Thursday, 29 November 2018
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
I wish to begin by expressing my sympathy and that of the Fianna Fáil Party to the Marron family and the Border community in Castleblayney, County Monaghan on the death of Mr. Stephen Marron. Stephen was going about his daily job and was tragically killed as he sat in a parked car on Main Street in Castleblayney. He was a family man, only 47 years of age in the prime of his life, and it was a life that was being very well lived. His wife, two children and family and the Border community are this morning reeling, their lives ripped asunder. He was the assistant sacristan in his local church and was described as the go-to man for many in his community. The tribute earlier on "Morning Ireland" from his local canon reflected that.
The clips we saw on RTÉ and on all media last night from CCTV in Castleblayney on Tuesday evening are like something from the movies, except they are very real for the family and the community. After crashing into Stephen's parked car at high speed, the driver then drove on and crashed into a pole. He has since been detained. It seems that earlier this same person arrived at Castleblayney Garda station, was recognised by a garda who had previously had dealings with him and who then tried to stop this person leaving the station. The person left, drove on regardless and this tragedy unfolded.
The Tánaiste will also join me in paying tribute to Garda Michael Devlin who showed enormous courage and who, I understand, was previously injured on duty. He showed more courage and bravery again on Tuesday evening and we think of him and his family today.
The Tánaiste will agree that, in isolation, this story is horrendously tragic. When we read the reports today about how the suspect was on the run for a number of years and was well known to the Garda and the PSNI, it will make people question how he was allowed to walk our streets free, let alone drive on our roads, and how many other such cases are there within our system? Can he confidently say that our gardaí are resourced and have the available knowledge to brief them on this kind of suspect were they to meet a suspect or another one, particularly along the Border which they cross over and back, in such circumstances? Does the Tánaiste or the Government have a plan to review this incident and how it happened? How many other people is the Government aware of who are on the run in situations similar to this? Will the Government and the Garda Commissioner discuss this matter the PSNI? Are there plans to increase co-operation between the Garda and the PSNI and the courts system to ensure that those who are convicted of an offence on either side of the Border are not allowed to roam free for years and cause more tragedy?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Like him, I extend the sympathy of everybody in this House to the Marron family. Two children and a wife have been left without a father today because of an outrageous and tragic set of circumstances that could not have been anticipated for the family concerned. We are thinking of them today and they are very much in our thoughts and prayers.
I also want to recognise the courage and bravery of Garda Devlin, who is in a critical condition as a result of trying to do his duty. We hope that he will make a full and speedy recovery.
The issue of course is concerning. The Minister has asked for a full report on what happened. There will also be a full Garda investigation. It is important that we are careful about what we say in order that we do not in any way undermine the detail of that investigation.
On some of the Deputy's more general questions, there is probably better co-operation between An Garda Síochána and the PSNI now than ever before on cross-Border crime to ensure they are responding appropriately to people moving on both sides of the Border. We need to wait to get a full detailed report on what happened here and to allow the Garda and, if necessary, the PSNI to do their job in carrying out a full and detailed investigation and, presumably, a prosecution.
We all accept there is far greater co-operation and it has probably never been as good, yet this situation happened and a family, a community and the Garda community are reeling today because of this situation. We need to ensure that warrants on both sides of the Border can be executed in both jurisdictions and that this situation does not happen again. I ask that whatever investigation the Minister is undertaking be robust, efficient and done quickly so that we can give reassurance to communities. The family and the public need to know this will not happen again.
There have been similar cases. We are all familiar with the tragic death of Shane O'Farrell. The driver of the car that killed him had more than 42 serious convictions and was well known on both sides of the Border. The O'Farrell family have been stoic, brave and courageous in their search for justice for Shane, and I acknowledge, in particular, the role Deputy McGuinness has played in this. They have made complaints to the Garda, Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, and the Department of Justice and Equality. They have been requesting a commission of inquiry into his death and this House passed a motion to allow this to happen. Can the Tánaiste confirm that commission will proceed along with the wishes as expressed by this House?
The O'Farrell case, which is also absolutely tragic, is the subject of a GSOC investigation. When that report from GSOC is available to the Minister, we will take the appropriate action at that stage.
Regarding this tragedy that happened to the Marron family, this case has also been referred to GSOC and, therefore, I am somewhat limited in what I can say but it is important to say that there will be full investigations and reports by the Garda and GSOC to make sure that we understand what happened here and that we learn full lessons from these tragedies.
This morning, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs launched a report prepared by her Department on the early years sector. It is a comprehensive survey with responses from almost 4,000 childcare services across the State. Its findings, however, do not paint a pretty picture. The findings in respect of the cost of childcare reinforce the point which was made time and again by my colleague, Deputy Denise Mitchell, particularly in the budget debate where she outlined that the cost of childcare in this State is among the highest in the developed world. That is a massive issue with a wider social and economic impact.
The reality is that the cost of providing childcare amounts to a second mortgage every month for many families. It makes more sense for some of them for one or other parent to opt out of the workforce due to the scandalous costs involved. That simply is not right and cannot continue.
The average cost of childcare, as outlined in the report, is €178 per week or more than €700 per month. In many parts of this State, it costs more than €200 per week in some areas, including in the Tánaiste's city of Cork.
In my county, Donegal, we have seen costs rise year on year at the second highest level across the State, at €15 per week. It is ludicrous that we are seeing those types of increases for hard-pressed families. In addition, the report finds that capacity is decreasing and the number of available spaces in the sector is falling. Separate from this morning's report but crucially linked are the difficulties in the sector and the challenges faced by thousands of childcare workers. It is a sector which, in many cases, pays well below the living wage which means that we are losing experienced, well-trained childcare workers who are going into other professions. These are skilled, trained workers who are being let down. When we lose them, it means we are losing places and have a lower quality service in the early years, which are crucial for our child's development. We cannot just keep our fingers crossed and hope that this will change. We need to actively work towards fair pay for workers in the sector.
High quality, affordable childcare is socially and academically beneficial to children. We all know that. It also benefits society and the economy by allowing parents to return to work. We need an early years sector that we can be truly proud of, which we do not have at this point, given the costs and the low pay within the sector. Will the Tánaiste accept that the system is desperately in need of support? Does he accept that there needs to be reform of the universal childcare subsidy with increased investment by the State to help offset the cost to these families? Does he accept we need to see an increase in capitation grants to support providers in delivering quality childcare? Does he accept that there is a need for a sector-wide pay agreement to ensure that every childcare worker in the sector receives, at a minimum, the living wage?
I accept that radical change is needed in the childcare sector for many of the reasons the Deputy has outlined but I also want to say that is exactly what is happening. Over the last four years, we have seen the amount of money available for reforming and changing the childcare sector increase by 117%. The available budget for childcare has gone from €265 million to €574 million over four budgets. The report the Deputy refers to shows that more families than ever are taking up childcare subsidies and supports. More than 200,000 children are now subject to those supports. There has been a 24% increase on the previous year. The families of almost 40,000 children have now benefitted from non-means-tested subsidies introduced last year, worth €1,040 per year.
There are signs, although they are only signs, that childcare costs are stabilising. The cost of full-time childcare has increased by approximately 2% on average over the last year. This compares to an increase of 4% in the previous year. It has halved. We are not there yet. The Taoiseach often talks about this. It is about incremental change as we can afford it. Childcare is arguably the best example of that in government, where we are seeing dramatic change happening over a relatively short period. We now have a ten year strategy called First 5, which was launched last week. We saw enhanced subsidies introduced last September which have been accessed by more than 84,000 families. By the end of next year, which will mark enormous progress in the childcare sector, we will see the introduction of a new affordable childcare scheme. There will be significant build-up to that. I accept that this is an area where Ireland has not performed well by international and EU standards but those statistics are changing. The affordability of childcare in Ireland is changing and the supports available for families on low incomes are changing quickly. We need to continue down that path.
The Tánaiste is right that it is changing. I will outline what the changes are. In 24 out of 30 areas, the cost for full-time childcare is increasing. In Cork, it increased by €15.29 per week, by €18.70 in Kerry, €15.60 in Donegal, €14.18 in Laois and €14.27 Leitrim. I could go on and outline the other 19 counties where the cost of childcare has increased. The reality is that the measures being introduced by the Government are not keeping pace with the increase in fees being charged to hard-pressed families. That is at a point when we have the highest cost of childcare in the developed world. There needs to be radical action, more support and reform of the universal child credit. The report stipulates clearly that the capacity within the system is not keeping pace with demand. It also makes it clear that because of the issue with low wages in the sector, we are losing high-quality, highly-trained people with more academic progression than ever seen before, yet the turnaround in a year is 24% of staff. Unless we deal with this and get our heads out of the sand, we will see more and more pressure not only in the childcare sector but for families. Will the Tánaiste not look at proposals that we have put forward that would cut the cost of childcare in half and ensure that every worker in the sector would, at a minimum, have the living wage?
The only way to measure progress here is to look at trends. We are clearly coming from a difficult place with regard to childcare costs in Ireland. If the Deputy looks at turnover in staff, where people are paid low wages, there has been a decrease of 3.5% in staff turnover in the last year. It is still too high but it is moving in the right direction.
We have seen capitation rates increase over the last two years to try to address that and ensure some of that money is transferred to staff and staff supports. We have seen other measures that complement the changes to childcare, from the initial introduction of one free year of pre-school to now having two free years of pre-school for parents and families; an extension to paternity leave; and two weeks of paid paternity leave. Across multiple areas, we are trying to make childcare more affordable, to make sure that the quality is guaranteed and audited and we are trying to ensure that the working conditions within childcare facilities also improve incrementally. All of that cannot happen overnight but much is happening and we are seeing dramatic increases in the financial resources going into driving that change.
Last week, the Minister for Justice and Equality, currently seated beside the Tánaiste, assured me that the Government takes seriously the motions passed by the majority in this House. Where is the evidence of that? In all my time in this House, never has the majority voice in the Dáil been ignored so often as in this Dáil by this Government.
In June of this year, the Dáil passed a motion on Dublin Fire Brigade. We recognised that Dublin Fire Brigade provides crucial ambulance services. The Dáil rejected the suggestion of merging that ambulance service with the National Ambulance Service and of removing any element of Dublin Fire Brigade's fire-based emergency medical service system. The Dáil accepted a Labour Party amendment to that motion, calling on the Government to implement in full the report of the expert panel on pre-hospital emergency care services in Dublin which was published in December 2015. What has the Government's response been? As far as we can tell, management in Dublin City Council is not engaging in a process of discussion with Dublin Fire Brigade. We understand that simple, low-cost technical solutions are available to address specific concerns raised by the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA. This would permit a seamless communication link-up between Dublin Fire Brigade and the National Ambulance Service.
We have invested over the years to create a system of fire-based emergency response, including ambulances and highly-trained paramedics in our fire service. It is fairly unique for the fire service to be trained paramedics. It is a great addition. Other countries are moving in that direction. In the UK, there is a move towards integrating blue light services. They see that as best practice, to generate efficiencies and enhance public safety. We have been doing it in this city for over 100 years.
For some unknown reason, we have decided to move in the other direction from what is now regarded as best practice elsewhere, which is to model on what has been achieved in Dublin. There is a concern that our fire-based ambulance services are not being properly funded. This, of course, in and of itself is a risk to public safety. My simple question to the Tánaiste is will he now undertake to implement the resolutions passed by the Dáil Éireann to maintain and fully restore Dublin Fire Brigade's ambulance service for this city and county?
I have some knowledge of this issue, having been previously in a Department that was involved with and connected to Dublin City Council. As the Deputy knows, this has been an ongoing discussion for quite some time, trying to ensure we have the best possible pre-hospital emergency response capacity in Dublin. Undoubtedly we have a very well trained and highly capable fire service in Dublin but we also have a very competent ambulance service linked to hospitals and the HSE.
With respect, I do not think it should be politicians who decide on what the best mix and collaboration between two excellent services should look like in future. We should leave it to the experts and the management teams of both to interact. Of course, we have to provide much of the funding to make sure the service is well funded and can do the job it needs to do but the actual technical elements of emergency response and using the resources we have in the Dublin fire service as well as the ambulance service should be left to the experts, with respect.
The Tánaiste knows full well that all State services are democratically accountable. It is under the Constitution that we vote the moneys for them and hold the services to account. We are accountable, in turn, to the people for this. That is how democracies work. We do not hive them off for others to make a decision on these matters. In this case, our common objective is what is best practice. We have debated this in Private Members' time and the House made a decision on it. Is it the Tánaiste's view this was a waste of time? Why would we have a debate if we have no control over it and our say does not count?
I understand a process headed by Kieran Mulvey is under way, but my information is it is going nowhere because of a lack of engagement by Dublin City Council. Will the Tánaiste at least give a commitment there will be open transparent analysis of the facts so the common objective we have of providing the best, safest and most efficient emergency services for the city and county will be maintained?
It is a very reasonable request that any decision made would be fully transparent and that the people who make decisions would be fully accountable. As the Deputy said, the way democracy works is we have to ensure we are accountable for the decisions made but we also need to rely on the expertise of those involved. Politicians are not, with respect, paramedics.
If it is the case that people are being stonewalled, or that people are not co-operating with the process that needs to come to a conclusion, that is a different issue. Obviously, the Government and the Minister will be interested in this and they need to be accountable to the House to make sure money is being spent appropriately, that the services are well resourced and that the collaboration that is needed in the future runs smoothly. The nature of that collaboration is one on which we need to take advice from the interested parties.
Ireland is the eighth richest country in the world but, according to the OECD, if we take all taxes into account revenue as a percentage of GDP in Ireland is the third lowest of OECD countries. We also know Ireland has the fifth lowest revenue to GDP ratio in the European Union, the figures being 35% for Ireland and 40% for the EU. Ireland is a low tax country. The real question is why it is a low tax country. Of course, the answer to this question is that the Government and previous Governments pursued a conscious and deliberate policy of protecting the massive wealth of the rich and powerful in our society and has allowed them not to pay their fair share of taxation. We know the top 10% of income recipients pay a smaller proportion of their income in all taxes than the bottom 10% of recipients. We know the top 10% of financial asset holders now have approximately €40 billion more than they had at peek boom levels in 2006 and they are not asked to pay a cent from this windfall. We also know the share of gross income going to the top 1% of earners increased from 34% in 2011 to 39% in 2016. We also know that more than half of the increase in total income over the past five years has gone to 10% of the highest earners.
The country has become unequal and this has been accelerated in the recent budget. We know the 300 wealthiest individuals, who have €100 billion, will not pay a cent of tax on this. We also know, because the Comptroller and Auditor General told us recently, that 83 high net worth individuals, with assets in excess of €50 million each, declare taxable income of less than the average industrial wage of €36,500. This is perfectly legal but absolutely shameful.
The country is profoundly unequal and it is a far cry from the vision of equality and fairness set out 100 years ago in the democratic programme of the First Dáil that met 100 yd. from here in the Mansion House in January 1919. Will the Government bring forward legislation to remedy the situation revealed by the Comptroller and Auditor General recently whereby 83 high net worth individuals, with in excess of €50 million in assets each, declare taxable incomes of less than the average industrial wage? At present, this is perfectly legal under legislation being presided over by the Government. Will the Government introduce a supplementary budget in January to reverse the inequity of the recent budget and make the rich and powerful pay their fair share in taxation?
On the issue of whether Ireland is a high tax or low tax economy, if we ask a person on €35,000 year who is paying the higher rate of tax on some of their income, or close to it, because the threshold is just above this now, and if we compare Ireland to other countries, we ask people on middle incomes to pay the higher rate of tax on a much higher percentage of their income than in most other countries.
If we look at what we have just done in the most recent budget and in previous budgets, our priority has not been on tax cuts. The priority has been on increasing public expenditure, improving public services and supporting people who need the support of the State in multiple sectors that have not had the type of investment needed through a recessionary period. Expenditure versus tax cuts has been provided on a ratio of 2:1 repeatedly in budget after budget.
I do not accept that Ireland is a low-tax economy. The Government must always try to get the balance right between incentivising business growth, innovation and employment and incentives to work and progress through the workforce with the responsibilities of the State to have a fair and equitable tax policy. Independent reports on Ireland's tax policy from the OECD and others show that the country is seen internationally as having a very progressive tax policy in terms of the redistribution of wealth. We should be proud of that.
What we have just heard is simply propaganda for the rich and powerful. It is an excuse to allow the rich and powerful - people who have massive incomes and assets - pay little or no taxation and certainly not their fair share. The budget was for the super-rich. It was unequal. For example, 1.8 million workers are on incomes of less than €30,000. That is 40% of the workforce, and they got no relief in the budget. The vast majority of the €356 million for tax relief in the budget went to people with significant incomes, certainly well in excess of €100,000. Allowing the rich and powerful to avoid paying their fair share of taxation is simply not compatible with providing decent, modern public services. That is why we have a housing emergency, 10,000 people homeless, 780,000 people living below the poverty line, 70,000 children growing up in poverty and why the Society of St. Vincent de Paul received 137,000 calls last year and paid €27 million to needy families.
Is that not an asset now? We are trying to ensure that Ireland has a progressive tax system which encourages employment and encourages people to create wealth for themselves through working hard. People should not be punished for that. The system ensures that companies and individuals pay a fair share of tax. In terms of personal tax, the fact that the 10% of highest earners in Ireland are paying 61% of the overall personal tax bill speaks for itself.