Wednesday, 27 June 2018
Many parents of schoolgoing children face enormous costs in their daily lives in rearing their children, and the cost of living generally remains a constant pressure on them. This is compounded, made much worse, by the cost of school activities and the ongoing need to contribute to schools' current funding requirements. Parents are fundraising left, right and centre to pay for electricity, heating and other very basic charges that schools must meet. On average, the Government gives a school approximately €46,000 a year for a its operating costs against an average expenditure of approximately €91,000. This is eaten up by lighting, heating, cleaning, insurance, classroom equipment, printing, stationery and so on. Depending on the size of the school, the grant of €170 per pupil can cover between 42% and 62% of a school's costs. In other words, the smaller or more medium-sized the school, the worse the hit. They are particularly disadvantaged. What is very poor is the treatment meted out to DEIS schools, the most disadvantaged schools. The funding gap for them is very difficult and they are hardest hit because they have far less fundraising capacity, with the most needy families and pupils attending such schools.
The funding position in respect of schools is therefore clearly unsustainable. This was revealed in the Grant Thornton report published last February into the current funding issues pertaining to primary schools across the country. The programme for Government committed to annual increases in primary and capitation grants, but the Government has not implemented this commitment. The Minister has in 2018 repeated a commitment made in the 2017 Action Plan for Education, but again there has been no delivery on the commitment. The reason is that the Government is essentially punishing schools and families who fundraise. Why? The Government feels they are taking up the slack. It believes it does not need to add to or prioritise the capitation grant. It is happy to let the schools take up the matter with the various fundraisers. One principal in a small rural school, for example, fundraised for four interactive whiteboards, 15 iPads, new windows and the conversion of a boiler house and store into a learning support room. This is not an exception: such fundraising efforts are going on across the country.
Rhetoric needs to be turned into reality and increased capitation grants need to be provided for in this year's budget and on a phased basis in subsequent budgets and plans. Does the Taoiseach accept that capitation grants at current levels are wholly inadequate to fund our primary schools? Does he accept that small and medium-sized schools and DEIS schools are particularly disadvantaged by the system? Will he commit to a generous increase in capitation grants in this year's budget as the beginning of a phased programme of increases in subsequent years? We will insist on such a provision in this year's budget.
The issue of capitation will, of course, be considered in the context of the forthcoming budget. There is a programme for Government commitment to increase capitation, so it is something we intend to do. I appreciate that capitation has been cut back in recent years and, unlike many things, has not been restored. It goes towards the running costs of schools and I would be very much in favour of an increase in capitation if we could find provision for it within what is left to us in the forthcoming budget.
It is important, though, never to lose sight of the wider picture. This year, we will spend €10 billion on education, more than any Government has spent in any year since the foundation of the State. What does this mean in practice? It means we have been able to hire 5,000 extra teachers in the past two years. It means we will have the lowest pupil-teacher ratio ever from this August and September. It means we now have 15,000 special needs assistants, more than we have gardaí, for example, even though Garda numbers are increasing. In fact, we now spend more on special education than we do on third level education, and funding for the latter is now being restored as well as a consequence of budget decisions made. A massive school building programme is happening all over the country, which Deputies will know from their constituency work.
However, it is not possible to do everything, or everything one would like to do, in one year. This is why we must prioritise. What we have prioritised in recent years is new, more modern school buildings; additional teachers; a lower pupil-teacher ratio; the introduction of new subjects at leaving certificate - physical education and computer science, for example; the restoration of funding to our universities; the introduction of two years of free preschool education; and other measures, including subsidised childcare. We have seen enormous progress in the short recovery we have had in recent years in all these areas. I absolutely accept that capitation will have to be considered as part of this. However, as I said before and will say again, it is never possible to do everything one would like to do in one year and we need to be prudent.
I have seen the kinds of promises Fianna Fáil is making. It has made promises adding up to €1.6 billion just in recent months. We all know that on budget day the budget package will allow us to increase spending by approximately €3.4 billion, but €2.6 billion of this is already committed in part to measures in education, given the fact that there will be more pupils and that we need to build more schools. However, the fact that Fianna Fáil's promises add up to €1.6 billion when the discretionary package is approximately €800 million means that a reasonable person cannot have any confidence that the promises Fianna Fáil is making in respect of education or anything else can be believed.
I am entitled to raise issues of this kind, and the last person to lecture anyone on promises is the Taoiseach. He has promised billions - never mind €1.6 billion or €1.8 billion - in recent months through various announcements, set pieces and so on in respect of the NDP etc.
It is quite extraordinary the degree to which the Taoiseach lectures everyone else on raising issues of expenditure when only this morning another €200 million was announced by two Ministers. The Taoiseach should therefore stop the smart-aleckry about people making promises. It is absolutely our entitlement to raise this issue, as we raised the pupil-teacher ratio last year. The Taoiseach resisted that. We forced the pace on reducing the pupil-teacher ratio through confidence and supply last year. We are saying very clearly that schools, DEIS schools in particular, are in dire need because for three years the Government has not prioritised a commitment it made to raise capitation grants for pupils in primary schools and then, ultimately, it rests on parents-----
-----to have to increase them.
As for the Taoiseach's comments on the largest ever expenditure, the population is growing. As it grows, education expenditure will grow. The Taoiseach should not be so self-satisfied about what the Government is doing in respect of school buildings. I could bring him to any constituency in the country, including my own-----
-----and show him where there has been consistent neglect of schools that have been in the pipeline for five or six years and some poor planning decisions made. I will gladly work through this with him if he is genuinely interested in trying to get to the meat of the issue and not in the endless rhetoric that does not match the reality on the ground.
It is not fair to describe it as rhetoric. I gave the Deputy a list of facts. People, as I often say, are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. Yes, it is the case that our population is increasing. This is one of the reasons why the education budget must increase too. Notwithstanding that, we have been able to hire an extra 5,000 teachers over two years and invest more in special needs education than ever before. We are building loads of new schools all over the country. I appreciate that more need to be built and many need to be refurbished. It is not possible to do all these things in one year. Something we will absolutely consider in the context of the next budget is an increase in capitation, but we will have to look at it in the round. Any promises or commitments we have made on spending have been delivered over the past seven years, and the ones we are making now will be delivered into the future. I do not make these promises on the hoof; they will only be made after proper consideration in the run-up to the budget.
It is interesting to hear Fianna Fáil Members, including Deputy Micheál Martin, claiming credit for things the Government has done. It reminds me of the "Wizard of Oz" and the man behind the curtain who claims credit for everything good that happens but no responsibility for anything else.
The process undertaken by the Policing Authority is now complete and Mr. Drew Harris is to be appointed as the new Commissioner of An Garda Síochána. It is significant that somebody from the North, a serving PSNI officer and former RUC officer, has been appointed to this position. I met Mr. Harris and the Chief Constable of the PSNI, Mr. George Hamilton, in Belfast two weeks ago. For our part, we will continue to pursue comprehensive policing reform. We want to work constructively with the new Commissioner and we will hold him to account, as we have with previous Commissioners.
I acknowledge that Mr. Harris comes to this job with his own story of loss and pain from the conflict in the North. That cannot be minimised in any way; Mr. Harris lost his father. What also cannot be minimised or sidelined are the concerns raised by victims of British state collusion, such as those expressed by Stephen Travers of the Miami Showband on the radio this morning. Mr. Travers spoke of RUC collusion and the old RUC culture of political policing and cover up. He regards Mr. Harris as part of that culture which has denied people the truth. Similar concerns have been voiced by representatives of the Relatives for Justice campaign group. They say that Mr. Harris "has at every opportunity sought to thwart families in the search for truth and accountability", and that he "has had a stranglehold on legacy and has acted partially and with vested interest at all times".
The issue of Mr. Harris's evidence at the Smithwick tribunal being described as "nonsense" by a former Garda Commissioner has also arisen. The question of any intelligence to which Mr. Harris had access in terms of British state collusion in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings has also arisen.
Did the Taoiseach hear Stephen Travers on the radio this morning? Has he read the statement from Relatives for Justice? I believe it is appropriate for the Taoiseach to acknowledge and respond to the concerns they have expressed. Mr. Harris's main job must be to deliver radical reform of An Garda Síochána, and to develop an ethos of transparency, best practice and accountability. To do this, he must first earn the confidence and trust of the public, particularly regarding his involvement with legacy cases. He has to demonstrate that he in no way subscribes to the toxic, vindictive policing culture which necessitated the disbandment of the RUC.
How does the Taoiseach respond to Stephen Travers? What assurances can he give that the new Garda Commissioner will play the part demanded of that office in exposing collusion, uncovering truth and holding those responsible to account?
I have not had an opportunity to read the statement from the Relatives for Justice. I had an opportunity to hear Mr. Travers on the radio this morning. My sympathies go to anyone and any family affected by the Troubles, that awful period of our history and those decades during which various organisations wrought appalling violence on people north and south of the Border. As the Deputy mentioned, the new Commissioner designate was affected by that in one of the most direct ways in losing his father to terrorism. We can all understand how that affects people for their entire lives.
The process by which the new Commissioner designate, Mr. Drew Harris, was appointed was very much in line with the reforms we have introduced to policing in recent years. There was an open international competition. We sought applications from within policing and without, from within Ireland and from other states. A large number of people applied for the job and a shortlist was produced. The work was done by the Public Appointments Service working with the Policing Authority, which then made a recommendation to Government. Government very pleased yesterday to approve that recommendation and to appoint Mr. Drew Harris as Commissioner designate. It is intended that he will take over in September.
I thank the acting Commissioner, Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin, in particular for agreeing to stay on during that period to work with Mr. Harris on the transition, and for the good job he has done in recent months, very much steadying the ship in the Garda. I thank him for that particular service.
Drew Harris will bring about better policing in Ireland - policing our communities better and policing our home places better. He will be able to bring about greater accountability on behalf of the Garda. He was very much involved in the transition from the RUC to the PSNI, which I believe we all agree has been a big success. He can bring those abilities to An Garda Síochána.
He is familiar with the accountability mechanism such as the policing board which exists in Northern Ireland and he will engage very well with the Policing Authority in that regard. He will have considerable support from Government because transforming, changing and modernising a big organisation is not easy and can never be done by just one person. We will certainly support him in his work in the years ahead.
I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that in order to bring about that radical transformation of policing, the new Garda Commissioner must have public confidence and that is what I am asking the Taoiseach about. Yesterday I raised with him the case of Pat Finucane. Many times we have raised incidents, not least the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, where British state collusion was writ large. The fact of collusion is well established and accepted at this stage. However, families and individuals have been actively thwarted and blocked in their search for truth. They have said it out loud. Let us pretend we did not hear what Stephen Travers had to say. He said that at this point - before Mr. Harris even assumes his new role - he is raising incredibly serious questions about confidence in the incoming Garda Commissioner. The Taoiseach needs to answer that.
I want to hear that from the Taoiseach, as Head of Government. It would also be appropriate for Mr. Harris to make a statement addressing those issues of confidence - those real and deep-seated concerns because we all know that reform of An Garda Síochána-----
The incoming Commissioner has the confidence of the public. The Garda representative associations that have commented on this have been broadly supportive. The main Opposition party has been broadly supportive. The sense I have from gardaí on the ground is that they welcome this appointment and this change. The general sense I have from the majority of the public is that they welcome this appointment and that they see it as a new departure and an opportunity for a new and better policing in Ireland.
I am a little disappointed by the position that Deputy McDonald is taking now, which is almost in the space of trying to undermine confidence in the new Garda Commissioner-----
-----before he has even taken up office.
When it comes to the issues of truth and reconciliation, everyone has a part to play. Yesterday I expressed in the Dáil the Government's strong view that there should be a public inquiry into Pat Finnucane's murder. The Tánaiste has met members of the family and will do so again. Truth and reconciliation require that everyone plays their part and that everyone who has information about crimes committed in the past and about atrocities that were inflicted on people should bring that information forward. That applies to-----
There are two ways a Government can damage the economy - reckless spending and failure to invest, both of which are ruinous. The doctrine of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, has been to circle the wagons around the national finances and to limit debate by not publishing the full range of national statistics. For example, because the Minister has decided to pursue his own so-called fiscal stance, the objective data on Ireland's fiscal space are no longer being published.
I accept we need to lower the national debt, but the best way to do that is by putting in place the conditions for the future growth of the economy, as the Labour Party has repeatedly done.
We agree with the need to roll out infrastructure in transport, water and electricity in order that businesses can depend on them and expand. There will be an equally important need to invest in our social infrastructure. Investing in people strengthens our economy. We need to boost our investment in education at all levels in order that workers are more productive and in order that every citizen of Ireland has the chance to fulfil his or her own full potential. Social investment has a double pay-off. It gives people a better quality of life and, when done strategically, it also boosts the future growth potential of the economy. The failure to expand Ireland's social infrastructure, including affordable housing, childcare and public transport, will hold back the future economy. We cannot afford to not make these investments. We need to end the permanent crisis in housing in order that workers can afford to take up jobs and work in our towns and cities. A recent report showed a household now needs to be in the top 10% of income in order to afford the median house price in Dublin. That is unsustainable. A person off work for a week waiting for a health appointment represents a blow to the economy. A person forced to commute 90 minutes each way due to the price of houses is a loss to our economy. We know business need to flock to where the physical infrastructure is the best and most robust. The economy will never grow to the same extent across the country as a whole unless we put in place the infrastructure to make investing outside our larger cities more attractive. Failing to make the necessary strategic decisions now is not fiscal prudence; it is a failure to meet the obvious needs of our people. It will have an obvious detrimental impact on our economy.
The Taoiseach has often referred to the lost decade. He is in danger of making the loss permanent. Is it not time now for economic debate in the House to be open and focused on the needs of all our people rather than, as it seems from the Taoiseach's initial responses to Deputy Micheál Martin, on using the budget to try to box political parties into positions before an impending general election?
The Government is very interested in and very welcoming of an open debate on budget priorities. I came from the National Economic Dialogue this morning in Dublin Castle where Government is engaging with unions, employers, NGOs, charities and academic experts. It will run all day today and tomorrow and Cabinet Ministers will attend it over the next two days. It is an initiative Deputy Howlin was involved in establishing when he was Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. It is one worth continuing because we want an open dialogue on budget priorities. That is exactly what is happening.
Where I differ with Deputy Howlin is I think it should be obvious to everyone that the best way to reduce debt is first to stop borrowing and after that to run a surplus and run some of that surplus to pay down the debt. The truth is we are still borrowing. This year we will spend more than we raise in taxation. Even next year, where we are targeting a budget deficit of 0.1% of GDP, we will still spend more than we raise in taxation. That is not sustainable. We are in a situation in which the economy is growing strongly and where we are heading for full employment. We should, like other small countries such as the Nordic countries, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, which are doing well economically, be getting to the point where we are running a surplus. Our national debt is falling as a percentage of GDP but it needs to fall faster. When we went into the last financial crisis just over ten years ago, our national debt was €15,000 per person. Today it is €45,000 per person. That means that ten or 15 years after the financial crisis our national debt per head is three times what it was back in 2007. That is major risk. We have an opportunity now to break the boom-bust cycle, not to repeat the mistakes of the past and not to sign up the philosophy of "When I have it, I spend it and when I do not, I borrow it." We have an opportunity now to break the cycle of boom and bust and not to repeat the mistakes of the past. In our view that means balancing the budget next year, running a deficit of roughly 0.1% of GDP, and in the year after that running to a surplus and using that to pay down our debt so if we ever enter another financial crisis, downturn or recession, we will not have to make the kind of painful decisions that were made during the lost decade I spoke about. It may not be politically popular. I am sure there are way more votes in cutting taxes and ramping up spending but we will do the right thing because we are much more interested in the next generation than we are in the next election.
I reassure the Deputy that we have set out a plan to invest €116 billion over the next ten years in our public infrastructure, healthcare, housing, tackling climate change, new schools and social infrastructure which we both agree is so important. We are not waiting for ten years to do it. If we compare this period with the same period last year, there has been an 18% increase in capital spending. That is 18% more spent on our public infrastructure. Next year we will increase it by another 25%, going from a country that is a low spender on public infrastructure to one of the highest spenders in public infrastructure in the coming years.
The Taoiseach did exactly what I expected him to do. It is unfortunate. He did not answer the question and embrace the real economic needs of our people. He gave what is now becoming his stock election speech that Fine Gael is prudent and everybody else is profligate. Meanwhile, look at the true economy. The Taoiseach talks about GDP. We can argue about whether GDP is appropriate but the Taoiseach used the figure. We are now in the medium-50s in terms of our indebtedness. We now have the capacity to address the big social deficits we have in education and health and elsewhere to allow our economy to grow. If the economy grows, the level of debt falls. It is much more prudent to grow the economy and allow everybody to fulfil their full capacity rather than to constrain growth by not investing in our people. That is the debate I am asking for.
The Taoiseach talks about tax cuts. We are not talking about tax cuts. We opposed them last year. We agree with the ESRI that there is no room in our economy to cut taxes when we have so many social deficits to address. That is not the Taoiseach's policy. He has promised to cut taxes as he did last year. We say now that we have an historic opportunity to build a social infrastructure that meets the needs of the people who made such sacrifices to get our economy in the shape it is in today.
-----because of our very large multinational sector. The way it accounts for intellectual property and other things our GDP makes our economy seem much bigger than it really is. The best way to look at debt and spending-----
-----is to take the total amount we spend and divide it by the number of people in the country. It is a very simple and common-sense calculation - how much we spend divided by the number of people in the country per head or per capita, whatever term one wants to use. The same thing applies to debt. When we take our national debt and divide it by the number of people in the country we have one of the highest national debts per capitain the western world. That is a real risk and we need to be wise to it. We should not be dismissive of it.
It is jobs. Unemployment is now one third of what it was seven years ago. It is 5.3%. Long-term unemployment is down to 2%. We are approaching full employment. What do we want as well as jobs? We want good jobs.
All of these things are going in the right direction. There is one thing I agree with the Deputy on. We need to invest in our public infrastructure in the years ahead. That is why we have precommitted to increasing capital spending next year.There will be a €1.5 billion increase in capital spending next year.
On Saturday, tens of thousands of people will fill the streets of Dublin celebrating Pride. We will be celebrating marriage equality, the belated apology for criminalisation, the role the LGBTQ+ community continues to play in driving progressive change, illustrated by the 91% who voted for repeal. Pride will also be a protest for trans healthcare, for the immediate roll-out of pre-exposure prophylaxis, PrEP, by the HSE, for action to ensure all families can be recognised as such on their children’s birth certificates.
I will focus on the thousands who will be carrying placards saying "Teach don’t preach, don’t block the sex ed Bill." In most of our schools right now LGBTQ+ people are erased. Their sexual health and relationships do not feature. What is provided is heteronormative and gender normative sex education where only reproductive intercourse is mentioned and where trans people and non-binary people simply do not exist.
We have been inundated with school students contacting us about their inadequate sex education. Courtney told us that her education "only focused on heterosexual relationships. They mentioned bisexuals once when they asked did we think they were greedy." Eighty seven per cent of school students surveyed felt that LGBTQ+ relationships were not discussed sufficiently in their RSE. That is because of an outdated curriculum but fundamentally it is because of church control of our schools, and the religious ethos of those schools taking precedence over the rights of students to have access to necessary information. That religious ethos provision in the Education Act 1998 will stand in the way of even the best curriculum in the world being delivered to school students. It is yet another illustration of why we need separation of church and State.
The impact of this on the mental health of young people is obvious. Where they are erased or othered, it contributes to an atmosphere where bullying is more likely, where young people feel pressured to hide to their identity and, shockingly, according to one study, where one in three young LGBT people has attempted to take their life. We need factual progressive sex education, which is LGBTQ+ positive, not gender normative and which centres consent. That is what the Citizens' Assembly called for. It is what the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution recommended and the Dáil voted for in April when it passed Second Stage of the Objective Sex Education Bill 2018. Crucially, that Bill would amend the Education Act to ensure that it would be delivered regardless of the religious ethos of the school. Despite that vote, however, we have a problem. The Ceann Comhairle has decided that the Bill would require incidental expenses and, therefore, to proceed to Committee Stage, we need the Taoiseach to sign a money message. I presume he will be there on Saturday. Will he be able to tell the crowd that he is allowing this Bill to continue to Committee Stage so that we can have necessary LGBTQ+ positive sex education in our schools, or will he have to explain why he is undemocratically using a money message to block the Bill and standing in the way of the change we need?
I reassure the Deputy that far from standing in the way of change once again the Government is making change happen. This is an important matter, which we broadly agree on. We agree on the importance of our children and young people receiving age appropriate, up-to-date information relating to their sexual health. The question is how we best go about making that change happen. Is it through the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, which we have used for decades to set curriculums for subjects, or through primary legislation? We do not have primary legislation saying what should be on the history, physics or mathematics curricula. Primary legislation is not the correct approach to changing a school curriculum. It is best done the way we have been doing it successfully for decades, through the NCCA.
We have asked for a major review of relationship and sexuality education and this is under way. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, announced it last April. As some aspects of the curriculum are 20 years old, we believe that now is the time to carry out a major reform. On its content, the Minister has specifically tasked the NCCA with considering a few areas in conducting its evaluation. These include: consent, which is so important and widely discussed now, what it means and its importance; developments in contraception; healthy positive sexual expression and relationships; the safe use of the Internet for all sorts of reasons that we understand; social media and its effect on relationships and self-esteem; and LGBTQ+ issues. The NCCA has been asked to do that to ensure that we have a modern curriculum and that we can make these reforms and implement them in schools. I strongly believe this is the right approach. This is the way we should make change happen and we should not start legislating for curricula in our schools. That is a different approach and a rather sinister one that does not tend to happen in democratic countries.
That is disappointing and extremely disingenuous because the Taoiseach knows that the Bill that passed Second Stage with his Government's agreement does not prescribe a curriculum. It does not have any intention of doing so. It sets out some extremely broad headings. In particular, what it does, and what the approach that the Taoiseach is outlining will not do, is amend sections 9(d) and 15(2)(b) of the Education Act 1998 to deal with the issue of religious ethos. Does the Taoiseach not accept that it is possible to have the best curriculum in the world but because of the characteristic spirit of the schools and how that is protected by the Education Act 1998 they are under no obligation to teach it? A student in a maths class is not prevented from learning multiplication because it is against the school's religion. A student who is LGBTQ+ should have their identity recognised when they go to school, regardless of the religious ethos. Will the Taoiseach please deal with this reality by saying he will sign a simple money message? If he is serious about what he says and if thinks this is a serious issue, he should accept that we need primary legislation to deal with the issue of religious ethos and I ask him to put his money message where his mouth is.
We did not oppose Solidarity–People Before Profit's Bill because, as is often the custom in the House, if we are broadly supportive of the general approach and the policy principles, we do not seek to divide the House unnecessarily. I do not, however, believe that primary legislation should be used to change the school curriculum or that politicians should legislate to determine a school curriculum. It is best done through the NCCA, as it has been done very successfully in the past.
We are reforming and modernising the RSE curriculum. It will be a new, modern curriculum covering areas that I mentioned earlier such as consent, LGBTQ issues and contraception. We will expect every school in the country to deliver that curriculum just as they do for other subjects regardless of the ethos of that school.