Thursday, 20 October 2016
Questions on Proposed Legislation
In the budget there is a 10% increase allocated to fixing the roads while the overall budget to local authorities was decreased by 7%. There is a commitment in the programme for Government for this Government to restore fully the local improvement scheme.
That was a very beneficial scheme in terms of supporting the upgrade and repair of non-local authority roads across rural Ireland. Can the Minister confirm to the House today that this scheme is to be introduced, when that will happen and if there will be a specific allocation to each local authority to administer the scheme?
As the Deputy said, there is a commitment in the programme for Government to reintroduce it, so it will be reintroduced, but I cannot tell the Deputy the exact timeframe. During my time in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport we allowed local authorities to decide from their discretionary grant and discretionary budget whether they wanted a local improvement scheme.
In many ways, that made sense because some local authorities want to prioritise roads that are not taken in charge and others do not. Any commitment in the programme for Government will be honoured, but the exact timeline would be a matter for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to communicate directly with the Deputy.
I ask about the help to buy scheme, which is part of the finance Bill to be published today. The scheme, which will provide a rebate of income tax over the four previous years up to 5% of the purchase price of new build homes, is a deeply flawed and dangerous scheme. Before the Government pressed ahead with the launch of this scheme last week, the overwhelming majority of expert opinion told them it would not work and would make the housing situation worse. The reports on its impact on property prices since then confirm that and bear out that expert view. The asking price for new build homes is reported to have significantly increased in various parts of the State, effectively wiping out any potential benefit for the help to buy scheme. The reported changes to the scheme on foot of the Central Bank concerns do not make the scheme any more workable. Fianna Fáil's proposal to include second homes goes against the thrust of the scheme, which we were told was to drive up the supply of affordable first-time homes. This was a very bad proposal to begin with. It will not help first-time buyers. It will not increase the availability of new build homes, and it will add to the crisis in housing for which this Government is responsible. Will the Government do the sensible thing, even at this stage, and scrap this scheme?
I am delighted to hear that Deputy McDonald is interested in expert opinions and I hope she will seek an expert opinion on her own party's tax policies. She might ask the experts about the impact on our health service and our financial services of a major hike in income taxes on consultants and IT specialists-----
On the question the Deputy asked, the purpose of the help to buy programme is twofold: first, to help first-time buyers and to give them an edge over others who are seeking to buy homes, particularly investors who are looking to rent properties - even if prices rise, this still gives them an edge; and, second, but importantly, to incentivise builders to increase supply to build more homes, and particularly homes that are affordable for first-time buyers that cost €400,000 or less. The details are in the finance Bill, which will be published today, and I hope Sinn Féin will reconsider its position, support it and show that it supports first-time buyers.
As the Minister for Social Protection is taking Leaders' Questions today, I ask about the Social Welfare Bill. Have the discussions concluded and can he tell the House now, and the people who are dependent on social welfare benefits, when the social welfare increases announced on budget day will take effect next year? Can he also indicate whether they will all take place on the same day in March or are there to be staggered dates on which different recipients are to receive the increases?
All social welfare increases announced in the budget occur in March, although some will occur in January because I will be able to implement them by order. The exact date will be in the social welfare Bill, which goes to Cabinet on Tuesday and will be published either next Friday or the week after, so people will have plenty of notice as to when the increases will come into effect. I am currently working with my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to profile spending in such a way that allows us make those payments as early in March as is possible, ideally on the same day for everyone.
The work is not yet concluded, however, and as no decisions have yet been made by Government, I cannot give the Deputy a precise answer. I can give a precise answer to the question on the Christmas bonus, however. It will be paid in the week starting on 28 November running to 2 December. Some 1.2 million people will benefit from it, including 600,000 pensioners and 600,000 other welfare recipients, including people with disability, carers, jobseekers, lone parents and parents in receipt of the domiciliary care allowance. Payments will range from €20 to €387 and will result in an injection into the economy, in particular into the retail sector, of €225 million, which is €25 million more than last year.
There is a clear commitment in the programme for Government to support our tourism industry and, in particular, the development of the angling sector. Earlier in the summer there was a proposal from Inland Fisheries Ireland to shut a number of the hatcheries which produce the small fry which angling clubs and fishing associations use. It has been seen as a very retrograde step and a review was sought to consider whether the decision could be reversed. Has the review concluded? Is the Government prepared to invest in those hatcheries in order that this vital service will be maintained?
I confirm that the board of Inland Fisheries Ireland made a decision to postpone indefinitely the decision to close the hatcheries at Cullion in Mullingar and in Roscrea while it examines the future plans for them. I dealt with a Commencement Matter on this topic in the Seanad this morning, raised by Senator Robbie Gallagher, in which I said we would examine the plans when they come before us. There may be issues relating to planning permission and the board has to decide its future investment plans for the sites in question or for new sites, as the case may be.
In the context of the Government's plans to bring forward the education (parent and student charter) Bill, will the Minister confirm what plans it has to deal with the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, ASTI, strikes in the coming weeks to prevent schools closing? Is the Government seriously intending to employ parents to supervise in schools when teachers are taking industrial action? Will the Minister give an assurance to parents that schools will remain open and that children will not be subject to the stress that the strikes will otherwise cause?
The Government's plan is to prevent strike action taking place, if at all possible, and discussions took place in the Department of Education and Skills yesterday involving departmental officials and representatives of the ASTI. We want to come to an agreement to ensure there is no disruption to the provision of children's education and that parents are not inconvenienced by taking their children out of school.
We will do everything we can to avoid strike action taking place, but any agreement with the ASTI has to be reached within the confines of the Lansdowne Road agreement. We have agreements with the majority of teachers' unions, the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, and the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, representing the vast majority of teachers, and that has allowed for a very significant uplift in pay for new entrant teachers, ranging from 15% to 21%. This demonstrates that the Lansdowne Road agreement is the best way to achieve public pay restoration in an affordable and sustainable way and is the best mechanism within which individual concerns in particular groups can be dealt. We have to stand by that agreement and we will.
Given the findings this morning that only 119 childminders are registered on the Tusla system, what measures will the Government put in place to support childminding? Has it met Childminding Ireland? What will happen if childminders come on board as regards Garda vetting, given the backlog there is at present?
Officials from my Department have met representatives of Childminding Ireland and will meet them again. There is time between now and September to legislate for the new programme and to put the necessary websites and administrative systems in place. It also gives us a window of opportunity to ensure more childminders can be registered with Tusla and that is certainly the objective of the Government. We need to ensure anyone who receives payment from the State through the new child care subsidy scheme is vetted and is registered with Tusla for the obvious reason that we cannot have the State paying child care supports to somebody who may not be safe to be with a child.
That is a principle we cannot depart from because it does not just relate to reducing the cost of child care and early education for parents, it is also about ensuring that we have quality child care and quality early education for children. I know the Deputy will share that objective.
I want to ask the Minister about the commitment in the programme for Government to improve pensions. I refer specifically to those who are on partial pensions or reduced contributory pensions because they were outside the PRSI network, often caring for children or the elderly at home. What is the position or what plan has the Minister for correcting that imbalance? These people are falling behind every day because they took on the role of caring for their children or the elderly at home.
The programme for Government contains a commitment to increase the State pension, both contributory and non-contributory, by more than the rate of inflation. We have done much more than that in this budget in view of the fact that inflation is minimal. No matter how modest the increase may be, it more than fulfils the commitment made in the programme for Government with regard to increasing pensions.
On the more substantive question the Deputy raises, as he will be aware, this is a complex area. My officials are now going through individual pension records of hundreds of thousands of people, trying to work out the impact of any change we might make because any change to the pension regime could result in significant costs for the Exchequer which we might not be able to bear, and also could create winners and losers. One needs to know, if one intends to make a change, how many winners and losers there will be and the extent to which they will either gain or lose. The move will be towards a total contributions approach. It will be not when one made contributions but how many one made. It will also have to take account of the fact that many, particular women, have to take time out of the workforce to look after children or relatives. We will need a major reform in this regard and a transition period, and new legislation, and that is unlikely to happen in the coming year.
In the context of the long-overdue and welcome changes to the farm assist scheme in the budget, the disregard of 70% in respect of income and the child disregard are being restored. Will the Minister indicate how this will be done? Will a desktop exercise be conducted in respect of all existing farm assist recipients to ensure that they can benefit from those disregards immediately or will they be forced to wait until their next review before they can do so? As the Minister will be aware, the relevant cuts caused much hardship to many farmers and farm families across the country. There are almost 10,000 individuals involved. It is crucial that this be applied to them and that they are not forced to wait.
The social welfare Bill will be published either on Friday of next week or the week after that and all the relevant details will be contained therein. We will totally reverse the cuts made to farm assist by the previous Government - of which I was a member - for the obvious reason that farm incomes are down. We want to be able to support farm families who are on the margins and also give other farmers the reassurance that should they fall on hard times, there is a stronger safety net to pick them up.
It is intended that the normal procedures will remain in place and that somebody's circumstances will be reviewed as part of his or her annual review. However, we will allow farmers to request an early annual review should they have a particular change in circumstances. That option will be available.