Dáil debates

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

 

11:55 am

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I call on the leader of Fianna Fáil, Deputy Micheál Martin, to pose his first question. I remind the House that I was accused yesterday by some of giving an inordinate amount of time to some and not others. I therefore appeal to those who pose questions to keep an eye on the clocks. They are strategically located around the House, so there is no excuse.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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The Leas-Cheann Comhairle is interviewing well for the big job.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Leas-Cheann Comhairle's indulgence is always appreciated in the season of goodwill.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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We will see.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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My colleague, Deputy Donnelly, who is our health spokesperson, has compiled the most comprehensive picture so far of the number of children waiting for healthcare in Ireland. It is not a good story and reflects quite badly on the Government. He has put together a staggering list of more than 214,000 children waiting for healthcare. Some 117,000 children are waiting for hospital appointments and treatment and another 90,000 are waiting for primary care appointments. One child in four has been waiting for more than a year, according to the list. This includes very sick children in need of urgent surgery. The list includes special needs children in urgent need of therapeutic supports such as speech and language therapy and occupational therapy, to name but two. It includes children waiting for psychology, diagnostic scans and much more.

I will give some examples. In ear, nose and throat, ENT, close to 3,000 children have been waiting over a year for an appointment. In paediatric cardiology more than 1,200 children have been waiting over a year for an appointment out of a total list of close to 5,000. In dermatology there is an overall list of 4,500, with 2,129 waiting for over a year. In ophthalmology, 4,000 children have been waiting over a year for an appointment. In psychology there are more huge figures, with more than 2,500 waiting over a year out of a total list of 7,000. We are aware of the issues in respect of mental health, specifically adolescent mental health.

This underpins the experiences of many in this House in dealing with many parents and families, who are exasperated, frustrated and very anxious about the failure to get assessments and regular access to therapeutic interventions. We know that early intervention, diagnosis and treatment are the key to a child's treatment, personal development and optimal outcomes. Worryingly, these figures understate the true picture. They exclude oral health, for example, and many diagnostic categories are not covered by the HSE. They are a terrible indictment of our health service and the Government's stewardship of it. There is a shortage of consultants, therapists and specialist nurses and there is, despite what the Taoiseach says, a moratorium on recruitment in place.

Will the Government remove the hiring embargo to enable the fast recruitment of doctors, therapists, radiographers and so forth? Will it remove the new entrant pay inequality for consultants in order that we can hire the number of specialists we need? Will it accelerate the hiring procedures for such specialist and clinical staff, whom we urgently require? For example, there is a chronic shortage of radiographers in Temple Street Hospital. In the interim, will the Taoiseach accelerate the provision of additional hospital beds for children, particularly in ICUs, rehab and ward beds across the system?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I note at the outset that it is very sad that there are so many people, so many children, on waiting lists for healthcare and therapies. It is not good enough. I know that and I feel it very much in my constituency work with the parents and children I meet from time to time who tell me of their personal stories.

It is only right, however, that we in this House acknowledge that waiting lists for healthcare are now falling. The NTPF figures show that the waiting lists for outpatient appointments - that is, for people waiting to see a specialist - have been falling consistently for three or four months in a row. It took years and years of investment and additional staff but we are now finally seeing those outpatient waiting lists falling. When I became Taoiseach two and a half years ago, more than 60,000 people had been waiting for more than 12 weeks for an operation or procedure. That figure is now down to approximately 38,000, or over a third in two and a half years. Much of this is down to the investment through the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, of which I know Deputy Martin was very supportive and which he advocated. We also see that the waiting times for general paediatrics are down approximately 30% so far this year. This is because of the new urgent care centre that has been opened in Connolly Hospital. The centre has a dedicated paediatric outpatient department. That is a big turnaround in one year. We also see that in child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, for example, the waiting list is down approximately 20% in the past year. This is not down to any waiting list initiative but to structural changes that have been led by the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, in employing a large number of assistant psychologists, moving away from a psychiatric model to a model based more on psychology. That is real progress as outpatient lists now have been falling for three or four months in a row; inpatient procedural lists are down by approximately one third from where they were two and a half years ago. Waiting times for general paediatrics - I know it is only general paediatrics, but that is an important part of paediatrics - is down 30% in the past year; and CAMHS waiting lists are down 20% over the past year. It took years and years of investment and additional staff to reverse the damage that was done, but I am glad I can now say and stand over the fact that waiting lists are falling, not increasing, after a very long time during which they went in the wrong direction.

We will continue to invest. There is an additional €1 billion in the budget for the HSE next year. The Connolly centre has opened and is helping already. We need to open that over weekends and in the evenings as well, which we are working to do in 2020. The urgent care centre in Tallaght for children will open next year, which is a big step forward as well. The main new children's hospital, on the St. James's Hospital campus, with an individual room for every child and space for a parent to sleep in every room, will open in 2023. After so many false starts, including €35 million wasted on the Mater Hospital project, we finally have that hospital at roof level. The windows are already in on one level. We are working on moving speech and language therapy into schools, which I think will work out, but that has only started. We will see how that pilot plays out.

To answer the Deputy's question, there is not a moratorium on recruitment. We have 15,000 more staff in our health service than we had a few years ago. We have more staff in our health service than we had this time last year. Managers can fill positions as long as those positions are budgeted for.

We are working on consultant pay. We are willing to make an offer to doctors with regard to consultant pay - we will give full pay equality for consultants, provided consultants commit to working in the public service and the public service only.

12:05 pm

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Taoiseach.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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That will be the first step in our plan to remove private practice from public hospitals.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Martin has one minute.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Taoiseach acknowledges that it is shocking that so many children have to wait for so long. He referred to the NTPF. That was brought in against his best wishes.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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That is not correct.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The former Minister, Senator James Reilly, got rid of the fund. He did not have to but he got rid of it because of his ideological position on it. It was a disastrous decision and it took confidence and supply to restore the fund.

That said, the Taoiseach is still in denial about the recruitment embargo. I have a copy of an advertisement for an audiology post in July 2018. It is a key post that is needed in the southern part of the country. Moving on to 30 July 2019, an individual had to give up a private sector job under the belief that they had a contractual arrangement. The post could not be processed. We are now coming to Christmas and this continues. According to the HSE: "There is no timeframe as to when the pay bill controls will cease." There has been an active moratorium on key posts. Let us look at Temple Street. I think 30 radiographer posts were approved for Temple Street and we have 19 in position. There is a moratorium and there has been over the past 12 months, which has exacerbated this issue. Pay inequality has gone on for the past number of years. The Taoiseach gets partisan about the children's hospital, its roof level, the Mater and so on.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I call the Taoiseach to respond.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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No one in this House can dictate the planning process.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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It is not like Deputy Martin to be partisan.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am just making a point to the Taoiseach.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I call the Taoiseach to respond.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It is a serious matter for the parents of the children concerned.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I call the Taoiseach to respond. Deputy Martin cannot go to two minutes for a one-minute question.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Telling them that we are at roof level is of no consequence for a mother and a father who want to get a psychologist appointment-----

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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We cannot go to two minutes for a one minute question.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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-----or urgent appointments for hospital outpatient treatment and therapy. The Taoiseach should ask anyone in the House.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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We have to change the rules.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The waiting times for therapists are shocking, appalling and that continues to be the case.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Martin, please. No wonder I am being criticised.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I apologise.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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That is fine. I am here to implement the rules.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I welcome Deputy Martin's acknowledgement that there has been a considerable reduction, of approximately 30%, in patients waiting for operations and procedures since the middle of 2017.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Because of our initiative.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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And on a bipartisan basis, I want to acknowledge that the investment through the NTPF has worked. I know those on the left have an ideological objection to using the fund.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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The Taoiseach did as well.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Put it into the public system.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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It is something that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael did together. I am glad that has worked and I am happy to acknowledge Fianna Fáil's role in encouraging us-----

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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In privatising.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----to increase funding for the NTPF, which has now worked and means that the number of people waiting for more than 12 weeks for a hip replacement, knee replacement, tonsils, veins, angiograms and so on is approximately half of what it was as recently as summer 2017.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Most of those go to Belfast.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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There is not a moratorium. Any post that is funded can be filled. There are more people working in our health service than there were this time last year, which is just a simple fact.

I will answer the question on pay inequality for consultants again. I have discussed this as Taoiseach, working with the Ministers, Deputies Donohoe and Harris, and we are willing to make an offer to consultants that we are willing to fully reverse pay inequality, but only for what are called type A posts. We want full pay equality for consultants but only if they commit to working in the public service only. That will be the first step towards disentangling the public-private mix that exists in our public hospitals in line with the Sláintecare vision, and I hope they are up for it.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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Last week, after the Taoiseach and his partners in Fianna Fáil reasserted their confidence in the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, I invited people to share their housing stories with me and they did, in their hundreds. Nothing could have prepared me for the trauma and heartache that those stories encapsulated. We have compiled some of those stories in a document entitled, The Humans of the Housing Crisis. I have sent it to the Taoiseach, the Minister, Deputy Murphy, and their partner, Deputy Micheál Martin. I trust that the Taoiseach has read the document but it is important to place on the record of the Dáil some of the stories that were sent to me. The Taoiseach may have seen Kevin Maughan's letter to Santa Claus, covered in one of the newspapers this morning. He writes to Santa: "Please come to my hotel again with Batman toys." That is what he wants this year. Kevin is seven. He lives in emergency accommodation in County Clare with his parents and little sister. Kevin has developed asthma due to his homelessness because he has stayed in so many cold and damp places. Here is another letter:

Hi, my landlord wants to sell her house, and myself, husband and my two small kids have to be out by February.

We have nowhere to go. I am on the housing list over 13 years.

Here is another:

We both have decent jobs with good incomes...

We rent a tiny studio apartment. We pay just over €1,000 for the privilege of tripping over each other and fighting over space...

Due to the high rents and high cost of living in this city we live pay check to pay check with little or no savings. Saving for a mortgage is simply not possible for us and our insecure housing situation has forced us to put our lives on hold.

Here is another:

Hi, im a student and until recently was living in a converted shed in the back of the landlord’s house.

I was cramped in there with two others. Rent is €500 and he only takes cash.

When I gave in my month’s notice he forced me out immediately and took my deposit.

Here is another:

I am currently living with my partner’s parents. Four years now in an attic with our 11 year old son.

We decided to take this step as the rent was absolutely spine-breaking. We both have really good jobs.

We have been trying to attain a mortgage for the last four years with no success.

This document is a catalogue of heartbreak, trauma and shattered dreams. It has been caused by the Government. What makes matters worse is that it does not have to be this way. All of these stories can heard and answered with the right policy decisions. At this stage, the Taoiseach needs to accept and recognise the real harm, financial distress, mental anguish and even physical illness that is being caused to families and to children. He needs to change direction, and to recognise that there are solutions and adopt them. Does he now accept that we have a housing crisis that has no equal? Does he accept that we need to start a radical change in policy? Will he accept that we can start by dealing with extortionate rents? Will he commit to supporting the Sinn Féin legislation that has been debated and will come before the House for a vote tomorrow?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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We have always accepted that there is a housing crisis and shortage in the country. Nobody in any party in this House is in denial about that. I have not had a chance to read the Deputy's document yet. I do not think I have received it but it may be in my post bag, which I have not had a chance to look at yet.

The first case the Deputy raised is a complex one and there are individual matters involved which I will not go into in the Chamber, but perhaps I can speak to her about it privately afterwards. We all acknowledge there are human stories around homelessness and the appalling impact homelessness has on both parents and families. I share the Deputy's concern about children who, in the run up to Christmas, are concerned about whether Santa will be able to find them on Christmas Eve. He will find them, and the same goes for children in hospitals, emergency accommodation, hotels or who are at home with their parents.

The solution to the housing crisis, on which we all broadly agree, is to increase dramatically the supply of housing in this country. We have an expanding, growing population and more households are being created every year, which means we need to build many houses. The Central Bank is right that we need to build about 35,000 new homes a year. We are not there yet, but in the two and a half years since I became Taoiseach, the number of new homes being built has trebled. That is significant; it is not enough and houses can only be built so quickly. It is significant that the number of new homes being built has trebled in the past three years. We need to double that number again and get up to 35,000 or 40,000 houses per year, which we will do as soon as we possibly can. This year, we have added 10,000 homes to the social housing stock. That is significant as it means 10,000 families are now living in homes that were not being used for social housing this time last year. Santa will arrive in 10,000 houses which were not available for social housing this time last year. We need to build on that and get up to 11,000 houses next year and 12,000 the year after, which we will do.

12:15 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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It is significant that the Government has shirked its responsibilities and failed not just these families but countless others as well. The Government has stepped behind the shadow of private developers and landlords. The Taoiseach comes into this Chamber and endlessly recites figures and statistics and pats himself, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and their partner in government Deputy Micheál Martin on the back. The Taoiseach is trying to tell us that everything is okay, when it is clear that the Government's policy is failing and that things are not okay. For these families to be heard and to find solutions, they must be listened to. The Government has to care about them, as does the Taoiseach. People outside of politics have said to me that the problem with the housing, homelessness, and rental and affordability crises is that the Government does not care. At times, I challenged that assertion, because nobody wants to turn this into a personalised battle. However, when I observe the reactions of the head of Government and his colleagues - some of whom are smirking - to the human stories of loss and heartbreak, which are casualties of their failed policies, it raises the question of whether the Taoiseach cares.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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The Taoiseach to respond. The Deputy must observe the time limit.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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If he cared, he would not hide behind figures but would change policies. He could start tomorrow evening by backing a rent freeze and a tax credit for renters.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I do not seek to hide behind facts or figures. I am just presenting the facts. The Deputy does not deny that those facts and figures are correct, which means there is legitimacy in what I am saying. I care much more about these issues than Deputy McDonald does. I care deeply about the housing crisis and the problems in our health service, which is why I have taken on the mantle of leadership. It is why I, my party and our colleagues in the Independent Alliance are willing to serve in government. Sinn Féin is different. It walked out of government in Northern Ireland three years ago-----

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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Jesus.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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Is that actually the Taoiseach's answer?

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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He is like a broken record.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----and appalling health and homelessness crises are now unfolding in Northern Ireland. If Sinn Féin really cared about health and housing, it would have gone into government in Northern Ireland, fixed those problems and shown us how it was done. It then could have come here and said it would do the same, but it did not.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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What rights would the Taoiseach have had us drop?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The people who care about health, housing and the problems our country faces are those who spend 16 or 18 hours every day trying to fix them. Deputy McDonald does not care. She comes into this House twice a day and makes out that she has some sort of monopoly on compassion, but she does not.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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The Taoiseach has no compassion.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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If Sinn Féin cared, it would have stayed in government in Northern Ireland three years ago-----

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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He is in his little Tory boy bubble with his colleagues.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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That is ridiculous.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----and solved these problems.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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The Department of Children and Youth Affairs launched a six-week public consultation on the draft childminding action plan at the end of last August. The plan aims to improve childminding in this State, which has been largely unregulated up until now. Estimates for the number of childminders in Ireland vary, from the Department's figure of 19,000 to the 35,000 suggested by the Central Statistics Office. However, as few as 120 childminders are currently registered with Tusla. There is a long road to go to regularise this sector.

The way in which the Government has proceeded with this plan is causing concern to the many thousands of people involved in childminding. Members across the House will have received serious representations from people worried about their future. Despite the draft plan's allowance of up to five years for preparation and transition, childminders are concerned that these changes are going ahead without any real understanding or response to the concerns they have vocalised. Some childminders could be driven out of this important sector by heavy-handed regulation, which would, in turn, affect thousands of parents who rely on the current childminding arrangements to go to work every day. According to the Government's plan, legislation will be implemented over the course of the next five years which would require childminders to gain formal qualifications and be Garda vetted. Their homes would also have to be inspected to ensure they meet certain requirements. In principle, these are sensible proposals, but there is a risk that they will be implemented in a heavy-handed way. I am hearing that concern across the country from those providing this essential service.

Officials have admitted that childminders must sign up to strict standards of care or face prosecution. While Garda vetting is clearly essential, is it really necessary for every childminder to attain a level 5 qualification in order to continue operating?

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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It is crazy stuff.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Providing a safe and caring environment for children does not necessarily require that level of formal qualification. Many individuals who are currently involved in childminding never had the opportunity to attain third level education. They rightly consider this requirement to be extraordinarily onerous. Childminders are also concerned about the level of inspections of their family homes these new regulations may entail. While health and safety issues are of great importance, there needs to be greater recognition that childminding is an activity carried out in the private space of people's homes rather than in any formal or structured business setting. Will the Government provide a credit or part-credit towards the required qualifications in recognition of the existing professional childminding experience of those who have been doing this for years? Will the Government put limits on the range of official bodies that will have the right to inspect the private homes of individuals involved in childminding, as well as the frequency of such visits? Will it be explained to them how this process is going to happen? Does the Government intend for childminders to be prosecuted for simple non-compliance? The Taoiseach should be aware that these are real concerns that need to be assuaged.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I spent some of the morning in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs with the Minister, Deputy Zappone, where I had the privilege of formally launching the national childcare scheme, which is now operating. More than 15,000 families have already qualified for the national childcare scheme.

It is a big step forward in terms of the Government's policy in this area, which is to make life easier for families, to build a society with children and families at the centre and to improve work-life balance. It builds on what we have done in terms of two years of the early childhood care and education programme, paid parental leave, extended unpaid parental leave, paternity benefit and now the new national childcare scheme, which will increase childcare subsidies for tens of thousands of families across Ireland. For the first time, some middle-income families that did not qualify for any subsidies will now qualify. If we have the opportunity to build on that over the next five years, that is exactly what we are going to do.

The Deputy raised an important question on childminding. Notwithstanding the fact that I spent the morning on this issue, I did not have a chance to speak to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs about it. I acknowledge that for many families, this is how they provide for childcare for themselves. It is often an individual in the community who the family knows who takes their child for a few hours-----

12:25 pm

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Grandparents.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----or somebody who looks after a few children in his or her house after school or an au pair. We do not want to over-regulate, undermine or get rid of that system because if we did, it would be a disaster. Tens of thousands of people would find that they did not have any way to look after their children and might have to leave the workplace. This would then make it harder for them to pay the rent or mortgage so we definitely do not want to over-regulate or be too heavy-handed in any reforms we introduce in this area. At the same time, we need to put children first and we cannot ignore the fact that some children are being minded in homes that are not very safe and they could get injured. There are health and safety issues in those houses that are providing informal childcare at the moment.

We must also bear in mind that some people who are childminders have a bad record when it comes to how they deal with children, as we learned to our detriment when it came to foster parents in the past-----

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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They were supposed to be regulated.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----and we need to make sure we do not make those mistakes again. This is a work in progress. We all acknowledge that we need to get the balance right in protecting children but also making sure we do not close down an entire informal sector of childminding that has generally served us well so we will try to get it right.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I welcome what the Taoiseach said. If it migrates into actual policy in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, it will address some of the real concerns but the concerns are real. People involved in what is regarded as informal childminding are concerned that they will simply be put out of business. Families are concerned that the arrangements they have had for years with wonderful people will no longer be viable, so we need to be very clear about this. I have a particular concern about the proposal in the Government's draft childminding action plan to give a role to what are called "centre-based services". It seems to imply that centres such as crèches and professional preschools could be given a role to co-ordinate childminding. This is causing concern, particularly when we consider some of the difficulties those professional childcare facilities have caused in recent times. Will the Taoiseach undertake to have that discussion with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and open a channel of communication with childminders so that we can all be in a position to assure people that facilities, which are up to standard and provide quality childminding, will not be put at risk by some new bureaucratic and intrusive regime that nobody wants?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I will do that. I have been very engaged with the Minister in the past couple of days but it has been mainly around making sure the national childcare scheme was successfully launched, which it has, and is working, and issues relating to Tuam. The Deputy knows that yesterday, the Minister published the heads of the Bill that will allow us to carry out excavations, not just at Tuam but potentially at some other sites as well. Because of that, I have not had a chance to speak to the Minister for a few weeks about this issue but I acknowledge that it is important and that it is causing some concern so I will definitely take it up with her during the week.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The bitter and lasting fruits of the savage austerity that was imposed on working people first by Fianna Fáil and the Green Party and then by Fine Gael and Labour are very plain to see with the brutal housing crisis we face and the shocking situation in the health service but events in France over the past five days where massive demonstrations and strikes are taking place remind us of another bitter and long-lasting consequence of the unjust austerity imposed in this country on working people, namely, the attack on pension rights. It might be of interest to workers in this country that French workers are fighting to protect a pension entitlement age of 62. Some workers in hard physical jobs get their pension at the age of 55. People are on the streets in their millions striking to prevent the pension entitlement age going up to 64.

In this country, we are in a far worse position. In March 2010, the Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government made a decision to commence three phases of attacks on pension entitlements. They loaded the gun to attack pension rights and then Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the former Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, pulled the trigger in 2014 to provide that people would not get their pension until the age of 66. As of 2021, workers born after 1955 will not get it until they are aged 67 and, as of 2028, workers will not get it until they are 68. This will mean that workers in this country will be in the worst situation in the OECD in respect of their pension rights and entitlements. They will have to work longer than anybody else to get pensions that, in many cases, have been significantly reduced. Comparisons are, again, worthwhile. In Norway, a person gets a pension at the age of 61; in Sweden, at 62; and in Spain, Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland and the UK, at 65. However, workers in this country will get it at either 67 or 68. The age is currently 66. Irish workers are the most productive anywhere in the western world, even when one strips out the impact of transfer pricing.

This was all justified in the name of austerity. Austerity is over. We are now one of the richest countries in the world with the fastest growing economy in western Europe. Does the Taoiseach think it is fair that workers in this country should work longer and harder for less or does he think we should take a lead from what French workers are doing and fight to reverse those attacks on the pension rights and entitlements of working people in this country who paid and worked hard for their pensions?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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This is nothing to do with austerity. Thankfully, in Ireland, austerity has been over for more than three years. As a result of that, unemployment is a third of what it was not too long ago in 2012, incomes are rising, poverty and deprivation are falling and, as we know from the figures from the CSO survey on income and living conditions released the other day, income inequality is at its second lowest since records began. We have delivered on all of those in the past couple of years and secured a position where we are one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe, which I thank the Deputy for acknowledging. I accept the back-handed compliment that our policies have been successful but this is not about austerity. The objective of this policy is to make sure the State pension continues to be adequate and sustainable in the long term. We have one of the highest State pensions in the EU and we want to keep it that way and to keep increasing it over the next couple of years in line with inflation if not with wages. That is what we should aim to do.

We also want to make sure that we will still have a State pension system when people who are now in their forties and fifties retire. The way it works is that people and employers pay PRSI and it all goes into the Social Insurance Fund, out of which comes the State contributory pension. Because the economy is now very strong, the fund is in surplus. However, it is projected to go into deficit because of our ageing population and changes in demographics. If the economy was to slow down or another downturn occurred, it would go into deficit very quickly so we need to act now. When this system was set up in the 1970s, circumstances were very different. The average man lived to approximately 68 years of age while the average woman lived to approximately 72.

People paid a relatively small amount of PRSI every year but were only retired for a short amount of time.

The change since then has been wonderful, in that life expectancy has improved. Most people now live into their 80s, which is brilliant, but comes with the consequence that the cost of pensions is rising all the time, and will rise faster than the rate at which PRSI is paid into the Social Insurance Fund. We have to act by either significantly increasing PRSI or increasing the retirement age. We think the prudent thing to do is to increase the retirement age in line with life expectancy. It still means that people get ten or 20 years of retirement, but the retirement age is increased in line with life expectancy. That makes sense because, if we do not do that, the Social Insurance Fund will go into deficit and we will face a pension crisis. We would then be in a position where pensions would have to be reduced. We never want to do that, we want to keep increasing pensions in line with inflation and earnings.

12:35 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The Taoiseach should tell pensioners who have to struggle with high rents, property taxes and a high cost of living that their pension is wonderful. It is a fact that the countries with the highest age at which one can receive one's pension entitlements are those that were affected by austerity, including Greece, Ireland and Italy. In other countries in Europe, which are not as fast-growing or wealthy, people can retire and get their pension earlier. Why is that?

Photo of Eoghan MurphyEoghan Murphy (Dublin Bay South, Fine Gael)
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They are getting smaller pensions.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I am glad the Taoiseach mentioned employer's PRSI because the reason is that employers do not pay their fair share of PRSI in Ireland If they did, we would not be forcing people to wait until the age of 68 in order to get their pension.

Workers in this country pay the same average amount of PRSI as their European counterparts but employers pay about half of that and that is the problem. Instead of forcing people to wait until they are 67 or 68 to get their pension, why does the Government not make employers pay the average level of PRSI contribution in order that people can enjoy their latter years and not have to wait until they are 68 to receive their pensions? Many of these people are going through the indignity of having to sign on for jobseeker's allowance when they get to 65.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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The Taoiseach will respond.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Why does the Government not reverse that unjust attack on people's pension rights?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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One of the other factors that the Deputy neglected to mention is that pretty much every country in Europe is increasing the retirement age.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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They are trying to, but they might be stopped.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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They are increasing it at different rates and at different times but every country is increasing their retirement age because every country knows that is how one must respond to the fact that life expectancy is rising. It is a reasonable response to the good thing that is rising life expectancy.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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In that case, people should be allowed to retire for longer.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy has once again demonstrated the fact that he does not understand how the social market economy works. His solution to the emerging pension crisis is to tax employers more, tax jobs and increase employer's PRSI. Has it ever occurred to the Deputy why unemployment is down to one third of what it was when my party came into office? Has it ever occurred to him why we have the fastest growing economy in Europe, or why we are able to generate so many tax revenues to fund the public services that we need?

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Workers pay for it.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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It is partly because we have kept taxes on businesses and employers low. The other countries the Deputy spoke about have unemployment rates of 10%, 15%, or 20%. Those countries tax their employers twice as much but did it ever occur to the Deputy that might be why they have high unemployment? The Deputy should join the dots.