it is important to face up to that in accepting the Cassells report, which points out a number of options, all of which are difficult. I wish to have the engagement of all those involved, from all parties, in the Oireachtas committee and for them to come up with a view. In much the same way, the Minister for Health is attempting to get cross-party consensus and a longer-term view of issues relating to health on which everybody could agree and then to make decisions in respect of the future. It is not a case of letting the situation drift because we cannot do that. Deputy Martin raised a very important point. The immediate business is to deal with the shorter-term funding.
The Minister, Deputy Bruton, is talking to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, about that. The medium to longer term is the subject of the Cassells report, which details three options, all of which require money, and the issue is where that will come from. We need a real Oireachtas discussion about that future because it is in everybody's interest.
Arresting the decline in our third level sector cannot await the deliberations of an Oireachtas committee over the medium term. By all means, there are detailed issues in which the Oireachtas committee will get involved but all options involve substantial Exchequer funding of our third level sector. The bottom line is there must be a response in this budget, otherwise the Government is kicking the can down the road because it cannot realise the recommendations of Cassells on investment levels if it does not meaningfully address them in the forthcoming budget. It goes to the core of a responsible investment approach for Irish society. Peter Cassells addressed us last week. What was interesting was they were worried by the degree to which working people and people on lower incomes were finding the going extremely tough in terms of access third level education.
He gave a very graphic illustration whereby for some people in this city the rate of participation in third level education is as low as 7% to 14% whereas in another part of the city it is 100%. If we do not move, that gap between access to education will widen among those who have had historically low access rates to third level education, as opposed to those who have had a 100% access rate.
Something has to change. An excellent report has been submitted to us. It behoves us to act now, in the next two to three weeks, to make a serious provision in the budget for expenditure for third level education, otherwise we are ignoring the future of this country at our peril.
The Deputy makes a plea especially for funding for third level on the basis of substantial financing of our third level sector. This is one of a whole range of areas that now demand and require substantial funding in the forthcoming budget. The money is not there to do that, nor can it be. We have just come through a very difficult period over the last number of years. What is required now of the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is continued prudent management of that economy that can allow it to grow and, over a period, deal with the essence of the question that the Deputy raises, which is about fairness. The Deputy should go to the north inner city to see the challenge at primary level, where people do not have the opportunity that others have. I agree with the Deputy that the question of second level and third level should be looked at. However, that is about fairness in our society, and this cannot and will not be dealt with comprehensively in the forthcoming budget. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, is talking to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, about short-term contribution in respect of the immediacy of a requirement for funding for third level. We really need to talk in the medium to longer term about the Cassells report. I think everybody can agree that students should have the best opportunity as young Irish people to make their mark internationally. Why not? However, that will require very substantial funding and we need to be imaginative about the ways we can do that. It cannot be dealt with comprehensively in the forthcoming budget but I hope that a start can be made.
Tá sé ar ais. Maith an fear. When the Taoiseach's mojo was not working so well, he quite rightly acknowledged the unique and unprecedented challenges that have been presented to the people of the island of Ireland as a result of the outcome in June of the so-called Brexit vote. He will recall the meeting we had here with the party leaders and the Independents at which we all agreed that this was one of the most important issues facing the island at present. He agreed at that time to convene an all-Ireland forum to discuss the serious issues involved. All of us in this Chamber are agreed on this very necessary process of consultation. I know from being in the North that many people there have that view also, not least because of the potential implications and the nature of the Border for citizens, families and communities in both states.
As the Taoiseach will know because he has said this, as a result of the British Government's insistence on dragging the people of the North out of the EU against their wishes, the entire post-Good Friday Agreement architecture is under threat, including its human rights protocols. There are widespread concerns about this and also about the economic consequences. Border communities - I represent a Border community in Louth - would undoubtedly be the worst hit. There will be a day of action against Brexit across the Border from Derry to Dundalk on Sunday, 8 October at 3 o'clock. It is a campaign group and non-party political. It is called Border Communities against Brexit. It is made up of trade unionists, the business community, community groups, charities, disability campaigners and others from North and South. I encourage Deputies to attend if they can. It is important that we send a very clear message that the vote of the people of the North must be respected.
At the National Ploughing Championship there was considerable concern about the effect on farming, the agrifood sector and so on. There are huge issues that have yet to come into play covering social, economic, political, constitutional and cultural areas. However, the Taoiseach has not yet sent a word to the Opposition - certainly to my knowledge - about the plan he agreed to bring forward about an all-Ireland forum. Can he assure the Dáil that he has not given the DUP a veto on the establishment of an island-wide forum or island-wide consultation process? Why has he not yet briefed us on his plans? Will he take the opportunity now to outline the Government's proposals?
I thank the Deputy for raising the question. I can confirm for him that it is my intention to convene an all-island, all-Ireland conversation about this to which businesspeople, members of civic society and political parties will be invited. I will give him and all the other party leaders here and everywhere else the details of that in the next short period. Our intention is to protect this country's vital national interest in these Brexit talks. There is a great deal of confusion and a great deal of uncertainty, not only in Britain but also in Europe. These were raised at the meeting I attended recently in Bratislava.
I have asked all Ministers to engage with their counterparts in Northern Ireland in respect of the forthcoming North-South Ministerial Council. This morning, for instance, the Cabinet noted the 2015 report of InterTradeIreland, which deals with cross-Border activities for research and expansion of opportunity for exports and creation of jobs and so on. The reports for 2016, 2017 and 2018 may be very different. This is a matter of the utmost serious concern for us. That is why long before the vote in Britain, we set up a unit in the Department of the Taoiseach which has now evolved into a full-scale Cabinet committee which everybody can and will attend as appropriate.
Of course, we have to respect the votes of the people. I did not like the result overall but I have to accept it is a democratic result from the vote of the electorate of the United Kingdom. I will give the Deputy the details as soon as we have them finalised so that we can have the voice of Northern Ireland business, the Northern Ireland agrisector and the Northern Ireland people in regard to their views as to what they consider the implications for Northern Ireland might be.
For us here, I have made it clear, both to the British Prime Minister when I met her in Downing Street and to the European Council, that Ireland will argue vehemently for the continued recognition of the peace process and the support that has brought but also in respect of the critical juncture this country faces in terms of maintaining our links with the United Kingdom, but speaking as a country that will remain a central part of the European Union.
I fear that this will run for quite some time. It might not be as straightforward or as short-term as many people think. I will advise the Deputy and all others of the details of the national conversation we will have, when I have them finalised in the near future.
I welcome the Taoiseach's recommitment to the proposition an island-wide process. However, as he has not given us any details, I presume he has done no homework on the issue.
It would be useful if the Taoiseach has not yet done that homework if he could tell us when it will be done and when he will bring forward the details. We know that for the island of Ireland, in terms of partition, there is no good outcome from the Brexit vote. The Taoiseach has acknowledged and stated that on a number of occasions.
The Taoiseach has stood back from endorsing the vote of the people in the North. That is very important because for decades we have been lectured about the need to respect the majority vote in the North. The majority vote in Northern Ireland was to remain within the European Union. The Taoiseach, in my opinion, has a duty and responsibility to advocate that. If he does not do so, who else will? The Deputy First Minister will do it but the First Minister will not do it. The Taoiseach has a duty and obligation to advocate this. I again invite the Taoiseach to take this opportunity to state that he accepts the vote of the people in the North. It would be useful to get an indicative date by which the Taoiseach will have a plan for the process he envisages.
It will not be before the budget: it will be in November. As I said, I will advise Deputy Adams, Members and others who will hopefully attend of what I have in mind.
I recognise the vote of Northern Ireland, as I recognise the votes of Scotland, Wales and England. While, as I said, I did not like the result, it is a composite result from the United Kingdom. This is exactly why in respect of Northern Ireland we need the voice of Ireland. We need the conversation as to what is going to happen in terms of agribusiness North-South, meat producers, beef producers, pork producers, industry, financial services, education and health. All of these are areas that concern us. The primary objective for us as a Republic is to ensure our interests are foremost in our minds in any conversations that we have. As Deputy Adams will know, there are many people in Northern Ireland entitled to Irish passports who might find themselves in a country that has withdrawn from the European Union having voted in 1998 for their freedom of movement up and down this island at will, as they have always been able to do short of when the Border was in place.
I will advise Deputy Adams and all others of the range of what we need. There are other institutions, including the North-South Ministerial Council and so on, through which all Ministers will engage with their counterparts so that we get a really detailed analysis of the potential impact of Brexit North-South.
I join with others in welcoming the Ceann Comhairle, Taoiseach, the Government and other colleagues back to the Houses of the Oireachtas. This Government has been in office for the past five months. During the last term we had a great deal of talk about new politics but very little action. It was a "do nothing" Dáil. I hope that the Government is back with a lot of energy to address the problems that face the country.
The Government will be lobbied, and has been already I am sure, in relation to the forthcoming budget. There is one group of people in this country who cannot lobby for themselves - their parents who would be their natural advocates are too stressed to lobby on their behalf - namely, preschool children. As a country we spend approximately one quarter of the OECD average on early child care and education. The Labour Party in government was happy to campaign with Fine Gael to champion and support progress on issues such as area-based programmes, paternity leave and the second early childhood care and education year. However, a lot more needs to be done. We need a step change with regard to preschool.
As members of the Opposition all we know is what we read in the newspapers. In that regard, I understand that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, is proposing a targeted programme to lower income families and that Fine Gael backbenchers are not happy about that and would rather that the squeezed middle be helped. Is there a focus in Government on making this step change in funding quality early years education and will the Taoiseach tell us what proposals the Government is considering? I know that the Taoiseach cannot tell me what is in the budget but can he tell the House the details of the options that are under consideration for the budget with regard to early years education and will he give a clear commitment to this House that child care will receive the step change in investment in the forthcoming budget that it so urgently needs?
The Deputy is welcome back. She has stated there was no action in the first period of the lifetime of the Government, but there has been a very genuine attempt which will continue to get agreement across a broad range of health issues. We have published the most comprehensive housing programme ever and backed it with money. We have put together an education programme which is the most ambitious ever presented and within ten years - as a former Minister, the Deputy will appreciate this - to make this country the best for education. We have set out the requirements for the citizens' assembly to hold its first meeting on 15 October and addressed a range of other issues that have arisen during the period. Child care and early years education have been priorities for the Government. This month we have seen the commencement of the second free preschool year and the introduction of two weeks' paternity leave. As the Deputy is aware, the programme for Government sets out a package of measures, of which the scheme to which she referred is just one element. It also includes provision for after-school care, home care, childminders and parental leave. Parents want to have more choice, greater flexibility and availability and affordable options. These are matters that need to be considered. The Minister, Deputy Katherine Zappone, proposes to bring together various schemes into one scheme and make it accessible and affordable. It is on this area her focus will be. It will be her priority. It is not for me at this stage to indicate the details of the budget, except that we have a situation where the Ministers are speaking to their opposite numbers. This will emerge over the course of the next week to ten days when the figures will be finalised before being presented in the House. This is an issue that is raised on so many doorsteps and streets every day and is a priority for the Government. As I stated, we temper it with a sense of fairness. Over 2 million people are now working. The best pathway out of poverty and welfare is a decent job. Child care costs have been and are a very serious challenge for many, which is why the work of the Government is focused on making child care affordable and appropriate. I hope we can make further progress in the budget.
I am glad to hear the Taoiseach state this is a priority, but I hope it will be turned into real action and funding for the sector when we hear the details of the budget announced. It is about quality and affordability. We all know that what is put into early years education results in a huge comeback and improves the life chances of children in a variety of ways. While the leader of Fianna Fáil spoke about third level education, in having an opportunity to pass through the education system access to high quality and affordable child care in the early years is absolutely crucial.
Another issue is that the pay of people working in the sector is abysmally low. We need to see to it that people who are extremely dedicated and who would not put up with low pay only for their dedication will see an improvement in their situation. For parents, this is a crucial issue. Many must make a decision on whether they can afford child care to go out to work, about the importance of which the Taoiseach spoke. We need to ensure, for the sake of parents and the life chances of children, that we will step up to the mark. I urge the Taoiseach to devise a long-term plan for the sector.
From her previous experience the Deputy is aware of the importance of the outcome of investment in early years education. It impacts on children to their advantage into adulthood. It is important that we get it right. That is why the focus of the scheme proposed is targeted at those on low incomes to get them out of unemployment and give them an opportunity to avail of affordable and appropriate child care. It will expand as the economy improves and more money becomes available.
However, everybody knows that this is a real challenge for working people, which is why we have paternity leave and a second free preschool year and the focus of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is on streamlining the various schemes in place to make them affordable, appropriate and accessible for parents, while, at the same time, providing an opportunity to seek employment. Moving people out of the lower income bracket in which many find themselves is a challenge that become more real every day.
Last Saturday the Taoiseach was 50 metres away from an historic demonstration - the 25,000 strong, predominantly youthful March for Choice which took place in Dublin and called for the holding of a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment abortion ban, something he has continually tried to avoid, despite all the polls which show a huge demand for it. At the end of the protest the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs posited the idea that we might need something to replace the eighth amendment in the Constitution. Does the Taoiseach agree with her and, if so, why? Why, following the tragedies and the folly of putting something in the Constitution equating a woman with a foetus, would he seriously contemplate putting something else in to police women's bodies? There is nothing normal about putting anything about abortion or women's health in a constitution. I am aware of only one other country that has done it. It was done in Chile under the murderous military dictator General Pinochet. On behalf of women and young people in this country, I ask the Taoiseach not to go there. He has been a Member of the House for 41 years, since 1975. During that time he has taken part in important decisions affecting women. A total of 165,000 women have had to travel outside the State for an abortion while he has been a Member of the Dáil. Did he give those women a second thought when he was debating these crucial decisions?
In what could be one of his final acts as Taoiseach, I ask him to break a pattern of more than four decades of him being on the more backward, conservative side of all these vital decisions in the Dáil. He was in the House to vote in favour of the eighth amendment in 1983. Did he have any qualm at all having heard the reservations of the Attorney General at the time and many others? He was here to vote in favour of the "off you go" clauses in 1992 on travel and information and, crucially, was leader of the country when a pivotal event happened when a women needlessly died in a Galway hospital, having asked for and been refused an abortion. He could have ensured that would never happen again in this country, but that is not the case now. He ignored the pleas of Savita's parents, for example, to introduce a law to protect women's health, but rather than repeal the eighth amendment, he chose to criminalise women for having abortions. Will he, for the first time, listen to and trust women to make these decisions for themselves? Will he agree that it has been proved that the Constitution is not the place in which to decide on these issues and that, ultimately, the church and the State have to stay out of personal decisions? We all know that there will be a referendum. Will he make sure that it will be to repeal, not amend, the eighth amendment?
I thank the Deputy. She described the insertion of the amendment in the Constitution as a "tragedy". Unfortunately, the Constitution belongs to the people. I happened to be in the House to legislate for the first time in 30 years for what the Constitution meant, as interpreted by the Supreme Court. I have listened to the many tragic stories of women in recent times.
That is why it is entirely appropriate that 99 citizens, men and women of different age groups, are coming together from locations around the country to tease out the questions surrounding the eighth amendment, under the chairmanship of the Supreme Court judge, Ms Justice Laffoy, who I am sure will do a first-class job. It is in everybody's interest that there be a sensitive, rational and comprehensive discussion about this and that is the purpose of the citizens' assembly. I am glad its first meeting will take place on 15 October and that everybody, on all sides of an argument that has divided Irish society very bitterly for 30 years or more, can make their contributions and have their say.
When the assembly provides its recommendations the issue will come back here to this House. Depending on the outcome of the recommendations, Members of the Oireachtas will vote according to their conscience on where we proceed from here. We are having a citizens' assembly to address the many sensitive issues that have arisen from the stories people are confronted with on a regular basis. I spoke to some of the people on the march on Saturday and they made their views very clear but there are many divided opinions on this subject and I expect to hear them all over the coming months while the assembly goes about its business. In Ireland in 2016, it is very reasonable to allow people on all sides to make their contribution on an issue that is and always has been divisive.
The Taoiseach said he set up the citizens' assembly to hear stories but we have ample stories and he commented on none of the questions I put about his own role in this House over four decades on these issues. We heard the stories of two women who were travelling and I know they tweeted the Taoiseach, although I do not think he tweeted anything back. The Minister for Health offered them tea and sympathy while sending them out of the country and I know the Taoiseach has been tweeted on many issues related to women's reproductive rights, on which he has refused to comment.
We can win a repeal of the eighth amendment without any further restriction, which is what I fear is being cooked up in the form of restrictive legislation being put into the Constitution or an amendment to the eighth amendment. The Taoiseach keeps denying the results of opinion polls but he has set up a 99-person opinion poll in the form of the citizens' assembly. All the opinion polls show that 73% of people want a referendum held and 80% believe health is a key issue.
When people talk about "repeal" and wear T-shirts bearing the word, as they did on Saturday, they mean "revoke" or "make null and void". They do mean "replace" or "amend". I say this lest there be any confusion on the part of the Taoiseach or among his Ministers. That is what people marched for and that is what they will get.
I fully respect the view of the Deputy but it is not a black and white situation. The T-shirts may be black and have white writing on them but this is about people and people have different views. Some 20,000 or 30,000 may have marched at the weekend but we have the citizens' assembly to allow people to have their say and all people are entitled to have their say. Everybody has a personal opinion about this but it was a Government decision, endorsed here by the Oireachtas, to set up the citizens' assembly. I admire the courage of the 99 who have stepped forward to participate in the discussion. It is not an easy thing for many of them to do, given the nature of the divisive response that can come from participating in something like this. The hearings will be streamed live and I hope that everybody, at home and abroad, can listen to the conversations and have their views heard. I hope that, under the direction of Ms Justice Laffoy, the recommendations will come back here to the Oireachtas and we can move on from there.
I assure the Deputy that nothing is being cooked up here. This is a straightforward democratic exercise, with the selection of 99 citizens to give their view. Their view might well be divisive. I do not know but I look forward to the engagement and the contributions that will be made.