Thursday, 26 May 2022
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
At this stage, we are running out of words to describe the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on ordinary workers and families. Households simply cannot keep up. They are struggling to make it to the end of the week. Their hard-earned money is going out faster than it came in. While people watch every cent they spend and do everything they can to provide for their children, they also hear that the wealth of Ireland's nine billionaires rose by €16 billion since the start of the pandemic. This cost-of-living crisis is happening at a time when inequality and the lack of fairness in Ireland is writ large. It is up in lights for all to see. People are working long, hard hours but they cannot afford to pay utility bills, put a roof over their heads, put fuel in the car and put food on the table.
It is an understatement to say the packages the Government has introduced do not go far enough. They did not make a dent in the astronomical living costs people face. The €200 energy credit was overtaken before it was delivered. The excise measure to deal with the soaring costs at the pumps was wiped out virtually overnight. Incredibly, the Government still has not done anything to reduce the cost of home heating oil. In fact, at the beginning of this month it did the exact opposite, hiking the cost even further. What has been the result of the Government's slow and sluggish response? The impact is felt sharply right across the board. The price of groceries is now soaring, as farmers warned us it would. Increases in the prices of essentials like milk, bread and butter have hit people hard and more and more families are depending on food banks and charities like St. Vincent de Paul. All the indicators point to further dramatic rises in food prices. Fuel prices are now back to the levels they were at before the Government introduced a measure it was told was not enough. In some places, in fact, the price at the fuel pumps is even higher today than it was then. It is Groundhog Day for those who are paying huge sums to fill the tank to get to work or get the kids to school. We have all heard the stories from people like nurses, teachers and many others who simply cannot afford to run their cars any more. These people live in communities where there are virtually no public transport options. The car is the only option.
For too long, the Government has skirted around the edges of this crisis. We know international factors are at play. We accept that reality and I accept the Government cannot do everything, but the truth is it can and should do a lot more. People struggling to make ends meet today do not want to hear what the Government did three months ago. They certainly do not want to be told they have to wait until the budget in October. That is for the birds. There are options. Sinn Féin has presented a comprehensive package of measures that would make a real difference. We called for a mini-budget but the Government has sat on its hands.
What is the Government's plan for now, for 26 May 2022, knowing the reality faced by so many workers and families who are struggling to make ends meet and who do not know how they will reach the end of the month? People want to know what the Government is going to do now, today, to help the people who are going without lunch so they will be able to put fuel in the car on their way home. That is happening today. This situation is beyond a crisis. We need to hear that the Government intends to act and we need to hear that right now.
I thank the Deputy for the question. At the outset, I acknowledge that Ireland, and the entire world, is facing a cost-of-living crisis driven by inflation, which is largely caused by international factors beyond our control, as the Deputy acknowledged. The cost of everything is going up and the cost of very little is going down. People can see that in their utility bills, when they go to the petrol station to fill up their tanks with petrol or diesel and in their grocery bills. A lot of families are struggling and a lot of people are struggling to make ends meet as a consequence of that. As the Deputy acknowledged, this is not driven by Government policy. It is driven largely by international factors, including the rising cost of energy and the war in Ukraine. The zero Covid policy still being pursued by China is not helping.
As Sinn Féin has acknowledged on many occasions, no Government is in a position to compensate people fully for the fact that the cost of living has risen by so much. We are here to help and the Deputy is right to call on us to help some more. So far, the Government has provided €2.4 billion to homes, households and families to help them with the rising cost of living. A usual budget package is €1 billion or maybe €2 billion. We have already introduced measures totalling €2.4 billion so far this year. Far from being a mini-budget, we have done more since January than would be done in the average budget, with €2.4 billion in spending to help people with the very high cost of living. There was a pension increase and a social welfare increase in January, as well as an increase in the minimum wage and reductions in income tax, which were not supported by the Deputy's party, it is worth saying. People are having €200 taken off their electricity bills at the moment. Public transport costs have been reduced and that seems to be very successful given the increase in the number of people using the bus and the train. VAT has been cut on electricity and gas to the extent we could within European law. We have also reduced excise on petrol and diesel. There have also been targeted actions in relation to the fuel allowance, for example, particularly helping those families who suffer the most from high energy costs.
We are of course exploring other measures. The Deputy will be aware that there is legislation before the House at the moment that would eliminate hospital charges for children. We would like to go further again and eliminate them for adults as well.
We are examining what else we can do. Pay negotiations have now started, involving the Government and public sector unions, on what we can do around a new pay agreement. While we are a while away from an agreement, I think it is fair to say we will come to an agreement at some point, and that will mean increases in wages and salaries for public servants to help them with the cost of living. That is happening in the private sector as well, where employers that can afford pay increases are providing them.
We are also examining what we can do in the area of childcare. Childcare is very expensive in Ireland relative to other European countries. Often, the families facing high childcare costs are the same families that are trying to pay the rent and trying to save for a home. It affects young families in particular. We will be working on solutions over the next few months that might help them with the cost of childcare. That is something the Government can do.
The Minister, Deputy Harris, is also looking at some proposals regarding the cost of education. It is very expensive for middle-income families to put one or two kids through college, and we are looking at solutions in those areas as well.
In summary, as the Deputy acknowledged, inflation is being driven largely by international factors. No government anywhere in the world can fully compensate people for that. What we have done so far, worth €2 billion, is more than a mini-budget. It is the kind of thing that is usually done in two budgets, and that is what we have done since January. Of course, we are open to taking more action if we can.
On the back of a piece of paper, I can think of rents, mortgage interest costs, childcare costs, insurance premiums and healthcare access. These are all areas where Irish workers and families were already paying among the highest rates in the world under the Tánaiste's Government, and all of that has been added to by the soaring cost of electricity and fuel prices that are quite simply out of control, and now we know grocery prices are also going to soar even further. I asked the Tánaiste what the Government is planning to do today to help those families. His response was, essentially, that it is exploring things. The time for exploring is over. We have given the Government options and measures that will support workers and families in the here and now, put money back into the pockets of hard-pressed workers in the here and now and reduce costs today.
I will ask the Tánaiste again. What can the Government do to assure those people who at this moment are scratching their heads and wondering which choice to make, such as whether to put fuel in the car or miss work, or whether to put food on the table and not pay the ESB bill? Does the Tánaiste have a proposal to provide them with the supports they need here and now?
Again, I acknowledge that the cost of living in Ireland is high. It was high before the current inflation crisis, compared with our peers. The cost of living in Ireland is about 30% or 35% higher than it is in similar countries. Our wages and salaries are also about 30% or 35% higher than in similar countries, which is important to bear in mind. While the Deputy's party has given us options and ideas as to how we can further assist people with the cost of living, it has not said how we should pay for or operationalise them. In many ways, that is the difference between Government and Opposition. In opposition, it is easy to throw out solutions that are popular. The Opposition does not necessarily have to demonstrate how they are operationalised or paid for.
One thing we want to avoid as a Government is getting into a situation whereby we are using borrowed money. Interest rates for government borrowing are rising too, and we want to avoid a situation whereby we borrow money to help people with the cost of living because that is false help. We would then have to take it back off them down the line, and that is something we want to avoid. Whatever we do, we need to make sure we do it in a way that is prudent, helping people with the cost of living but not using their own credit card to pay for it, and that is why the Government has put so much effort into securing investment and employment, which drive the growth we need to pay for things.
Yesterday during Leaders' Questions, I raised specific questions about the provision of special school places for children. I asked how many children are waiting on a place and whether every child will be guaranteed one. Eighty children in Dublin alone are waiting for a special class, with many more in the rest of the country. I got no acceptable answer yesterday from the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, even with the Minister of State with responsibility for special education in the Chamber, speaking into his ear during Leaders’ Questions.
Overnight, we learned from leaks to The Irish Timesof new plans to create emergency special school centres. We do not have any detailed public information about what is planned but the Minister of State hastily confirmed the proposal last night in a series of response tweets. This is no way to make major public announcements, specifically on areas so sensitive and important. We do not know whether these are school buildings or prefabs or what type of facility is proposed. This is causing significant concern and distress for parents fighting for a place for their child. They know all too well that these short-term, segregated solutions will quickly become the accepted norm. There has been no consultation with advocacy groups about these plans, although I understand consultation has been hastily arranged.
What was reported in The Irish Timesis that this is an interim, emergency solution for five special educational needs centres to be created in Dublin as a stopgap measure. The language is appalling. They will open in September and there will be four special classes, with a total of 24 pupils in each. They are to be managed by the education and training board, ETB, working with the Department of Education and the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, for children without a place in a mainstream school. This is totally at odds with what the Minister of State announced last week when she said would use section 37A powers to increase the number of places in schools for children who have additional needs. Her statement of last Thursday said clearly that the preferred solution was that schools would proactively open special classes. In a tweet posted last Tuesday, she stated:
At this point in time, I am of the view that I have no other option but to issue Section 37a notices to schools in areas which desperately require additional SEN school places across the country.
This new policy direction is a necessary step to try and ensure that every child gets the supports they need and access to a school placement.
Now we are being told of a totally different, emergency approach that allows schools that do not get their act together to get off the hook. For a child with additional or complex needs, it is completely unacceptable that an emergency solution like this will be the fallback position when it will have such far-reaching consequences. As Adam Harris of AsIAm has highlighted, these emergency centres may end up as special schools without the opportunity for children to integrate with their peers, and he has questioned whether there will even be pathways into special classes.
It is time to tell parents awaiting places for their children what is really going on. Has the Government abandoned plans to secure places in mainstream schools through section 37A orders? Why was there no consultation in advance of leaking this? Will the Tánaiste confirm the details of these emergency centres?
I reiterate the Government is absolutely committed to upholding the right of children with special educational needs to have a good education, a quality education and one that is provided in their community. Our policy is one of integration. If we are going to have an integrated society, we have to start with integrated schools, and as much as possible, children with special or additional needs should be integrated in mainstream schools and classes. What we try to do is provide education in mainstream classes with the help of a special needs assistant, SNA, where necessary special classes in mainstream schools and, on occasion when it is necessary, as is the case sometimes, special schools or home tuition.
Last night, I attended a meeting with people from Dublin 15 in my constituency, and we were able last night to confirm 22 additional places in special classes in four schools in Dublin 15. We were short 17 places and we were able to find an additional 22. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, was at the meeting and managed to achieve the co-operation of schools in securing that outcome. It was later in the day than anyone would have liked but that is the policy we are pursuing: additional SNAs to help children in mainstream classes and additional special classes in mainstream schools where possible.
There is now a Minister of State with responsibility for special education. It was my initiative to create that post. Similar to the Minister with responsibility for children and the Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities, those roles did not always exist. We created the post specifically because this area is important. The budget for special education is €2 billion a year, so for every €4 we spend in schools now, €1 goes on special education. That is not far off double what it was in the past. There are more special needs assistants than ever before, heading for 20,000, and there are more special education teachers than ever before. Just in the past year, we have established 300 additional special classes in mainstream schools, which demonstrates the Government's commitment to children with special educational needs and the policy of Minister of State and the Government in that regard.
There is going to be a meeting today, as the Deputy mentioned. I think it was scheduled for around 12 o'clock and it may well be under way. It is to consult the sector and people who are affected about options and ideas to bridge the gap, where there is one, in providing special classes in mainstream schools. That is the policy, and where it cannot be achieved, home tuition is and remains an option. The Minister of State has indicated her willingness to use section 37A where necessary to require schools to establish new special classes. That power was first used by the then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, a number of years ago, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, is willing to use it where necessary to require schools to provide more special classes.
What the Minister of State said last week was not there was a willingness to use section 37A but that this was a new policy direction and that it was going to be the direction of Government policy, not that there was a willingness to use it as a last resort, as now seems to be the case. I welcome the news for those Dublin 15 families and children who have places, and it is great to have a Tánaiste in a constituency who can bring out the Minister of State to resolve the issue, but would that happen in Dublin 1, Dublin 2, north County Dublin or counties Donegal, Cork or Wicklow? This is a nationwide crisis.
As to what was announced last night, I still do not have the answer to whether these are going to be prefabs, whether there will be pathways to mainstream schools, how these are going to function, what they are going to look like and what distance these children are going to have to travel. This still seems like one of the most brainless, out-of-touch policy responses to a real crisis that has existed here for many years. I am not satisfied, as I was not yesterday. We are not satisfied with the Tánaiste's response. We need answers to those questions. What are these schools going to look like? Will there be real pathways for these children?
I thank the Deputy. I think he said earlier that language is important and that is right. Perhaps the language used yesterday was not the best language. No parent wants to be told his or her child is being offered a stopgap solution. I particularly do not like the use of the term "autism centre" because it sounds othering. It sounds like children are going to be bussed away to a special place set away from other children and the rest of society and put in some sort of special centre, and I do not like that either. Perhaps the language used last night was not the right language. It certainly has been badly received by parents and by advocates in the sector and I hear that and I get that. That is why there is a meeting happening today to consult people about solutions and again making it very clear what we are aiming for is children with special needs being educated in mainstream classes. Where that cannot be done we want to have special classes in mainstream schools and 300 of those have been established only in the past year. It is a very big increase in the provision of special education.
The Minster of State, Deputy Madigan, is willing to use section 37A to require schools to establish more mainstream classes where they do not. Where it is not possible we then need to talk about what the options are and home tuition remains an option in that regard.
Good afternoon Tánaiste. He is back from the luxury ski resort. I am sure he did not do a Eugene Murphy and sleep in the back of a car, so I am curious to know how much the rooms cost in Davos this year and what was the all-in price of the trip.
For some time the Tánaiste has been solemnly warning about the dangers of a wage-price spiral. It seems his analysis is up to serious challenge these days. For example, writing in the Business Postlast weekend, Dr. Aidan Regan of the school of politics and international relations at UCD highlighted research by the US Economic Policy Institute that showed since 2020, 55% of US inflation had been caused by corporate profiteering. How much of it was caused by wages? It was 8%. He also quoted European Central Bank board member Dr. Isabel Schnabel who gave a major speech last week where she backed up that analysis and indicated it was very much applicable to Europe as well. Regan concluded in his article that new corporate taxes on excessive profits would do significantly more to combat inflation than holding back wages. I have heard the Tánaiste say he is bringing a proposal on the living wage before summer. That is very good. You would not feed the pigeons with the minimum wage these days. However, to be clear the figure of €12.90 was set before this inflation crisis and before rents started regularly topping €2,500 per month. What is needed as an hourly wage just to survive, to live, these days? I say it is €15 per hour and would like to hear the Tánaiste's comment on that.
In his reply he might also update us on where things stand with his living wage proposal. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform said at the weekend that Department officials would meet the ICTU this week to discuss public sector pay. Will the Tánaiste update us on what is happening there? Public sector workers need pay increases that match inflation. Is the Government prepared to engage on this basis? Last week, 2,000 medical scientists gave a small glimpse of the potential power of more than 300,000 public sector workers when they went on strike. The Government might think it has the measure of the union leadership but it would be wise not to underestimate the strength of feeling on these issues from ordinary trade unionists at the grassroots. I conclude with a question. Is the Government going to risk plunging the country into an autumn of discontent or is it going to engage seriously with public sector staff about wage increases that match the rate of inflation?
I thank the Deputy. I spent Monday and Tuesday in Davos representing the country at the World Economic Forum. I was happy to do so. The Taoiseach is there now. It is important we are represented and it gives us an opportunity to tell our story, whether in relation to the protocol, what is happening in Northern Ireland or to our own economy. I flew commercially and stayed in four-star hotel. No doubt they charged for it but it was nonetheless a four-star hotel and a commercial flight.
There were some very interesting sessions. I spoke at one on the future of work. One of the megatrends affecting all parts of the world is low levels of unemployment, which are a good thing. Employers are struggling to get staff in almost every sector and we know that is the case here as well. In some countries, thankfully not this one - at least not statistically anyway - there is widening income inequality. Among the solutions I advocated there was greater technology use, greater use of automation, but also better wages and better terms and conditions. This Government is serious about that. We have the sixth highest minimum wage in the world, or in the western world anyway, based on purchasing power parity. We intend to improve on that through the move to a living wage, the introduction of auto-enrolment to ensure everyone who works in Ireland has access to an occupational pension in addition to the State pension and also the kind of laws I am bringing in at the moment, for example, on statutory sick pay. At the moment about half of people have it and half do not. By the end of this year everyone will. There is also legislation to protect tips and gratuities. We therefore have a very ambitious agenda as a Government when it comes to increasing pay, improving terms and conditions of workers and ensuring we eliminate pension inequality between the public and private sector, and that is what we are pursuing.
However, we also need to be honest with people. I am not suggesting in any way the Deputy is being dishonest, but I say it as a general point. Pay rises can only be part of the solution because they have to be funded.
Employers who give pay rises often fund them by increasing the prices they charge their customers for the goods and services they produce. If a company with a few hundred employees increases pay by say, 7% or 8%, it will seek to fund that, at least in part, by increasing what it charges ordinary customers and people for the goods and services it produces. That is why we want to try to avoid a situation like the one that existed in the 1970s where people got substantial pay increases every year but it did not do them any good because prices went up by just as much. That is why we need to look at the thing in the round. We must look at what we are going to do on welfare, pay, income taxes and the cost of things like childcare and education. That is the kind of conversation we are now having with employers and unions to try to come up with a bigger bargain, if you like, that means if people get a pay increase it benefits them and is not swallowed up by inflation.
It is interesting the Tánaiste has gone back half a century and used the 1970s for his analysis of inflation. He did not engage with the examples I gave him. They are real, new, fresh and are coming from the US and Europe, including from members of the executive board of the ECB. That in itself says much, as the Tánaiste engages with the Minister, about the weakness of his line of argument.
He talked about employers struggling to find staff. It is little wonder. Yesterday in Cork City an estate agent got nearly 1,000 inquiries in the space of one day for a property that had been put up - it was a full house - for rent at €2,750 per month. How can someone on the minimum wage, that the Tánaiste has just lauded, survive in a housing market like that? How could someone on €12.90 per hour survive in a housing market such as that? I put it to him again that is a powerful argument for further increasing the minimum wage to at least €15 per hour.
I thank the Deputy. I was interested to hear him cite the US. Many economists, including ones from both left and right, would say one of the reasons the US is facing such high levels of inflation, that are much higher than what we are experiencing here, is at least in part due to the level of spending by government there through the fiscal stimulus and also the extent to which the Federal Reserve has printed dollars through quantitative easing.
The exact policies the Deputy advocates are being implemented in America and have caused inflation. The 1970s is an important decade to cite because it is what we want to avoid. That was a period of high inflation, high pay rises and lots of strikes. That might be the type of decade the Deputy wants, but it is not the decade we want. We want to ensure over the course of the next decade that there is continued incremental progress, with people getting pay rises that are meaningful and that do not get swallowed up by inflation. That is why we must look at this in the round and try to come up with a package that means, first, that pay rises are increases that people can keep because taxes are not too high and, second, that we bring prices under control so people can benefit from the pay rises they get.
People trust PayPal. Millions of people give PayPal their bank account numbers, credit card numbers and debit card numbers to serve an account so they can purchase online. In return, they are promised by PayPal that this is done in a safe and secure manner. Last Tuesday, PayPal announced 307 job losses - 172 in Dundalk in my constituency and 135 in Blanchardstown in the Tánaiste's constituency. On top of this, in April 2021 there were 131 job losses, again in Dundalk and Dublin. In 13 months, 438 jobs were lost out of 2,800. In 2021, workers were offered a redundancy package or other jobs within the company. This time there is no voluntary redundancy. The workers do not know what is happening and they are very concerned about their future. The rumours circulating that these jobs are going to India do not help.
These employees trusted PayPal. Last year, PayPal reported over $25 billion in revenue, up 18% on the previous year, with 426 million users in the last quarter of 2021. Some 426 million people have given the company their personal bank details and it is now turning around and making 307 loyal and supportive workers redundant with the stroke of a pen. Millions were invested by this country to help PayPal set up here. What will the Government do about this unexpected announcement? What clarity can the Tánaiste give these workers who must go home and ask their families how they will pay their mortgages, utility bills and food bills, for education for their children and for transport?
In 2003, this country received the good news that PayPal was coming to Ireland to set up its operation here. We invested €15 million in its European centre of excellence in Blanchardstown in 2009. In 2012, 1,000 jobs at the international operations centre in Dundalk were announced, and another 400 jobs were added in 2014. At present, over 2,000 people in Ireland are employed by PayPal and everyone appreciates their job. With 438 job losses in 13 months, what can the Government do to help the 2,000 remaining workers in view of the loyalty and commitment they are giving? PayPal contacted me on Tuesday and informed me of the loss of 172 jobs in my constituency, beginning on 27 June through to 19 September, and said this is due the new structure and needs of its customers. It has given me no more information. I tried to contact PayPal again this morning and basically it just fobbed me off. PayPal asks its customers to trust it. We ask PayPal to treat these workers, who have given it their commitment and loyalty, with respect.
What can the Tánaiste offer the 307 PayPal workers who are going to lose their jobs and the other 2,000 workers who still have their jobs at present? I do not use the word "trust" lightly. Enough is enough.
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I heard with great regret last Monday that PayPal was going to let 307 staff go, 135 from the Dublin office in Blanchardstown in my constituency and 175 from its offices in Dundalk. I spoke to the company's representatives earlier this week and they assured me that they remain committed to their 2,000 other staff and will continue to employ approximately 2,000 people in Ireland. They said they had to make this decision as part of a general restructuring of the company, with a reduction in the number of roles not just in Ireland but it may be the case in some other countries too. Unfortunately, the redundancies are unavoidable and I express my sympathy to those who are affected. It must have been a big shock for people to hear that their roles were being made redundant. Consultation is happening with the staff today. The Deputy will appreciate that for very good reasons the company wants to consult and inform staff before it informs public representatives. That is the right thing to do, and it will do that today.
I have received an assurance from the company that the redundancy package it offers will be a good one. I do not know the details of that yet, but I will follow up on it. It is important that if people are being let go, they get a decent redundancy package to help them to get on with their lives and seek employment elsewhere in the economy.
Regarding what the Government can do, it is stepping in to ensure workers know what their entitlements are when it comes to social welfare and other matters, and also to know what their options are when it comes to searching for jobs. Most of these staff are very well skilled and they will be able to find jobs quite quickly in the same sector, where there are many vacancies. However, we need to help them and connect them with those vacancies. They will also be given advice on what is available in terms of a return to education, a return to training and the possibility of setting up their own business. The Government will click in and make sure all that is done.
As regards the nature of the redundancies, I wish to clarify that from the letter the company sent to the Department. It states clearly in that letter that if redundancy cannot be avoided following collective consultation with impacted employees, compulsive redundancies will be required. That collective consultation is occurring now. It is required under law. As a consequence of that I hope it will be possible to ensure that most of these redundancies are voluntary and that compulsive redundancies can be avoided.
I agree with the Tánaiste that the most important thing here is communication. I welcome that PayPal is going to engage with its workers today. Rumours of these jobs being transferred to India do not help at all. The Tánaiste knows more than most people the amount of money the Government and the Industrial Development Agency, IDA, invested into PayPal coming here. It is very important that the 2,000 workers who remain in PayPal are looked after as well because they are looking for some type of security. Losing 438 jobs in the short period of 13 months does not seem to be realistic.
On behalf of the workers in PayPal, I ask the Tánaiste and the Department to engage with PayPal to see what type of commitment they can get to try to save as many of these jobs as possible and perhaps to relocate these jobs. In addition, and importantly, can PayPal communicate to the remaining 2,000 workers what its future plans are, given this is a company that returned revenue of €25 billion last year and given the number of people who trust PayPal? The Tánaiste has a lot of work to do in the next couple of weeks. I ask him to communicate with the Deputies in the area and to keep them updated.
The Deputy can be assured that I will continue to engage on this matter. PayPal has given us the commitment that it will be retaining 2,000 staff in Ireland, which is very significant, and that it will put a good redundancy package in place for the staff who are being let go. The Government will provide the staff who are being let go with whatever support it can provide in respect of education, training, other employment options, welfare and so forth.
Looking at the wider picture of employment at present, there was a very significant announcement from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, this morning. There are now 2.5 million people at work in Ireland. That is more than ever before in the history of the State. We are approaching full employment, which is a job for everybody who wants one. That is very positive. In the last year, employment increased in all regions in Ireland. The biggest increase was in the south west at 17% and the second biggest was in the south east, which was previously a region of high unemployment, at 13.6%. They are followed by Dublin and the mid-west. There were increases in employment in 12 out of 14 sectors. That is a very positive overall picture in terms of employment, with 2.5 million people at work, which is more than ever previously, increased employment in every region and almost getting to the point of full employment, where there is a job for everyone who wants one. That is not something that many countries can say.