Thursday, 18 May 2017
Everyone in the House agrees that Brexit presents one of the biggest challenges the country has faced in decades. We do not know how hard it will be, but it is obviously the Government's job to prepare the country as well as possible. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are not as prepared as we should be in several areas. There has been a focus on the Good Friday Agreement which is important to every citizen across the island, but it is an international agreement which will be implemented in full. What has received far less attention is the threat Brexit poses to sustaining, protecting and creating jobs in Ireland. Last October's budget failed to prepare the State to prepare for Brexit. In fact, it largely ignored the challenges we were facing owing to Brexit. Unless more is done, jobs will be lost needlessly and opportunities needlessly missed.
A recent Government survey shows that 15 of 20 Irish-owned firms believe they will be harmed by Brexit. While 15 of 20 believe they will be harmed, only three of 20 are doing anything about it. Why is that? It is because they do not yet know what threats Brexit poses. It is because they are not necessarily equipped to deal with the threats it poses through addressing currency fluctuations to hedge against sterling, reconfiguring supply chains, planning for diverging standards and regulations which are likely to emerge and exporting across an external EU border.
There is real concern the Government believes enough is being done on the ground for Irish farmers, SMEs and exporters. It is not. As we know, Brexit is happening. It is not going to happen in a year and a half. Orders from the United Kingdom are falling. A new UK survey shows that half of the European firms that export to the United Kingdom are seeking to rewire their supply chains outside and that one third of UK firms that export from or buy in from outside the United Kingdom are rewiring their supply chains to within it. Irish businesses need support in preparing for Brexit. If they are to grow beyond Brexit, as they must, we will have to help them to learn how to sell into new markets in which English is not spoken and deal with very different legal systems, working cultures, languages, consumer preferences, regulations and so forth.
Given the scale of Brexit and the threat it poses to sectors such as agriculture, tourism, retail and manufacturing, does the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, believe much more needs to be done, not just to mitigate the risks but also to turn Brexit into an opportunity? If so, what new actions is the Government willing to take to address the current shortfall in preparations?
When the Deputy says what the Government is doing is not clear, I ask him whether it is not clear to JP Morgan which announced this week that it was buying an office block in Dublin in advance of moving hundreds of jobs to the city.
Is it not clear perhaps to the insurance companies that have approached the Central Bank of Ireland indicating strong interest in locating new activities and, more important, jobs in our country? Is it not clear perhaps to those companies that were on the front page of The New York Timesearlier this week explicitly naming Dublin among the places to which they are looking to move further business? I note with interest the Deputy's bare reference to the Good Friday Agreement. He made it appear inevitable that its political status will be recognised when, of course, his party and his party leader for months were pointing to the necessity of that happening. Now that the Government has secured this recognition, this is dismissed by him.
I acknowledge, however, that if the response to the huge Brexit challenge is a response from Dublin, then this is not a national response. This is the reason that the Government is committed to strengthening our national capital investment and that the Minister for Finance and I are travelling to Luxembourg next week to engage with the European Investment Bank to examine what the options are for strengthening investment beyond the additional €2 billion we have signalled we will invest in our hospitals, schools and transport network to respond to the Brexit challenge.
The Deputy made reference to challenges in the agriculture sector, which have been strongly recognised by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the rest of the Government, but, of course, he made no reference to the fact that the Minister, through last year's budget, put in place a fund of €150 million to help the food sector respond to the income volatility we have acknowledged will be exacerbated by Brexit. The Deputy made reference to tourism but no reference to the fact that the Government retained the lower VAT rate of 9% for the sector and the fact that over the past number of months and, indeed, year, access to the country has increased through airports with new routes to Ireland, all in recognition of the challenge that Brexit will create.
The only bit on which I agree with the Deputy is that we are all united in recognising the scale of the Brexit challenge for our country and we all acknowledge we must explore all options open to the Government to respond, but I do not accept the Deputy's contention, which is not borne out by the facts that I have laid out, that the Government's actions to date have not recognised the scale of the challenge. They clearly have, and this is recognised by many parts of the economy.
The Minister's response goes to the heart of what is causing increasing concern among farmers, agrifood companies and Irish-owned SMEs because they know Brexit is coming and it will harm them but many of them do not know what to do about it and they are looking to the State for support. His response is consistent with that of the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, which is, "We are doing everything we can". That is the concern because I do not believe, and many businesses do not believe, the Government is doing everything it can. It is great that JP Morgan is looking for offices here but that is of no interest to Irish-owned SMEs worried about whether they will be able to sell their products into the UK. The 2017 Action Plan for Jobs explicitly lays out how much money the Government has provided to the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia combined for Brexit and it is less than €5 million. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has yet to meet the Irish Aviation Authority or the DAA on the threats posed by Brexit. Could the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform please address that? Does he believe that less than €5 million is enough? Does he not at least acknowledge the gap between the Government saying everything that can be done is being done and the many business people and farmers who are scared and who do not feel the support he says the Government is providing?
I was hoping for a little more substance and a little less spin from the Deputy on a matter of such national importance because we acknowledge how hugely important is this. I also hoped the Deputy would acknowledge all the steps taken by Government to respond to this huge challenge. We have laid out only in the past number of weeks the Government's position paper on Brexit, the political strategy, and what we have secured to date, but we have been clear in acknowledging that this challenge will take us many years to respond to collectively, and we will.
We have acknowledged the steps that have been taken, from the new trading strategy that was launched by Enterprise Ireland, from the steps that have been taken to support our representation into the European Commission and beyond and from economic measures that have been taken. As we respond further to this challenge, we will look at further steps that will be taken, building on what we have already delivered, building on the fact that this and the previous Government have seen this economy move to over 2 million people at work. We do not need to be reminded of what an economic challenge looks like, and we have shown to date what we are capable of doing, and our determination to do more.
Yesterday, An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, announced his resignation as leader of Fine Gael. I take this opportunity to wish Deputy Kenny, his wife Fionnuala and their family the very best for the future.
No doubt the Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, and his colleagues will extoll the virtues of Deputy Kenny as leader of Fine Gael, and that is of course their prerogative, but the truth is that he has been a very bad Taoiseach for ordinary people. He is a Taoiseach who has implemented policies which benefitted the most well-off in society to the detriment of everyone else. In 2011, Deputy Kenny came to power with the largest majority in the history of the State, and to great fanfare, he promised a democratic revolution. However, what he actually delivered during his six years as Taoiseach was crisis after crisis.
During last year's general election campaign, Deputy Kenny told the Irish people that they had to make a direct choice between stability and chaos. He was right, and Fine Gael has delivered chaos in spades. The reality is that he came to office in a time of crisis, and he leaves office at a time of crisis. There is a paralysis in the Irish body politic. It is a paralysis by design, delivered courtesy of the supply and confidence arrangement with Fianna Fáil. As a result, we have a do-nothing Government. Deputy Kenny not only triggered a race to replace him as leader of Fine Gael, but more significantly to replace him as Taoiseach. That contest now creates the appalling vista for those who have suffered most during Fine Gael's six years leading Government. Lined up to replace Deputy Kenny, we have the great demoniser of the unemployed and poor, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar, or the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, or for chronic homelessness and hotel rooms, Deputy Simon Coveney. That is some choice. I have no doubt that ordinary people throughout the country are dancing jigs of delight in anticipation of either.
Two things are certain. First, irrespective of who wins, the prospective new Taoiseach will not be an advocate for progressive politics. He will not be for housing people, ending the two-tier health service, or building a real republic. Second and most significantly, he will not have contested a general election as leader of Fine Gael, and therefore will not have a clear mandate from the people to lead the Government. If the new leader is confident that the policies of Fine Gael command the support of the electorate, then that should be put to the test. He should seek a mandate from the electorate for the position of An Taoiseach. He should give the electorate a choice between progressive alternatives or more of the same. Does the Minister agree that the new leader of Fine Gael should call a general election?
-----and whatever the issue of the day is. We heard Deputy McDonald outline her view of a crisis. It reflects the fact that what Sinn Féin is interested in is continual crisis as opposed to the potential for cohesion. It is interested in continual strife to advance its own political ends as opposed to trying to create an atmosphere of stability to meet the challenges and to deal with the opportunities that our country has. Of course I acknowledge, and I am well aware because I represent the same constituents as the Deputy, of the challenges that people face in their lives with regard to their homes and many aspects of society.
I will tell the Deputy what crisis looks like. It looks like an economy in a bailout programme, with unemployment rising month after month. It also looks like an economy with no prospect of recovery, let alone stability. What Deputy Enda Kenny did as Taoiseach was lead a Government in delivering what many people, including Deputy Mary Lou McDonald and her party, argued was not possible. There was the prospect of recovery leading to a recovered society. As Deputy Mary Lou McDonald goes through our constituency and looks at Gaelscoil Bharra, a school that was not delivered although promised by many for many years, what does she do when she sees it? Does she look away? As she goes over Liam Whelan Bridge and sees the new Luas service being delivered by a degree of economic progress that she said would never happen, what does she do?
Does a little part of her wilt as she sees that progress? When she drives to Grangegorman and sees the DIT project being delivered that will bring more than 10,000 students into the heart of the city - it is one of the largest urban regeneration projects the State has seen - what is her response? Does she look away and pretend that it is not happening? It is progress and shows what this and the last Government have delivered.
Of course, we acknowledge what remains to be done and that when it comes to providing homes and how we want to improve the health service, there is much to be done. However, the Deputy's questions and contribution reveal Sinn Féin's agenda. It is one of continual crisis, negativity and ignoring the incremental and steady progress at the heart of what the country has secured and what we are capable of securing in the future.
That is the incremental, step-by-step, steady, easy as you go, "do not get notions that one should be educated in a proper building" progress delivered to the people by Fine Gael and, in fairness, advocated by its sidekicks in Fianna Fáil. Some 5,720 children in crisis have had no social worker allocated to them; while 91,000 households are on waiting lists. I could recite the statistics, but the Minister should know them because they are the Government's creation. The Government is not about creating stability but about inertia. It has fostered chaos and crises. I have no apology to make to it for outlining the fact that we, in Sinn Féin, will stand resolutely with those citizens at the receiving end of the crisis delivered by the Government. As the Minister seems to be very sure of himself, let me put my question again.
When the various candidates for the leadership of my party declare what they are going to do, the Deputy will see their commitment to implementing the programme for Government. She will see their commitment to implementing the agreement we have with the main Opposition party and the reason we want to do so. Please allow me to give her some other statistics because she is so eager to point to our difficulties.
I am glad that the Deputy acknowledged the point about Gaelscoil Bharra.
I agree that the pupils, families and teachers in that school waited for too long. Allow me to point to one simple fact. What Government finally made it happen? It was the last Government-----
The conversation about the legacy of Deputy Enda Kenny has begun. The conversation to date has been somewhat one-sided. The official version is out there. Stephen Collins in The Irish Timesthis morning summed it up. He said:
By any yardstick Enda Kenny has been one of the most successful political leaders in the history of the State ... His crowning achievement was to lead the country of the financial crisis that brought it to the brink in 2010, and preside over a government that transformed it into the fastest growing EU economy for the past three years.
The vantage point from an editorial chair in Tara Street, a CEO's office in a bailed-out bank or from the backbenches of the Fine Gael Party is somewhat different from the vantage point of working class people in my constituency of Cork North-Central or from the vantage point of a homeless person in a doorway or a young mother trying to make the rent. Such commentators will be far more likely to point to the shocking social inequality the Taoiseach is bequeathing. It is an Ireland where the wealthiest 20% own 73% of the wealth and the poorest 20% own 0.2%, a differential of an incredible 365 to one. It is an Ireland where workers have had the stick taken to them. One in five are low paid, there is a gender pay gap of 14% and a two-tier pay is Government policy. It is an Ireland where a job is no longer a guarantee of a life free from poverty or even of a roof over one's head. This is the Ireland Deputy Enda Kenny has helped to shape. Every one of his six budgets were regressive and every one widened the gap between the rich and the rest. Did the Taoiseach fashion this island on his own? Of course not. He had many helpers along the line. Among them is the Minister, Deputy Donohoe; the two young princes waiting in the wings; and a sorry and now deservedly depleted Labour Party.
Social inequality on a scale never before seen in this State was achieved by them all, building on the legacy of the previous Fianna Fáil administrations. On the legacy issue, who was right - the hundreds of thousands of people alienated from the political establishment or the editorial writers? Perhaps both are right in their own ways, coming from completely different, opposing and antagonistic class viewpoints. Ultimately, however, history decides the question. If the backlash against social inequality grows in the years ahead, if the strikes and magnificent anti-water charges movement come to be seen not as a blip but as the forerunners of even bigger challenges to inequality and injustice, then I strongly suspect the honest historian will say the legacy of this Taoiseach was the social inequality which fed that backlash and which can change the political direction taken by the nation.
Let me reassure Deputy Barry the backbenches behind me, my party and colleagues such as the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, beside me, understand the social circumstances and social needs that are out there every bit as vividly as Deputy Barry.
Deputy Barry has no monopoly on compassion. He has no monopoly on representation. The creed he outlines is the creed, to quote the Deputy, of antagonism. It is the creed of perpetual strife.
The Deputy talks about the view of historians. Historians and commentators will make their own minds up and we will respect and acknowledge their right to do that. As the balance sheet is being drawn up on the Taoiseach and the contribution of the last Government, what will be on the balance sheet are the many factors the Deputy refuses to acknowledge in his contribution. We have seen economic growth translate into job growth, social circumstances begin to improve, increased investment in services, schools and hospitals and we have seen our country begin to make a degree of progress the Deputy has always argued is impossible.
There are no princes or princesses in our party. We are a party that represents all levels of society, those with and those without. What we see from Deputy Barry and his party, day after day, is an attempt to advocate an agenda that does not represent or acknowledge the progress that has been made. I find it so ironic that the latest incarnation for Deputy Barry's movement is Solidarity.
The last time I checked, Solidarity was a movement originating in Europe that sought to defeat communism but what we have from the Deputy is a movement and a party that is seeking to enforce some form of communism on people who deserve better. We are as aware of peoples' needs as the Deputy's party. We are aware of all of the challenges that still exist but we are also aware of what has been achieved, which Deputy Barry refuses to acknowledge. We are aware of what has already been secured and know that the best way to build on that is by trying to bring people together, not to continually divide them.
-----and on top of that, an annual payment in perpetuity of €126,000. Next week the Minister is going into public sector pay talks and standing over a negotiating stance of support for two-tier pay rates, allowance systems and pension rates for new entrants. This is the solidarity that the Minister is showing to the people who helped to get this country out of the crisis, the working people of this country. The solidarity that I stand for is in the tradition of Connolly and Larkin and I say that there must be equal pay for work of equal value for our young people. How can the Minister defend a lump sum payment of €378,000 plus €126,000 per year for the departing Taoiseach while at the same time attempting to defend these scandalous two-tier pay rates for young workers in our public services?
Let us look at the progress that has been secured in dealing with some of the issues that the Deputy has just raised. On the issue of pensions, we must acknowledge that the average level of public pension in this State is €23,000. By 1 January 2018, anybody earning a pension below €32,400 will see the public service pension reduction eliminated.
The Deputy made reference to the issue of different pay and income levels for people who joined the public service after 2010 and after 2013. Let us look at the agreement that was secured between the Government and teachers' unions that sought to put in place a higher level of wage growth and to restore payments to acknowledge the fact that for some teachers, the level of payment they were receiving was not in line with the status that we wanted to offer to their profession -----
That has been delivered.
In the negotiations on public pay that we will commence shortly, following the publication of the report of the Public Sector Pay Commission, we will be looking to build on this progress. We will be looking, if possible, to secure an agreement on public pay that recognises the contributions of 308,000 public servants to our country, society and economy.
I wish to take this opportunity to wish the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, well following the announcement of his retirement as Taoiseach in the coming days. I wish him well on a personal level. For many in Fine Gael, his has been a very successful tenure. There will be other opportunities to debate his legacy but I would like to wish him well at this stage.
Last month the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Varadkar, launched what is essentially a State sponsored, self-promoting public campaign calling on people to report those they suspect of engaging in social welfare fraud.
The claim that over €500 million was saved in 2016 through a range of anti-fraud measures within the Department of Social Protection is central to this public campaign. The Minister has been found to have embellished and manipulated the social welfare figures. The actual figure for fraud is closer to €41 million, or 0.2% of the social welfare budget. It has been revealed that the estimate figures include moneys that would have been saved over 52 weeks in the cases of some payments and over 136 weeks in other cases, rather than what has actually been saved. It is possible that the inaccuracy of €450 million in the Minister's calculations can be attributed not to a miscalculation but to a calculated tactic as part of his leadership challenge. The Minister's campaign targets a vulnerable cohort of people including the elderly, lone parents, people with disabilities and the unemployed.
This level of scrutiny is not replicated when it comes to tackling white-collar crime. Over the past ten years, Ireland has lost approximately €25 billion through economic crime. This loss of €2.5 billion a year equates to more than 60 times the annual level of social welfare fraud. The Exchequer has lost tens of billions of euro through the activities of NAMA in extremely suspicious circumstances involving the current Government. The sale of NAMA's Northern loanbook led to a recorded loss of €162 million. NAMA recorded total losses of €800 million in respect of its Northern Ireland loan portfolio between 2010 and 2014. The Government is refusing to accept that there is anything wrong with this. When 15,000 people were defrauded by Irish banks on their mortgage interest rates, it caused misery and led to considerable losses for families. What about the 100 families that have lost their homes as a result of this fraud? It has been calculated that over the lifetimes of these mortgages, the amount of money involved in this criminal action is at least €500 million.
The Government has never taken white-collar crime seriously. The staffing levels of the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement have decreased by more than 18% since 2010. The number of gardaí working in the office has been reduced by 25%. Furthermore, the 2015 Garda Síochána Inspectorate report noted that "the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation are struggling to manage the volume of suspicious financial transaction reports forwarded to them as part of money laundering and terrorist financing legislation". We do not even collate statistics on white-collar crime. The figures that are drawn up are combined with welfare fraud statistics in an effort to massage the figures. If the Government had paid as much attention to white-collar criminals as it is now paying to potential social welfare fraud, it could have saved tens of billions of euro, which is far more than the €41 million that is lost in social welfare fraud each year. When will the Government begin to address this scandal by targeting the corporate criminals and tax cheats who have escaped its public campaign? When will it target criminals in suits as vigorously as it is targeting those who depend on social welfare?
I thank the Deputy for his gracious comments in response to the announcement made by the Taoiseach yesterday.
All fraud is wrong and illegal and should be subject to the fullest possible enforcement response from the State. All of the issues raised by the Deputy with regard to white-collar crime and corporate fraud are dealt with by the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement with the support of An Garda Síochána. As we all know, Revenue pursues tax fraud relentlessly and successfully. Given that the social welfare system involves annual expenditure of almost €20 billion, I suggest that fraud involving forms of income support that are designed to support and protect people on low incomes who are in need at vulnerable points in their lives is particularly worthy of investigation and should be dealt with. That is what the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, is attempting to do. I would have hoped that when the Deputy was acknowledging the Minister's motives in this regard, he would also have acknowledged that the first set of comprehensive increases in social welfare payments since 2007 or 2010, depending on the payments in question, was provided for in budget 2017. Those increases were put in place because all members of the Government recognise the need to support our social welfare system and those who rely on social welfare payments.
I would argue with the Deputy that we need to tackle those who have been involved in defrauding the State from a form of payment that is meant to be used to support those who are vulnerable and need additional income. This must be tackled and more needs to be done on it.
Regarding the figure the Deputy raised, the Department of Social Protection has outlined that the €506 million figure relates to both control and anti-fraud activity. All the material relating to that campaign recognises that. Since this campaign was launched on 1 May of this year, the Department has received more than 1,250 reports of social welfare fraud from members of the public, which represents an increase of more than double the figure for the previous year. Up to May 2016, the figure was 575, and that figure has now more than doubled. That is as a result of the campaign the Department of Social Protection put in place. Its purpose is to stop the abuse of taxpayers' money, which is meant to be used to support those who need it.
It is interesting the Minister in his response said that all fraud is wrong but in his eyes and those of Fine Gael and the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, all fraud is not wrong, only social welfare fraud is wrong and that is the only fraud that is being actively pursued. When one puts such fraud in context it pales into insignificance compared to white collar crime and white collar fraud that is rampantly in this State. Will the Minister advise us of the way in which staffing levels in the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement have been maintained since 2010 and by how much they have reduced? How many forensic accountants does that office employ who can investigate fraud issues? When we have those figures, that will reveal the real attitude of the Government to tackling fraud.
The Minister said that the first comprehensive increases were in 2017. We could have had far better increases before now if the Government had been tackling white collar crime and the proceeds of that crime had been retained in the Exchequer. NAMAleaks has received many reports of employees of NAMA using NAMA information for personal gain in contravention of the NAMA Act. That is the type of white collar crime to which I am referring. When will the Minister start to investigate that?
I am not sure if the Deputy supports the fact that the number of reports of social welfare fraud has doubled since that campaign was launched. He is wrong to even infer that this Government, this party or any of those who are associated with it do not take seriously the issue of fraud in all its different manifestations. It all needs to be tackled. The Government is committed to doing that. It is appropriate regarding the Government expenditure of €20 billion that all steps be taken to ensure that is no abuse of that funding and that nobody is defrauded of it. That is what the Department of Social Protection is seeking to do. I would have hoped that the Deputy would welcomed the fact that the number of reports of alleged fraud has doubled since that report was launched.